Journeys: Atlantis of the Sands
A river would run through Wadi Darbat, if there were any rivers in Oman.
Instead, the wadi is an arid basin, where Ali, my guide, brings his bright blue
SUV to a halt and invites me to step out and take in the view, such as it is. In
the distance, the dun-colored hillocks appear like flexed biceps on the barren
terrain. Here and there, a leafless bush clings to the side of a striated
limestone wall, and camels and goats lunch on spiked shrubs, somehow avoiding
being stuck by the long needles that are supposed to protect the plants from
In a few weeks, says Ali, all this will change. Monsoon winds will blow over
from India; low-hanging clouds heavy with moisture will bump up against the
limestone mountains that rise behind the coast of Dhofar, the most southerly
province of this ancient sultanate on the Arabian Sea; and the khareef will
descend from the heavens. “The khareef is like a rain, but it is not an ordinary
rain,” Ali explains. “It is more like a fine mist that transforms whatever it
touches. Where there is now nothing but sand, you will see green grass. This dry
wadi will become a sparkling brook. Up there, the hillsides will gush with
waterfalls. Oh, it will be a paradise.”
It must seem like paradise for the thousands of Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emiratis who descend on the beaches of Dhofar every year for the khareef. The tourists come to escape the 120-degree temperatures that scorch the cities and deserts in their own homelands. “For two months, you see men and women standing on the shore and in the streets, their heads bent back, feeling the mist on their faces,” says Ali. “In their cars, the children hang their heads out the windows to catch the drizzle in their mouths. There are parades and festivals to celebrate. It is the most fashionable time of year to be here.”
He beams as if sharing a secret—one connoisseur of fine drizzle to another. Yes, I agree, it is a shame that I am going to miss it. Who knew Oman had a social season, or much else about the sultanate?
Oman is isolated from its Saudi neighbors to the west by the Rub’ al-Khali, the
world’s most vast expanse of sand, a place where dunes tower 600 feet above the
desert floor. Rub’ al-Khali translates to the “Empty Quarter,” a suitable name
for a place so seemingly devoid of life.
Farther north is another wasteland, the Umm As-Samim, which translates to the equally apt “Mother of Poison.” It is an expanse of salt marshes that could, like quicksand, ensnare the unwary traveler and suck him to its sticky, briny depths. These are places that even the khareef shuns.
But the sands of the Empty Quarter also conceal the remains of the lost city of Ubar, a sand-swept metropolis where, 5,000 years ago, a substance then considered more precious than gold bled from its trees. The city is more than just a figment of local mythology. References to Ubar and its people, sometimes called the ’Ad, appear in the Arabian Nights tales, the Koran, and the Bible, and on second-century maps drawn by the Egyptian astronomer and cartographer Ptolemy. Nevertheless, Ubar had proven elusive, frustrating countless explorers, including Lawrence of Arabia, who tried to locate it. According to legend, the sands swallowed the city centuries ago. Eventually most 20th-century scholars and archaeologists dismissed Ubar and its riches as a Bedouin fairy tale.
That was prior to 1992, when a NASA satellite, orbiting over the Rub’ al-Khali and equipped with remote-sensing radar, located ancient caravan tracks that converged on one point on the edge of the desert. Using these findings as a guide, a team of filmmakers, archaeologists, and explorers came to the site, ultimately retrieving about 4,000 artifacts, some of which date to 5,000 B.C. But was this really the city of legend? There was only one way to find out, and that was for me to go there.
The problem was, though it had been found, the city apparently was again lost. Or at least, it was not on the map that Ali’s employer, Rawabi Desert Adventures, had given me. Still, nothing injects an element of adventure into one’s travels like heading out into uncharted territory. Perhaps, before the day was over, I would be standing inside Ubar’s walls, knee-deep in riches and basking in the revelations of ancient mysteries.
And if not, well, the trip definitely would be a change of pace from what has become the mainstream of Middle Eastern travel. Let its Arab neighbors—Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar—lure visitors with man-made archipelagos, theme parks, vast shopping malls, air-conditioned souks, indoor ski runs, and pop music stars on the lam. In those countries I would be a tourist; in Oman I am an adventurer. Even if the lost city does not exist, or the khareef turns out to be little more than a bad-hair day, this country still is charged with charisma.
At the dawn of written history, a time when most other Arabian states consisted only of tribes wandering the desert in search of oases or subsisting on the coast by diving for pearls, Oman was the world’s richest country and the seat of Arabic culture. Centuries before the rise of Islam, Oman’s fields and gardens were irrigated by aqueducts running hundreds of miles, and its ships plied the oceans, trading copper from Africa to the Orient. The primary source of Oman’s wealth, though, was frankincense, which is produced by a gnarled, shrublike tree that grows in southern Arabia and northern Africa. The demand for this sap was rooted in sacred ritual; it was called the “food of the gods,” and the smoke from burning frankincense was said to reach heaven as none other did.
In antiquity, frankincense was used from Rome to China in birthing and burial ceremonies. In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba burned the resinous crystals to entice King Solomon with its aromatic vapors, and globules of frankincense were found in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. In the New Testament, of course, frankincense figures most prominently as one of the gifts the Magi brought the baby Jesus.
The frankincense trade fueled Oman’s growth as a sea power, and by the 10th century, the city of Muscat had become the hub of an empire that reached from East Africa to China. (Navigators throughout the world would recount the adventures of Oman’s national hero, Sinbad, a real-life sailing captain from the maritime city of Sohar, on the Gulf of Oman.) Six centuries later, the Portuguese arrived and fortified Muscat harbor and the coastline to protect their own trade route to India. The Omanis finally expelled them in 1650 and reclaimed their status as the region’s dominant maritime power.
By the early 1800s, Oman controlled the coasts of present-day Iran and Pakistan and had colonized Zanzibar and Kenyan seaports. It was sending merchant ships as far as the Malay Peninsula and bringing slaves into the country from Africa. At the turn of the 19th century, though, the Omanis collided with another nation of empire builders, Britain, which adroitly maneuvered the Omanis out of their overseas holdings. Oman soon became a British protectorate reliant on the English military to defend the country. In the mid-20th century, the British Special Air Service played a key role in suppressing the Communist-inspired Dhofari rebellion and driving the insurrection into Yemen.
This is when the modern history of Oman begins. In many ways, this country that once was so advanced now seemed set in the Stone Age instead of the 20th century. Its ruler, Sultan Said ibn Taimur, who had ascended to the throne in 1932, was a capriciously oppressive monarch. A self-styled conservative who condoned slavery of Africans as tradition, Taimur also publicly executed people who appeared—presumably by no fault of their own—in his dreams. He hoarded oil revenues as gold, which he kept in the basement of his palace; he did not believe in paper money. Under Taimur, it was forbidden to ride a bicycle, wear sunglasses, carry an umbrella, or listen to the radio. All of these transgressions were punishable by flogging. Women had to wear formless black abayas, often with veils over the eyes, and men had to don white dishdashes. The sultan also forbade anyone to leave or enter the country, so the idea of tourism was heresy.
Given Taimur’s aversion to modernity and all things foreign, it is difficult to understand why, in 1958, he sent his teenage son and heir, Qaboos (pronounced caboose) bin Said, to England to be educated. Four years later, Qaboos graduated from Sandhurst, the British military academy, and, after several months of service in Germany and a world tour, returned to Oman. There, his father, concerned that his son might overthrow him, had him arrested and sequestered in the royal palace in Salalah, in Dhofar.
It was, perhaps, a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy when, in 1970, the 30-year-old crown prince, with assistance from British operatives, did indeed overthrow his father, whom he then exiled to London. Once ensconced on the throne as absolute monarch, Qaboos began making changes. He decreed free health care and universal education for both sexes and built roads and airports and seaports.
Tourism was low on the sultan’s initial list of priorities, but in 1987, after 17 years on the throne, Qaboos very cautiously cracked open the sultanate’s door to visitors. The country did not try to offer something for everyone; instead it focused on its culturally rich attractions, restoring the most dramatic examples of pre-Islamic and early Moslem architecture, and allowing access to ancient archaeological sites.
The response from the first wave of tourists, mostly affluent, well-behaved Swiss, proved so positive that in 2004 the sultan established a Ministry of Tourism and charged it with tripling tourism by 2010. Also in 2004, the government unveiled plans for the Wave, a luxury residential and vacation complex with 4,000 homes, a marina, hotels, and a Greg Norman golf course, all set for completion in 2012. In 2005, Oman announced plans for Blue City, a $10 billion development with 6,000 residences, three luxury hotels, a contemporary Arab souk, and, along the beachfront, private beaches, marinas, a golf course, and spas.
After decades of being sealed off from the rest of the world, the Omanis seem to have embraced their new role as hosts. Indeed, Ali, the man taking me to Ubar, had apparently done well as a banker. He owns a small plantation and a rather grandiose home of granite and marble in Salalah. But he had left the world of finance to become a tour guide. “Nowadays,” he explains, “everybody wants to be in tourism.”
Like most visitors to Oman, I had landed in Muscat, the capital, before heading south to Salalah and its outlying territory. A harbor town with hills and ridges tumbling down into the glittering water, Muscat has a waterfront adorned with earth-colored forts and antiquated gun emplacements. The effect is more quaint than militant. Behind the fortifications, sun-bleached apartment buildings—none more than a few stories tall—fan out over the rocky hillsides. Elaborately carved doors and windows counter the stark minimalism of the buildings’ architecture.
The cityscape’s contrast to the soaring, cylindrical skyscrapers of Dubai is by design; Oman is one of the few countries with a Ministry of National Heritage, whose mission is to safeguard national treasures. Thus the ministry prevents developers from razing buildings of cultural value and replacing them with neon-lit ziggurats of glass and steel.
Omani tradition was also evident in Sultan Qaboos’ campaign to bring back the oryx. During Taimur’s reign, the antelope with the swept-back horns had been hunted to extinction in the wild. In 1980, though, a herd from the Phoenix Zoo arrived in the sultanate. After two years of acclimation, the animals were released successfully into the wild in the Jiddat al-Harasis desert. By 1996 the population numbered more than 450, all but 19 of which were born in the desert. Today nobody even thinks about poaching the oryx, because the local Bedouins are armed and employed as rangers to protect the animals.
Another of the country’s successful conservation initiatives is the Ra’s al-Hadd Turtle Reserve, located at the point where Oman pokes its nose farthest into the Arabian Sea. Here, at night, four kinds of turtles—greens, loggerheads, olive ridleys, and hawksbills—crawl onto the beach to nest.
You can find Omani history commemorated just about anywhere in the country, including at the roundabouts. Set mostly outside the cities, these are more than just circles of concrete and grass designed to lead cars and trucks around and around. They are artistic monuments, sculpted and painted to represent different aspects of Omani life and lore. Here, the sea churns beneath the hull of a life-size dhow with its sails billowing; there stands a giant frankincense burner; in another location, a mountainous, whitewashed fortress heaves a clock tower to the sky.
Its entertainment value aside, Oman’s road system puts the autobahn to shame for sheer motoring pleasure. In 1970, the year of the coup, Oman had only six miles of paved roads; by 2005, an estimated 8,000 miles of road were paved, and those that I traversed were as smooth as glass, with nary a pothole. The country’s cars are as well maintained as the roads, at least cosmetically, because motorists can be ticketed for driving a rusty or dirty vehicle. Trash is a rarity in the city streets, graffiti is nonexistent, and, Omanis proclaim, the country is as crime-free as Singapore.
But Oman’s neatness and order should come as no surprise; after all, this is a country where everyone adheres to a dress code: the white or powder blue dishdash and cap for men, the formless black abaya for women, as often as not with a veil. Unlike their counterparts in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Omani women are allowed to drive. They also can be elected to parliament or serve in Sultan Qaboos’ cabinet.
Male drivers are the primary—if not sole—practitioners of dune bashing, a form of off-road riding that, Omanis claim, originated in their country. Hilal, my Omani guide when I first arrived in the country, presumed it would be the high point of my trip to strap myself in and hang on as he gunned his Pathfinder 4x4 up and down the ocher sands of the Wahiba desert, about two hours outside Muscat. Five minutes of this proved him wrong. It would be far more gratifying, I thought—and it would eliminate the danger of our becoming stuck in the sand—if we instead watched the Bedouins camped nearby practice for the next day’s camel races.
We quickly were ushered inside a hut of woven sticks, but not before Hilal had warned me to avoid mentioning money. The Bedouin cared little for profit or commerce, he had explained. They had everything they needed: the wind, the sand, their tribal ways. The interior of the hut was not to be violated by Western ways. It was a place for friendship, family, and hospitality.
Once seated on the rug inside, I selected a handful of dates from a bowl and accepted a small cup of dense, acrid coffee. When my hostess proffered a basket of beaded bracelets, I smiled but shook my head no. She thought for a moment and then said something to my driver. “She wants to know if you would like to ride a camel,” Hilal explained.
It sounded delightful, I told the two of them, but I had already had the pleasure of riding a camel.
She said something else to my driver. “Would you like to go camping with them in the Wahiba?”
I had just spent the previous night in the desert, I advised her, and having escaped without being bit by a scorpion, I did not want to press my luck.
Next, she held up a Bedouin mask similar to the one she wore. “Well, OK,” I relented, as she plucked a five-euro note from my hand.
“I thought you said it was forbidden to mention money inside the hut,” I said to Hilal, as we stepped out of the hut and into the glare of the sun.
He shrugged and replied, “I think it used to be, but that was before we had tourists.”
Tourists who venture 600 air miles to the south of Muscat, to Salalah, will find spectacular scenery at every turn—literally, for those who navigate the Zig Zag Road, a hair-raising, five-mile route that careens back and forth along limestone cliffs and canyons. The road debouches at a coastline where the surf pounds against the rocks, sending pillars of spray high into the air through perforations in the limestone that the Omanis call blowholes. With its white, sandy beaches, blue surf, and swaying coconut palms, Salalah can appear more Caribbean than Arabian.
Before making our trek into the desert, we stop at Ali’s plantation to stock up on coconuts, bananas, and oranges—snacks for a journey that will lead us to some of history’s most enigmatic landmarks.
After a short ride from Salalah, we arrive at the rustic tomb of Job. Originally from Damascus, the long-suffering prophet arrived in Oman about 1,000 B.C. His footprint still marks the spot where, according to the Old Testament, a spring gushed forth after the Lord commanded him to stamp his foot. Inside the tomb, Job lies beneath a blanket decorated with Koranic verses. Most surprising is the size of his body, as suggested by the blanket’s shape. “He must have been 8 feet tall,” I tell Ali.
“Yes, he was a very large man,” Ali solemnly agrees as we return to his SUV to visit another chapter in biblical history: Khor Rori, known to some as the Queen of Sheba’s palace.
According to legend, the queen hailed from Yemen but built a city fortress called Sumhuram on the Omani coast 25 miles east of Salalah. From here, her ships carried frankincense to ports throughout the known world. Archaeologists dispute the idea that the Queen of Sheba built the city, but they do agree that Khor Rori was a wealthy settlement with remarkably strong fortifications built at the end of the fourth century B.C. To my surprise, it is possible to explore the site, a complex system of thick walls and labyrinthine interior chambers, down to its innards. Now if only Ubar would prove so accessible.
Actually, my goal the morning we left Salalah was twofold: I did not just want to find the lost city; I also wanted to see frankincense in the wild. The trees had to be growing somewhere, because the Omanis still use their crystals daily, burning them in clay pots to scent office buildings and homes and, in more traditional circles, to ward off evil spirits. Ali had said he knew where to find a tree.
And indeed he does. About an hour’s drive from Salalah, the distinctive form of a frankincense tree looms on the roadside. Then, another and another, until, a hundred yards down the road, we are surrounded by thousands of the trees. Ali stops the vehicle, takes a knife from his pocket, and says, “If you want some frankincense, here it is.”
Frankincense can be harvested one of two ways: We could either pick the hardened crystals off the ground or make a small cut in the tree’s bark and let the sap ooze out. At one time, tales of the venomous winged serpents that protect the trees discouraged foreigners from stealing frankincense. But so far, so good, as I make a small slice in a twig and a drop of resin seeps forth. Now the question is, what do I do with it?
“It has many uses,” says Ali, licking an amber drop off his finger. “You can burn it and purify the air, or you can eat it, or make tea with it. It possesses many medicinal properties.” In fact, he confides, it has long been known to give the libido a stronger jolt than does Viagra, a point, he notes, that a team of researchers is currently verifying in a lab in Germany. “Once this is scientifically proven,” my guide adds in a conspiratorial tone, “frankincense again will be worth its weight in gold.”
We return to the vehicle and continue on our way. Ahead of us, two sand devils—miniature tornadoes—dance on the sides of the road. Perhaps, I tell Ali, the figures are warning us to halt our journey. If so, I consider their appearance a good omen. After all, finding a lost city should not be as easy as getting into a car and driving to it.
Nevertheless, about an hour past the frankincense trees, we arrive at the spot where caravans had gathered 5,000 years ago, the place Lawrence had sought in vain. At first sight, though, it appears less like the Atlantis of the Sands and more like one of the roadside attractions you try to avoid when traveling across the American Southwest. The entrance gate to Ubar is ramshackle, and plastic tape, like the kind you would find at a crime scene, surrounds the site.
Still, it is apparent that something had stood here before it was swallowed by the earth. And if I want to see what remains below, says Ali, all I have to do is climb into the gaping fissure. One look into that seemingly bottomless maw is enough to give me second thoughts about treasure hunting. Furthermore, a hut by the ticket office is pinned with newspaper and magazine stories describing the expedition to Ubar and what the searchers found: pottery shards and flint pieces. The stories make no mention of precious gems or gold. However, having come this far, I am determined not to return to the States empty-handed.
Frankincense is used to produce one of the world’s most expensive perfumes. Amouage may not be worth its weight in gold, but at $395 for 1.7 ounces, it is comparable. As for the aroma, it is dense and lemony, musky yet feminine, my wife advises me after I have returned home and presented her with a bottle.
“And what’s in this?” she asks, picking up another small box and hearing the frankincense crystals rattle inside.
That, I tell her, I am saving for later.
Rawabi Desert Adventures