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
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
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
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,
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
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’
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
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
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
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 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