Journeys: Atlantis of the Sands

<< Back to Robb Report, September 2007
  • Jack Smith

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


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’


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


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 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.

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