The Lost City of Ubar

In the Rub’ al Kahli desert (the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world) at the tiny village of Shisr, Oman, ancient remains discovered in 1992 may be the legendary city of Ubar.

Ubar (aka Wabar, Imran or Iram of the Pillars) is called out in the Quran as a wicked, many-towered city that God caused to be swallowed up in a massive sand storm. In the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights and Bedouin folk tales Ubar is described as a gilded, bejeweled city with soaring towers.

The buried remains at Shisr were discovered in 1992 based on satellite imagery, ancient maps and a process of deduction. At the time, archaeologists concluded that the ancient city had disappeared into a sinkhole. Excavations have revealed a fort on the site with eight 10-12 foot tall walls, joined by multiple watch towers that were about 30 feet tall.

Whether or not the site is the legendary city, evidence is clear that it was a trading post, and caravanserai for desert caravans traveling the incense route between Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea. Artefacts from far-away lands have been found and satellite imagery shows tracks crossing the desert and converging on the site.

T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) dubbed Ubar “Atlantis of the Sands” and talked of taking up the search himself, but he never did. British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was part of the team that discovered the ruins at Shisr after searching for decades. Read more in his book Atlantis of the Sands – The Search for the Lost City of Ubar.

Shisr is located in the Dhofar province of Oman, about 3 hours from the provincial capital Salalah.



Sumhuram is the ancient site of a trading outpost of the Hadramite kingdom of southern Arabia. It’s located near the city of Salalah in the south of our mystery country. Sumhuram was a major port for the export of frankincense. The city dates to the 4th century BCE but its status as a trading port increased significantly in the 1st century BCE, when trade with the Roman Empire was established.

Near by, Khor Rori (khor = creek) is an extension of Wadi Darbat, separated from the Indian Ocean by a narrow sand bar. The fresh water attracts many species of birds and herds of wild camels.

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Frankincense, from Oman to the World


Frankincense, the wealth of ancient Oman, flowed from the scared trunks of scrappy little trees on the wadi flats and mountain sides of misty Dhofar. The prized scent intensified as the resin dried and hardened.Then it was sent out by land and sea across the known world.

Dhows, the traditional sailing vessels of the region, carried frankincense to ports in Africa, Mesopotamia and India. While great caravans of 1,000 or more camels walked 2,000 miles north across the unforgiving Arabian Desert to ports on the Mediterranean Sea.

Camels can survive weeks without food or water, drawing on the fat stored in their humps. When necessary, they ate grains they carried or whatever they could find to graze on. Caravan drivers ate food packed by the camels, hunted, and shopped where they could on the way.

Tribal territories around the routes carved their share of the trade by charging tolls for passage and selling supplies.

Overnight camps were set up in the open desert or at caravanserai, the truck stops of the ancient trade routes. Song and dance around the fire recapped the highlights of each day’s journey, celebrated a step closer to completion and energized the company for the next leg.

The frankincense trade goes back at least 5,000 years. Egyptians and Mesopotamians were crazy for it, and the Greeks and Romans after them. It was used in religious ritual, in cosmetics, in medicine, even to embalm the dead. Today it’s used in pretty much the same ways and Dhofar still produces some of the highest quality frankincense in the world.

In Dhofar, you can visit remains of the ancient frankincense trade at Sumhuram and Al Baleed, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites near Salalah in southwestern Oman.

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In Dhofar, the southern region of our mystery country, near the city of Salalah, we find the remains of ancient Sumhuram, aka Khor Rori, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two thousand years ago, Sumhuram was a major port and the world center for the trade of frankincense. It’s also rumored that the Queen of Sheba had a palace here.

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