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Sand Castles

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Beneath the desert, a fabled trading center

FOR SIX WEEKS LAST FALL NICK CLAPP and George Hedges prowled the vast wastes of the Empty Quarter, a half-million-square-mile desert in Oman, 150 miles from the Arabian Sea. The amateur sleuths encountered ticks, vipers and camel spiders—said to have the strongest jaws of all arachnids—and a 120°F desert sun. But the object of their search proved more elusive: The Lost City of Ubar remained lost.

Described by T.E. Lawrence (famous as “Lawrence of Arabia”) as “the Atlantis of the sands,” Ubar was, some 4,000 years ago, a city of fabulous wealth. It was the trading center for frankincense, the costly resin used in embalming, medicines and perfumes. The Koran notes the grandeur of Ubar’s towers, and the Bedouins called it an imitation of Paradise. But Ubar was destroyed by God, say the myths, because, like Sodom, it fell into wickedness.

In keeping with the Bedouin legend that Ubar was “buried in the sands,” Clapp, 54, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, and Hedges, 39, a Los Angeles attorney, had concentrated their search on the Empty Quarter. But discouraged and close to defeat, they pulled back to Ash Shisar, a tiny water hole on the quarter’s periphery where the old caravan routes converged. There they decided to give their expedition one last chance.

“We said, ‘This is illogical,’ ” Clapp recalls. “You’re not going to put a major settlement out in the middle of nowhere.” Almost as an afterthought, the explorers beamed their hand-held sounding device into the sands of Ash Shisar—and discovered the outlines of buried ruins.

“From the start it looked good,” says Clapp. “But we didn’t dare hope. We found promising shards of pottery early on, and we thought, ‘Nice, maybe 2,800 years old.’ But we couldn’t really let ourselves get emotional about it.” And then after eight days of digging—as Clapp and Southwest Missouri Slate University archaeologist Juris Zarins and British Arabist Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who had become increasingly involved with the search in the mid-’80s, watched with mounting exhilaration—the first tower emerged from the sand. “Then,” says Clapp, “we found a wall and a second tower complex with rooms branching off and a high-temperature furnace where frankincense was maybe processed…. The pieces were fitting. But we didn’t want to jump up and down and shout, ‘Ubar! Ubar!’ We were afraid we might break the spell.”

Clapp and Hedges’s magic is clearly working still. At Ubar, a castle with nine towers has been unearthed, along with 10 square miles of campgrounds where Bedouins once pitched their tents amid groves of fruit trees. And the pottery is at least 4,000 years old. Plus, a month ago, the team discovered the ruins of Saffara Metropolis, the site at the base of the Qara Mountains in southern Oman where frankincense was grown. The architecture of the fortified city is virtually identical to that of Ubar.

Not only had Clapp and Hedges made a discovery that had eluded school-trained Arabists and archaeologists for centuries, they had employed highly unorthodox methods in doing so: A key clue to the find was provided by radar mappings of the Arabian peninsula made from the Challenger space shuttle in October 1984. The mappings revealed a network of faint white lines—the fine-ground sand remaining from heavily traveled camel roads dating back thousands of years.

Clapp started on his own road to Ubar 12 years ago with an altogether different animal. In 1980, Nick and his wife, Kay, a U.S. probation officer (they now have two grown daughters), traveled from their rustic home in Laurel Canyon, Calif., to Oman to film the release into the wild of seven oryx, an all-but-extinct Middle East antelope that had been bred and raised in two American zoos. “We fell in love with Oman,” says Clapp, “and began looking for a way to get ourselves back there again.”

In 1982, Clapp found his excuse in the legend of Ubar, which he gleaned from Arabia Felix, a book by famed British explorer Bertram Thomas. Fifty years ago Thomas had come across tracks 100 yards wide in gravelly sand, which the Bedouins told him was the road to Ubar. Thomas had no time to follow the road himself but made careful note of the coordinates.

“Hopelessly hooked” on the romance of Ubar, Clapp plunged into the Huntington Library in Los Angeles for further word on the lost city. “As I kept reading older and older accounts,” he says, “I was finding a lot of specific geographic clues.” He became convinced that Ubar was located in Oman’s Empty Quarter. He also remembered reading that the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory “had this new system where they could use radar [from space] strictly for mapping.”

It was at this point, in 1986—after gaining access from the JPL’s Ron Blom to the satellite mappings of the Empty Quarter—that Clapp asked Hedges to join him. “I was pretty lone-wolfy up till then,” Clapp says. “I needed someone with a business and organizational sense.” Over the next six years, Clapp and Hedges, while working their regular jobs, read and traveled and interviewed Middle East experts. In 1988, with the addition of Zarins and Fiennes, their group had acquired the requisite expertise, but it still lacked money.

Then in 1989, says Clapp, thanks to Fiennes’s Arabian connections, “this letter materializes in the mail from the Oman International Bank saying they would like to be the principal underwriter of our project. We were delirious. It was the first time we knew the expedition would be a reality.”

The team—Nick and Kay Clapp, Hedges, Fiennes and Zarins, plus the JPL’s Blom—gathered in Oman in July 1990. “The Omanis treated us like royalty,” says Hedges. But the expedition was held up for a year because of the nearby Gulf War. Then in early November 1991, the search for Ubar began in earnest. The space images led the explorers to hundreds of miles of trade routes. “But,” says Clapp, “we had no clue where [along the routes] Ubar was. In the beginning, we had this romantic notion that we might come up over a dune, and there would be a small wall sticking out. But we were finding nothing, and we were wondering how to slink out of the country without losing too much face.” Then Ash Shisar yielded up its ancient secret.

But an almost bigger mystery remains: How did Clapp and Hedges, rank amateurs, succeed in finding their personal grail when at least four previous professional expeditions had failed? “I think we were able to see the whole picture,” says Clapp, referring to the expedition’s employing ancient texts and the latest scientific techniques as well as the methods of conventional archaeology.

Adds Hedges: “It all has to do with dreaming and taking a chance. This is what I tell my kids. You should make your life an adventure.”