T. E. Lawrence called it "the Atlantis of the sands," and it was so fabled a city that more than 50 years ago British explorer Bertram Thomas scoured the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert in search of it, until he ran low on food and water and was forced to abandon his search.
But now, an eclectic team of explorers led by Nicholas Clapp, a soft-spoken Los Angeles filmmaker, believes it is on the road to finding the lost city of Ubar, deep in the desert of Oman.
Their quest for the ancient metropolis, which was built around the trade in frankincense, has been attended by plenty of Arabian romance: fierce sandstorms, encounters with wild animals and now the complications of modern civilization--the crisis in the nearby Persian Gulf.
Clapp's hunt for Ubar began casually eight years ago with a bookseller's recommendation: "I went in looking for a book, and she handed me 'Arabia Felix' and said, 'You read this,' " he recalled.
In the book, Thomas, a British Army officer, onetime aide to the Sultan of Oman, protege of Lawrence and one of only two Westerners to traverse the dunes of the Empty Quarter, described his unsuccessful mission to discover the ruins of the "great city."
Clapp had been to Oman in 1980 and was looking for a project to take him back. After reading Thomas' 1932 account of the road to Ubar, Clapp had found his project: the search for Ubar.
While other explorers had sifted the sands of time in search of the smallest clues, this expedition would be a high-tech archeological effort guided by computer-enhanced images from space, run by a team of amateur and professional explorers and financed by the Oman government.
When Thomas gave up his search years ago, he carefully noted the coordinates of the road he believed led to the lost city before leaving the desert. "Some few days to the north . . .," said Thomas' guides as they labored under the desert sun to help the Western explorer map a road that someone might someday follow.
Clapp, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker for Armand Hammer Productions, decided he would be that someone. Clapp began to read everything he could find about Ubar. He found tales of the lost city's splendor in everything from the Koran to "A Thousand and One Nights."
Although separating fact from fantasy proved difficult in the diverse accounts, Clapp began to get a picture of the fabulously wealthy city that existed about the time the lucrative frankincense trade started. That city had thrived for at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Its prized incense, more valuable than gold during Ubar's heyday, came from trees found only in the hills of what is now the Dhofar region of Oman. An aromatic resin derived from tree sap, frankincense brought great wealth to those who controlled its harvest and distribution, including Ubar's residents. It was used in a wide range of rituals and ceremonies, including cremations and royal processions.
But the Koran notes that great wealth did not lead to great happiness for the people of Ubar. Because they lived sinful lives and refused to repent, the Islamic holy work says, Allah ultimately destroyed their "many columned city . . . whose like has never been built in the whole land."
"The whole key to the mystery and romance of ancient Arabia is rooted in the frankincense trade," Clapp said, noting that scholars have studied the trade "farther on up the route it was traded. But virtually nothing is known of the trade at its source."
Clapp and colleagues have now begun to change that. This summer, after years of planning, Clapp, along with Los Angeles lawyer George Hedges, Jet Propulsion Laboratory geologist Ronald Blom, archeologist Juris Zarins and famed British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, finally stood on the sands traversed by Thomas.
They began unearthing what they hope will be evidence of the so-called Ad civilization that spawned the lost city of Ubar, if not the city itself.
Their short expedition in July, staged in preparation for a major exploratory trip this winter, did not locate the city with certainty.
But it did uncover artifacts--about 900 pottery shards and flint pieces--that suggest they are on the right tract. The frankincense trade route, at the least, has been discovered.
Certain they have uncovered long-buried clues to the ancient people who built the trade, the men remain hopeful of finding Ubar.
One obstacle may be the troubles in the Persian Gulf. Oman borders Saudi Arabia, and the next expedition, Clapp said, will "of course await the settling of hostilities."
Clapp knew from the beginning that searching for the remnants of one small city in the vast and desolate Rub al Khali dunes would be a formidable task. And he had no intention of venturing into the desert until he had done as much preparation as possible. He began looking for ways that technology could help him.
Armed with only his historical references and with Thomas' notes about the lost road, Clapp approached Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.