The Los Angeles-based team that discovered the fabled Arabian city of Ubar, the long-lost "Queen of the Frankincense Trade," has unearthed a second, larger city that was apparently the administrative center of trade in the valuable spice, researchers announced Monday.
The newly discovered city, called Saffara Metropolis or the "Main City of Dhofar," is about 50% larger than Ubar, but shares many architectural characteristics with that city, said archeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University. The 3,000-year-old city features at least 11 crenelated towers similar to those discovered at Ubar and the same general layout and architecture.
Saffara Metropolis is on the southern coast of Oman, across the Qara Mountains from Ubar and near the port of Moscha, from which frankincense was shipped to Yemen and Mesopotamia. The newly discovered city probably ruled Ubar and Moscha, Zarins said.
"What's really so tantalizing is the realization that we haven't just discovered a city, we've discovered a civilization," said Los Angeles lawyer George Hedges, who headed the Ubar expedition with filmmaker Nicholas Clapp. "We have a whole regional complex coming to light from a time that is previously unknown."
The identification of Saffara Metropolis is "an exciting new discovery," said archeologist Gus W. Van Beek of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. "This represents a fantastic culture that is . . . the least known Semitic culture in the Near East because of the region's isolation and xenophobia" that kept archeologists out in recent years, he said.
Unlike Ubar, which is mentioned in the Koran and "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights," Saffara Metropolis has faded into obscurity. It is known primarily from its placement, with Ubar, on maps drawn by Ptolemy, the Alexandrian astronomer and geographer. Identification of the city "establishes the authenticity of Ptolemy's map," Hedges said.
Frankincense was one of the most valuable commodities of the period, occupying an economic position much like that of petroleum in the region today, Van Beek said. Used in cremations and religious ceremonies, as well as in perfumes and medications, frankincense was as valuable as gold.
Ubar was a major transshipment center for frankincense, and was a desert fortress where caravans bound for Rome and other sites around the Mediterranean refreshed themselves before their trek across the shifting sands of the barren Rub'al Khali or Empty Quarter. Saffara Metropolis was most likely the site where aromatic resin from the Qara Mountains was processed into frankincense and where the caravans originated.
The identification of Saffara Metropolis, as well as continuing discoveries at Ubar, suggest that a network of frankincense trade routes existed across the Arabian Peninsula as early as 5,000 BC, nearly three millennia longer than scholars had believed.
One key piece of evidence supporting that conclusion is the discovery of the remains of a smaller, older fortress inside Ubar. Ubar is enclosed by an octagonal network of walls with 30-foot-tall towers at each corner. Inside that structure, Zarins found a ninth, smaller tower that "was probably a corner of the original city," he said.
Saffara Metropolis was at the site of a spring now called Ain Humran. "Local people had long known there was an archeological site there," Zarins said. "But it had lain neglected because the whole region was too remote for most archeological work, and local wars had prevented people from digging there."
But when the team discovered Ubar, Zarins said, they recognized the significance of the buried ruins at Ain Humran and decided to excavate there. They quickly found a variety of artifacts that showed it was contemporaneous with Ubar, and the architecture and construction techniques were found to be remarkably similar to those at Ubar, he said.
Zarins predicted that a minimum of three to five years will be needed to complete excavations at Ubar and Saffara Metropolis. He is eager to excavate the sections of Ubar that fell into the sinkhole, but noted that they are covered by more than seven yards of sand, which must be carefully removed.
Once the excavations are complete, he said, the Omani government plans to open a museum and tourist attraction at the site.
Zarins will share results of his excavations in a seminar at UCLA this fall. Clapp's documentary about the discovery of Ubar is scheduled to be shown on the PBS program "Nova," also this fall.