A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Southern Oman yields ruins of an ancient city on the fabled frankincense route.
In 1930 the British explorer Bertram Thomas set out across the Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, in central Arabia. As he approached its southern edge his guide, pointing to the faint outline of a road, remarked, "Look Sahib, there is the way to Ubar. It was a great city, rich in treasure, with date gardens and a fort of red silver. It now lies buried beneath the sands...." Thomas had heard about Ubar on previous journeys through central Arabia, but no one could say where it was. He called it the "Atlantis of the Sands" and speculated that it might have been a trading center in southern Oman's Dhofar province. Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, and other ancient authors, though not specifically mentioning Ubar, gave brief accounts of cities in southern Arabia that marketed resins from frankincense and myrrh trees. While it is certain that people of the Dhofar area grew rich trading these commodities, it would appear that the city of Ubar was an Arabian Nights fantasy. Arab historians have referred to Ubar as a region, and no city of that name appears on maps of the second-century A.D. Greek geographer Ptolemy. Since 1990 I have been looking for remains of a commercial center splendid enough to inspire such a myth.
While surveying oases in the Dhofar region our team discovered red- and black-polished ceramics of the classical period (after 300 B.C.). Based on these finds, we became convinced that a road at the edge of the Rub al-Khali was linked to ancient urban centers mentioned in classical sources and Arab histories. We chose to study Shisur, a ruined city some 90 miles northwest of Salalah on the edge of the desert. A permanent spring there had attracted people since the Neolithic (ca. 5000-2500 B.C.), and a fortress first built during the Bronze Age (2500-1300 B.C.) was in use until A.D. 1500. Bedouin still camp there year-round.
Which city on Ptolemy's map was Shisur? Based on its location within the area of the Iobaritae tribal territory, we believe it is the town of Marimatha. Our excavations have shown that Shisur was a key trading center that linked Dhofar to eastern Arabia and early Mesopotamian civilizations. It was very possibly one of the cities that gave birth to the Ubar myth.