Bulletin 10 - March 1980: Extract from Arabia Felix



Extract from Arabia Felix

by Bertram Thomas

The Road to Ubar

"Look, Sahib," they cried, "There is the road to Ubar!"

"Ubar?" I wondered.

"It was a great city, our fathers have told us, that existed of old, a city rich in treasure, with date gardens and a fort of red silver. (Gold?) It now lies buried beneath the sands in the Ramlat Shu'ait, some few days to the north."

Other Arabs on my previous journeys had told me of Ubar(1), the Atlantis of the sands, but none could say where it lay. All thought of it had been banished from my mind when my companions cried their news and pointed to the well-worn tracks, about a hundred yards in cross section, graven in the plain. They bore 325, approximately latitude 18 45' N., longitude 52 30' E. on the verge of the sands.

Some days later Ma'yuf, the most intelligent Rashidi in my party, volunteered the information that as a boy while grazing his father's herds after rain, between Mitan and Rasad (he had long ago forgotten the precise site, but thought it within two days' march of the sand border) he had come upon a complete earthenware pot, with broken potsherds of red and yellow, a part of grindstone, two coffee pestles (?) of black polished stone, and two large white rounded blocks of stone, notched at the edge and both alike, but each so big as to require two men to lift it (drums of a column?); he had turned the sand over to look for more, only to come upon black ashes. But these humble things he had never associated with a mighty city; though it had surprised him to find pottery in the sands, for no true nomad of the desert carries earthenware pots on his camels, but only vessels of woven reeds and an occasional iron one.

Footnotes

  1. I am indebted to Mr. Philby for drawing my attention to the similarity of Ubar with Wadi Wabar. None of the "serious" Arab geographers mention the place, but Yaqut gives a copious selection of local tradition, all to the same purpose. The place is generally defined as lying in the sands "between Shihir and Sana." It was a great city in a fertile oasis belonging to the tribe of Ad, and its inhabitants were punished for their sins by being turned into nasnas -- a kind of monkey with only half a body, one eye, one arm, one leg, and so on. Since then, it has been inhabited by jinn who endeavor to prevent approach to it and destroy those who reach it. The Mahra camels are descended from the offspring of the camels of these jinn. In some stories, the people of Shihir are represented as hunting the nasnas and even eating them. The South Arabian archaeologist Nashwan bin Sa'id d/573AH/1117AD says only, "Wabar is the name of the land which belonged to 'Ad in the eastern parts of Yemen; today it is an untrodden desert owing to the drying up of its water. There are to be found in it great buildings which the wind has smothered in sand. It is said also that it belonged to the people of Ar Ras."

It is possibly more than a coincidence that Arisha (the land of the Ruler Zenaiti of the desert folklore) is the Shahari equivalent of Ras (Arabic).


 


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