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"Lost City of Arabia"

PBS Airdate: October 8, 1996
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, the search for a legendary city in an endless desert. A quest to understand a forgotten people. Tantalizing clues of long drawn adventures to seek out the ancient city, Ubar. Now, a new team of archaeologists takes up the challenge. Will they at last discover "The Lost City of Arabia"?

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STACY KEACH: For centuries, the Rub al Khali desert of southern Arabia has kept its secrets, hidden beneath dunes a thousand feet high. It is said that when God divided the world into the sea and the settled lands, He left this as "The Empty Quarter"—uninhabitable, forbidding, unknown. And yet, it is also said that a fabulous city called Ubar once thrived here, only to be swallowed up by the dunes. If Ubar was real, it owed its existence to the incense trade. Camel caravans and ships carried balsam, myrrh, and frankincense for hundreds or thousands of miles, centuries before Christ. Even today, the most precious cargo of the ancient caravans is still being harvested by hand in Oman. A gift suitable for the Queen of Sheba and celebrated in the story of Three Wise Men—the finest frankincense in all the world. Although the trees look like scrub, their resin was once valued as highly as gold. In Arabic, frankincense is called "luban," or milk. At first white, it hardens quickly into fragrant crystals. So valuable was frankincense that Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors dreamed of conquering this land. In this small Omani village of the Shahra people, the day is still measured by the burning of frankincense. First, hot coals are placed in a burner, then the crystals. The Shahra's unique tongue has been called the "language of the birds." Migrating south from the Mediterranean in ancient times, the Shahra's isolated way of life has been preserved—a glimpse of a nearly vanished past. Says the woman, "Incense is most pleasing to God." But the men chide her for using too much. "Enough woman, enough." For thousands of years, the use of frankincense ranged from the religious to the strictly practical. It was a sacred offering to the gods, burned in sanctuaries and temples. But it was also used to mask the harsh smells of everyday life. Frankincense was also thought to have medicinal powers. Here, it's used to help a child suffering from a cold, with his mother to comfort him. The Shahra still sing their ancient songs in the language of the birds. They declare proudly that they are the direct descendants of people who built a great city in the distant past. Somewhere in the desert along one of the incense roads. If they're right, their song may be the last echo of the fabled lost city of Ubar. When Ubar supposedly disappeared, around 300 A.D., the legend began. According to a 13th century historian, Rashid al-Din, Ubar was a city created as an imitation of paradise. It prospered beyond all measure from the frankincense trade. Ubar was the pride of a prideful king—Shaddad, son of King Ad, grandson of Noah. Great was the splendor of Shaddad's city, with it's sumptuous palace and magnificent gardens—too great in the eyes of a prophet, who decried the king's arrogance and impiety, and the wickedness of his subjects. But the Ubarites were too dissolute to pay heed to the prophet. They were too drunk to hear his words, too licentious to care. And so God punished the people of Ubar with a great wind and a terrible noise from the clouds, which struck them dumb. Then, a voice rang out, "You shall perish!" When morning came, there was nothing to be seen except ruins. From that day on, Ubar belonged to evil creatures, each with a single arm, leg, and eye. And it was written that anyone who ventured near would be driven mad with fear. But the Ubar legend proved irresistible to a handful of explorers like Bertram Thomas of England. Sixty years ago, Thomas set out on a daring journey, and became the first European to cross the Rub al Khali desert. Along the way, he encountered an ancient caravan route over 100 yards wide. As Thomas wrote later, a Bedouin guide called it "the road to Ubar." While Thomas mapped his position, the Bedouin explained that Ubar was a great city. "Our fathers have told us that it existed of old," he said, "a city rich in treasure. It now lies buried beneath the sands, some few days to the north." Short on water, Thomas could not follow the road. But he passed on the information to his friend, T.E. Lawrence: "Lawrence of Arabia." Dressed here in Arab clothing, Lawrence is fourth from the right, standing with hands clasped. A soldier and archaeologist, he had a deep love of Arabian history and culture. Back in England, Lawrence became convinced the remains of Ubar lay in the desert. He called it "the Atlantis of the sands." But before he could return to Arabia, he died in 1935. It wasn't until twenty years later that a major expedition was launched by a young American archaeologist named Wendell Phillips. Hoping to find and follow the road that Bertram Thomas described, Phillips ventured into the Rub al Khali. His expedition of trucks pushed on through the shifting sands, until finally it reached a caravan route with 84 parallel camel tracks. Thomas' road to Ubar, as it must have looked for centuries. But Ubar itself eluded him. The caravan route led into a region of impassable dunes. "From here, I knew we were through," wrote Phillips, "for there is no barrier so great as billowing, immeasurable sands, stretching as far as the eye could see, in cruel and sublime grandeur." Finally, in California, at the Huntington Library, a filmmaker and amateur archeologist named Nicholas Clapp decided to try again. For years, he searched among books, documents, and maps for clues to Ubar's location. Finding the fabled city became his obsession.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: This was Arabia. Arabia in the days of the incense trade. And in a way, here was a treasure map. For right where it ought to be, just north of where the finest frankincense was grown is the land of the "Iobarite." That's Latin for Ubarites.

STACY KEACH: There were other clues in the library's climate-controlled vaults, tantalizing hints in the Koran, references in the Arabian Nights and Greek and Roman histories, and the works of Islamic geographers. In some books, Ubar was mentioned, but had a different name. Or the Ubarites were called "the People of Ad." But nothing gave Ubar's exact location, or proved it was real. Instead, it was the latest in space technology that provided the breakthrough. NASA scientists, intrigued with the Ubar story, agreed to alter the space shuttle's flight plan. For 95 orbits around the Earth, the astronauts performed their usual experiments. But on the 96th orbit, they steered toward the Rub al Khali. A powerful radar signal was beamed to Earth, capable of revealing a hidden past beneath the sand. At NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, pictures from the shuttle and two satellites were then examined. Known as "false color images," they were enhanced by computers to bring out subtle, geological irregularities.

RON BLOM: So, we're looking at a big chunk of country. I think we've got something with this.

STACY KEACH: Ron Blom is a NASA geologist.

RON BLOM: Yeah, this is false color. This is a Landsat quarter scene, where it's about 90 kilometers across here. The Bertram Thomas road area is up in here at the top.

STACY KEACH: It's an ancient lake bed that hints at a greener past.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: And what we want to do is go up in here.

STACY KEACH: Because caravan roads are beaten down more than surrounding areas, their soil has different reflective properties. By scanning several bands of light, the imaging reveals the roads as gossamer-thin lines.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: Any more processing we can do?

ROBERT CRIPPEN: I've done an enhancement, couple band ratio where we divide one band by another. What that tends to do is enhance the reflecting properties in some cases. In some cases, they cancel out. So, we'll see what that does for us. Let's see.

STACY KEACH: Further processing may tell which roads are relatively new, and which, if any, are ancient. Only when reflected near-infrared light is imaged in color is the answer revealed. Now, only one road remains, the oldest of them all. But is it the road to Ubar?

NICHOLAS CLAPPN: Yeah. And we've got a good track all the way up through here.

STACY KEACH: The only way to find out for sure is to travel to Oman. A country of one and a half million, Oman gets most of its income now from oil. But there are still people who follow the old ways, and who talk of ancient glory, when frankincense was king and all the world sought it. Although Ubar was thought to be far inland—if anywhere—a new expedition begins on the Omani coast, nearest the incense groves. In ancient days, the Romans called this land "Arabia Felix," or Fortunate Arabia. Not out of admiration for its natural beauty, but out of envy for its wealth. Today, it belongs mostly to the wildlife. Before the team members search for the road to Ubar, they hope to find some trace of its builders: the mysterious People of Ad. They know that two thousand years ago, ships arrived at a port called Moscha from as far away as the Indies, seeking cargoes of frankincense. These ruins are all that remain of a town that guarded the harbor below. No one knows if it's really Moscha, but it does date to the time of Ubar. The expedition team is international—a mix of amateurs and professionals led by Nick Clapp. Ron Blom is chief navigator.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: A little closer to the camera here.

STACY KEACH: Archaeologist Juris Zarins is an expert on Arabia, while explorer Ran Fiennes, on the right, will handle logistics. Fiennes, like Zarins, isn't sure whether Ubar is a single city, or an entire land. After so many years of planning, the search for Ubar is about to begin. But Ubar's people of Ad prove to be as elusive as Ubar itself. An inscription at some nearby ruins proclaims the site a colonial outpost of another distant kingdom. There is no mention of the People of Ad or Ubar. Hopeful of finding other sites, Juris Zarins and Ran Fiennes explore the coast.

JURIS ZARINS: Wait a minute. Slow down a little bit. I see something. They're really quite nice. Want to see those structures over there?

RAN FIENNES: Every rock we see, you want to stop!

JURIS ZARINS: No, no. Slow down here. These are really important.

STACY KEACH: Near an inlet named Khor Soli, they find hundreds of stone structures in an ancient graveyard.

JURIS ZARINS: There are tons of these things scattered all over the place—large, huge blocks you see like that. And they're all over out here. You've never found anything yet, right? OK, let's take a look. All right, what have we got?

RAN FIENNES: This is a reflection on my instructor.

JURIS ZARINS: Now, don't step on that. There's something right there. See that? Look at that. That's pottery. So, what we have here is some of that burnished ware. Now, look at that. See? Hold that in the sun there. Look how it shines. See that?

RAN FIENNES: Um hmm.

JURIS ZARINS: So, the people who made that pottery took a little stick and they rubbed it real good to give it a shine. They were poor. They couldn't make fancy pottery. So, that kind of technique tells us a lot, because it's not as recent as some of the other pottery. And it's at least from the time of Christ, maybe even a lot earlier.

STACY KEACH: The pottery's age and distinctive style lead Zarins to believe it could be the work of the People of Ad. Ubar is thought to have lasted for three thousand years. But when it disappeared, a few centuries after Christ, the People of Ad seemed to vanish with it. Of all the coastal sites the expedition team visited, it was most interested in a place called the "Oracle of Ad." An oracle is an ancient shrine to the gods. But the site is also marked by a great dry well.

JURIS ZARINS: Ran, right to your left. Yeah, there you go.

STACY KEACH: They find something at the well's ancient water line.

JURIS ZARINS: What have we got? Four blocks there?

STACY KEACH: It's a cluster of stones which could be the remnants of a platform where the People of Ad filled their jugs with water.

JURIS ZARINS: Now, you see by your left foot?

RAN FIENNES: Yeah.

JURIS ZARINS: Yeah, go to your left, a little bit more to Karl. Yeah, what's that?

RAN FIENNES: Wood.

JURIS ZARINS: Can you get down to it?

STACY KEACH: The wood dates to a period when Ubar had already vanished. But there may be older artifacts down at the bottom.

RAN FIENNES: See that ledge just behind you?

NICHOLAS CLAPP: You've got about five feet.

RAN FIENNES: OK. If we touch it at all, we'll bring the whole lot down. So, you've got to be very, very careful. We're close here. Stop! These look really precarious.

STACY KEACH: What was planned as a brief inspection now threatens to become something far more dangerous.

RAN FIENNES: That's behind us. Look. On the bottom of that area there, right across for about fifteen feet. If one goes, the whole lot will go.

STACY KEACH: The search is quickly abandoned. Disappointed, the team leaves the coast for the rugged slopes of the Dhofar mountains, beyond which lies more fertile land. For centuries, the mountains protected the People of Ad from coastal invaders. Today, the region is settled by the Shahra tribe. A similar chant would have been heard as the ancient caravans passed through on their way to the frankincense groves. This was thought to be a land of "jinns"—spirits who could stir the wind. The legend, like the mountains, discouraged the uninvited. In the 5th century B.C., Herodotus, the Greek historian, warned of flying snakes that guarded the frankincense trees. Today, the carpet viper is deadly enough, with no antidote for its venom. Those who traveled in the caravans sometimes left their mark in the valley's many caves. Perhaps while camped here, a man saw a wolf attacking an ibex, and recorded the scene. Nearby, a camel had just given birth, and was suckling her young. And here are camels laden with incense on their way to Jerusalem, Damascus, or Antioch; Gaza or Alexandria. And this may be the route itself, winding its way through the centuries. Not far from the groves lies the "Vale of Remembrance." Here, one can find the remains of the once-honored dead, no long forgotten. Further down the vale are monuments called "triliths"—ancient memorials lining the route into the desert. A few miles further, and the sands erase everything—graves, monuments, even cities. The expedition plan is to angle across the desert to intercept the Ubar caravan road at a point close to where the team hopes the city is hidden. The way lies across a plain of illusions, showing water where none exists. The illusion is caused by the heat, an apt symbol of everything that remains etherial about the desert city. Like the discoverers of ancient Troy, the team can only hope that all the tales of Ubar are more than a mere mirage. Once again, they turn to space age technology.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: OK, you got a position? OK.

RON BLOM: Ready to find a position for us. It's very difficult to navigate around here.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: Right.

RON BLOM: All the dunes look very similar.

STACY KEACH: The team relies on a global positioning system. But today, the system isn't working, because the satellites are being realigned. Getting lost in the desert can be a fatal mistake. When they set up camp, they carefully check their equipment and supplies. Food, water, and fuel will be rationed from now on. Although some settlements exist at the edge of the Empty Quarter, they are few and far between. There are other dangers here as well. Ran Fiennes remembers a brief encounter with the dreaded camel spider.

RAN FIENNES: Not asleep yet? Eighteen years ago, we were camped near here. My signaller, Ibriham, got visited in the night. The spiders are six inches long, hairy legs, and big mandibles. One of them couldn't get into his sleeping bag, so it started to eat his face. It desensitizes before it bites, so you don't know that it's biting. This fellow woke up in the morning, and half of his nose and all of his cheek had gone AWOL. Sleep well.

RON BLOM: That looks like it might be a little soft. Be careful.

RAN FIENNES: OK. OK, here we go.

STACY KEACH: On the second day out, the team encounters its first heavy dunes. Inevitably, the vehicles get stuck. It becomes a well-worn routine: shovel sand away from the wheels, drop the air pressure to 16 pounds per square inch, jack up the wheels, then drop them back dow onto aluminum sand ladders. If anyone complains, they need only be reminded of Bertram Thomas, who spent two weeks on a camel getting here. On the other hand, Thomas was never lost. Highlighted on this false color map is the plan search area. But without a satellite reading, the team could be anywhere. By the time the device is working, they're far off course.

RON BLOM: OK, we got a reading. And it looks like we're about 30 kilometers from where we want to be.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: That's not too good.

RON BLOM: No. We're up here by this dune. It's this dune behind us. And where we want to be is all the way over here. It's roughly 30 kilometers between the two. But we can't go straight there. We're going to have to work our way back down this dune street, and then either out through here or out around through here.

STACY KEACH: With all the fuel expended on yesterday's detour, there's no room for further error.

RAN FIENNES: If Ron is doing his dead reckoning navigation very carefully, it shouldn't be any bother. But when you come to these two enormous lines of heavy dune, I can't see a way through.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: Sand's OK, Ran.

RAN FIENNES: Now, you can see a bit further ahead.

RON BLOM: Yeah. Oh, this is great. Well, I think you want to generally aim for that dune out there.

RAN FIENNES: OK.

RON BLOM: That will get you in the right direction. That makes sense. From looking at the image, this is the only way in here. Short of walking, that is.

RAN FIENNES: So, the one that I'm aiming at now is the one you want here.

RON BLOM: Yeah.

STACY KEACH: Their high-tech navigating system occasionally goes down. When that happens, the team is reduced to simple "dead reckoning." Every few kilometers, they have to stop and take a compass reading. One mistake, and they're lost again.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: Hold on a second.

STACY KEACH: The reading must be taken away from the vehicle's magnetic field.

NICHOLAS CLAPP: OK, 2...24 degrees.

RON BLOM: Really our only choice.

RAN FIENNES: It's up and over, or not at all.

RON BLOM: That's right.

STACY KEACH: There's a Bedouin song of the desert that goes: "Only a fool will brave the desert sun, searching for ghostly cities of the mind. Allah protect us from jinns and fiends, spirits of evil who infest the dunes."

RAN FIENNES: So, that's a little bit here, we're coming out of?

RON BLOM: Yeah. We're just coming out of this nasty stuff right here.

RAN FIENNES: All right.

STACY KEACH: If their calculations are right, they should be able to see the road from atop this ridge, the caravan route that Bertram Thomas found more than sixty years ago. And there it is at last, a track in the sand slightly lighter in color. The road to Ubar. Twenty-five hundred camels at a time would have passed here, on their way to the great markets of the ancient world.

JURIS ZARINS: So, what we're looking at is an encampment. And here, for example, you've got a potsherd, which means that, again, in this particular part of the world, we're talking about the time zone, say 1500 B.C.

RAN FIENNES: Who has previously found pottery in the Empty Quarter?

JURIS ZARINS: There hasn't been any, really, in the Empty Quarter, per se.

RAN FIENNES: Oh, so this is the first bit of pottery?

JURIS ZARINS: Yes. That's one of the first pieces ever found. Right.

RAN FIENNES: You are a maestro.

STACY KEACH: But finding the road to Ubar is just the beginning. After a brief stop, they push on, with Zarins as lookout.

JURIS ZARINS: OK. Go ahead.

STACY KEACH: But when they try to follow the road north, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a city thriving here, or even surviving. And even if Ubar does lie out there, the chances of finding it seem nil. Only one hope remains, that this isn't the road to Ubar, but the road from Ubar, that the city lies back the other way, closer to the incense groves. According to this satellite map, branches of the road lead to a pair of other sites: Hailat Araka and Shisur. The team checks out Hailat Araka first. There's little evidence of occupation from the time of Ubar. And yet, there's an ancient tale about the incense road, told by the local sheik. The story is that Hailat Araka was once an outlying settlement in the land of the Ubarites. Caravans coming up from the incense groves would stop here to rest. Then, they would go on to the great waterhole at Shisur, as represented by these two stones. A number of branches converge on Shisur. It's the team's last chance to find clues about Ubar's location. But Shisur has undergone a radical transformation in just a few years. A modern village has been built here by the government.

RAN FIENNES: There's even a housing development, would you believe.

STACY KEACH: The people of Shisur welcome the visitors warmly. "Sallam alecham"—"Peace be upon you"—no matter what peculiar reasons brought the strangers to the village. It's time for tea, and conversation. For its part, the team puts on a cheerful front. But after ten years' research and a full scale expedition, there is nowhere else to go. They are, quite literally, at the end of the road. "Ubar, surely we don't know where it is," says the sheik. "Maybe not far away. Things get misplaced in the desert. But if the visitors are interested in ruins, there are, in fact, some here. They are just behind the tent." According to the villagers, these are the remnants of a fort 500 years old. Bertram Thomas was told the same story. And there is little reason to doubt it. In Arabic, Shisur means "the cleft"—formed long ago when an underlying cavern collapsed.

RON BLOM: I think there was a fracture system here, and that's what provided all the water.

JURIS ZARINS: All right. So, what we've got here, then, is kind of initially a large kind of dome, people maybe living around it, kind of a seep. And then, the water table fell down, and this fell in on it.

RON BLOM: Yeah. It created a sinkhole from all the water moving through here.

STACY KEACH: Curious about what might be down there, the team decides to investigate.

JURIS ZARINS: Ready?

RON BLOM: OK. Yeah, I'm ready.

STACY KEACH: Without taking time to dig, there's only one way to see if anything lies beneath the sands in the sinkhole.

WOMAN: OK, we're on.

STACY KEACH: A device called the "red sled" can transmit radar impulses to uncover variations in density far below the surface.

RON BLOM: Six meters.

STACY KEACH: Thirty feet down, the radar detects the outline of an ancient well.

JURIS ZARINS: This is where it's coming down, right?

MAN: Yeah. It's coming down here.

JURIS ZARINS: Good.

RON BLOM: Three meters, six meters, and nine.

JURIS ZARINS: That's it.

STACY KEACH: The team also discovers some ruins that fell into the sinkhole, perhaps during an earthquake. Juris Zarins ponders the possibilities.

JURIS ZARINS: Frankly, I didn't know what we had. If this was Ubar, it seems to me that someone would have figured that out a long time ago. My first thought was that this was just a medieval site, maybe a stop on the road to Mecca. But of course, that would have been far too recent to fit the Ubar legend. Well, there was one thing we could do, stop speculating and start digging.

STACY KEACH: Willing to give it a try, the team decides to excavate the ridge extending east from the existing ruins. A group of assistant archaeologists and students join them from Southwest Missouri State, Juris Zarins' university.

JURIS ZARINS: Oh, yeah.

STACY KEACH: It's a fragment of Persian pottery.

JURIS ZARINS: That's an early piece.

STACY KEACH: In hopes of finding more, every bit of rubble, dirt, and sand is carefully screened. Shisur slowly begins to yield up its past. These are potsherds from ancient Greece. And these are from Syria, dating back to 500 B.C. From the artifacts found in the first few days, it becomes clear that Shisur is much more than a medieval site. It isn't 500 years old. It's 5,000 years old. Not only is there pottery imported from distant lands, but also distinctive pieces made by the People of Ad. So, Shisur was definitely an ancient site. But was it a settlement of consequence? The answer comes in the second week of digging, when the foundation of a wall takes an unexpected curve. It's the base of a horseshoe tower.

JURIS ZARINS: So, it's got to make kind of a semi-circle. Here's our rock, and then there's that wall that comes around there. And we've got some small rocks here that join up and come around here. But it looks great. A tower. Think about that. You don't just build one in the middle of nowhere. You have a wall here, then a tower. Then, you're going to have more wall, more towers, all protecting a large, enclosed structure. A fortress. So, I'd say, take it out like this, like that, so we can get out to here. And then, we'll have it. Come on in, Nick. Come on a little further. All right.

STACY KEACH: For every significant find, a photograph is taken for later reference.

JURIS ZARINS: There you are. Got it?

WOMAN: OK.

JURIS ZARINS: All right. Steady yourself.

STACY KEACH: Set on a sturdy stone foundation, the mud brick tower would have risen as high as thirty feet. But what's a tower doing at Shisur? That evening, Nick Clapp returns to the ancient sources that first inspired him. In most translations of the Koran, Ubar is called "the city of pillars, whose like has not been seen in the entire land." But some translations describe it as a city of towers. Juris Zarins' students are now joined by dozens of volunteers who heard of the site's promise, and who have come to help dig. For them and the people of Shisur, there is a growing sense of anticipation. It's now clear that the outer wall continues on to another tower, turns and passes a third, then crosses a gap to a fourth. As the pattern of the settlement is uncovered, the team is even able to predict the location of buried walls.

JURIS ZARINS: What we're going to have you do is help out right in here. Clear off the material here and see if you can find a continuation of the wall. All right? And here is our zero point.

RAN FIENNES: And 80 is here.

JURIS ZARINS: All right. So, you ought to have the wall there somewhere, right?

RAN FIENNES: Right.

JURIS ZARINS: OK, so use your trowel, not your fingers.

RAN FIENNES: Why's that?

JURIS ZARINS: Well, because you've got glass sometimes, with the points real sharp. You don't want to cut your hands.

RAN FIENNES: You find glass?

JURIS ZARINS: Yeah, you'll find glass there.

RAN FIENNES: Oh...look at this!

JURIS ZARINS: Yeah. There's the wall. Yeah. Don't move that. Leave that. No, just leave it. Yeah, any big rock, just leave. You never know what the heck they did. Sometimes, they'll surprise you. If they put a tower in or something, what you have is, you've moved all the rocks to the tower. Then, I get mad.

RAN FIENNES: Yeah.

JURIS ZARINS: OK.

STACY KEACH: After weeks of digging, Zarins is finally willing to make an educated guess.

JURIS ZARINS: Well, you certainly couldn't ask for a better crew, or a better site, for that matter. But was this really Ubar? Someday, if we're lucky, we'll find an inscription that says yes, this is the place. But short of that, the site's age, the way it's laid out, even its destruction—are a match for its legend. Hold it steady right there, and I'll find you.

STACY KEACH: As the work continues, his confidence grows, that the lost city has indeed been found. A volunteer finds an artifact in the ruins of what may have been a citadel—the stronghold of the city.

JURIS ZARINS: That could be south Arabic period, about the time of Christ, something like that. It's really nice. Beautiful.

STACY KEACH: It's the handle of an oil lamp, used when Ubar was at its height. With the aid of the Omani air force, Zarins can now survey the entire site from the air. In Ubar's day, the cavern below must have been filled with water.

JURIS ZARINS: There's no question that water was key here. In this desert, Ubar could have been hidden anywhere in, say, 50,000 square miles. But it's here because there's water, permanent water. I'd be willing to lay odds that this is the only major site in the whole area.

STACY KEACH: With water, the fortress would have made a fitting home for a kind like Shaddad. It would have had a processing and storage facility for the frankincense. And high, thick walls to withstand a siege. But Ubar was far more than a fortress. It would have been surrounded by thousands of tents, set in a vast oasis. Shaddad's "imitation of paradise," now turned to sand. To the northeast, there are remnants of campsites where most people lived. Here, frankincense caravans would have stopped and pitched their tents, resting up for the grueling trek across the Rub al Khali. A few stunted trees are ghostly reminders of palm groves, orchards, and fertile fields. Around these fire pits, there was once talk of distant trade, and gossip of the goings-on in Ubar's central market, a short distance away. For untold generations, desert lore had preserved the tale of Ubar. And yet, it was never suspected that the fabled city lay hidden beneath their feet. "But this we know," the sheik declares. "The People of Ad were corrupt. It's in the Koran. For their sins upon the land, God punished them." A great wind was said to herald the end. This is how Ubar may have looked on its last day. About 150 people would have lived within the fortress walls: family and servants of the king, administrators and record-keepers of the frankincense trade. But as legend has it, when the People of Ad refused to heed the word of God, King Shaddad's world was doomed to crumble in the great cataclysm. God's justice was swift and sure. The People of Ad were destroyed. And so, it was Ubar's myth that led the way to the truth. Schooled in the Koran, these children know all about the price of Shaddad's wickedness. But now, they will also know about an ancient city that played a key role in a vast network of trade, until an earthquake destroyed it. "Everything is gone now," Zarins explains. "What happened to the towers? They fell down. Then, everything else fell down, too." Several more seasons of digging have taken place since the team first arrived. But there is still much to be done. Tons of sand and rubble must be sifted and removed, and artifacts analyzed. But there is great hope of further discovery, as a forgotten people and their lost city take their rightful place in history. After nearly two thousand years, the desert is giving up its secrets at last.

Learn more about the space age techniques that archaeologists use to find and reveal hidden ruins. Head for NOVA's website at pbs.org.

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