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Interview with Dr. Juris Zarins
September 1996

image of ZarinsNOVA: Have you been back to Shisur since the time of our filming?

JZ: Yeah, we put in two-and-a-half more years of excavation at the site.

NOVA: Are you still confident that you found Ubar?

JZ: There's a lot of confusion about that word. If you look at the classical texts and the Arab historical sources, Ubar refers to a region and a group of people, not to a specific town. People always overlook that. It's very clear on Ptolomy's second century map of the area. It says in big letters "Iobaritae" And in his text that accompanied the maps, he's very clear about that. It was only the late Medieval version of The One Thousand and One Nights, in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, that romanticized Ubar and turned it into a city, rather than a region or a people.

NOVA: Then what did you find?

JZ: Well, there was a tribal group of people, the Iobaritae or the Ubarites, who lived in the area, and the Shisur site is one of probably three or four major centers from that period. It was a key site with regard to the trade that was coming and going along the edge of the great Empty Quarter. And it's one of those major sites with water. So, there was a lost city of Ubar and we did find it!

NOVA: What were the most interesting artifacts that you found at the Shisur site?

JZ: I think the most interesting artifacts were the "red polish" pottery wares. My previous work had been in northern and central Arabia, so we weren't familiar with this style of pottery. When we first found it, we thought it was kind of Roman-like, but we soon got our bearings and realized that the pottery showed a clear Parthian influence.

NOVA: Does this means the Ubarites were Parthian?

JZ: No, it just mean that the Parthians were one of their clients. The Parthians were contemporaries of the Ubarites and dominated what is today northern Oman from across Mesopotamia and Iran—and they also exerted some influence on northwest India, as well. We were surprised to find this Parthian pottery at the Shisur site because, originally, we thought that the Ubarites would be allied with the West. But upon excavation, it looks like most of the pottery wares have an eastern orientation.

NOVA: What's the significance of this?

JZ: Traditionally speaking, most people think of the Roman and Greek influence as coming from the south Arabian city states. And this western influence is what's been assumed to have controlled the incense trade, because the west is where most of our historical sources come from. But when we got down to the nitty gritty and actually excavated and surveyed, we discovered that assumption was erroneous. You kind of have to see Arabia as a buffer zone—half of Arabia belongs to the west and half of Arabia belongs to the east. And, in fact, Mesopotamia goes right down the middle. The Romans never conquered the Parthians, and so the dividing line between the Roman empire was right there.


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