Shisr (Ubar) excavation site, Oman

On the edge of the Rub al-Khali in southern Oman lies the excavation site of the legendary trading city of Ubar. According to the Koran, its magnificent buildings and their inhabitants were sunk into the sand by Allah 2,000 years ago.

The city of Shisr in the south of Oman is located near the city of Salalah, behind the Rub al-Khali, the largest sand desert in the world. It is surrounded by numerous legends. The most famous one dubs Shisr the legendary city of Ubar, which has been known worldwide at least since the book by the British adventurer and explorer Ranulph Fiennes "Atlantis of the Sands".


Under the designation "Land of Frankincense", Shisr is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other sites on the Frankincense Route. Ubar was once an important city as a crossroads of caravan routes, which brought it great wealth through the trade in frankincense, spices, coppers and presumably also Arabian horses. Even the Queen of Sheba is said to have been here to buy incense.

Ubar is mentioned in the Bible and the Koran and described as a magnificent city with many pillars. The Greek geographer and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy and the Arab historian Mohammad Al Hassan Al Hamdani also reported on the legendary Ubar in their writings. Despite an extensive search, however, the legendary city could not be located for a long time.

Discovery of Ubar

At the entrance to the ruins site at Shisr, there is a room that serves as a mini-museum and displays some old newspaper clippings and photographs, Oman - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

The first concrete clue as to where Ubar might be was given to the Briton Bertram Thomas, who crossed the Rub al-Khali in 1932. At that time, one of his Arab companions informed him that the road to Ubar ran through here. He noted this in his travelogue "Arabia felix" ("Happy Arabia"), but did not pursue the matter further.

The next clue came many years later from the radar of NASA's Challenger space shuttle, which discovered a 100km road under the sand at the edge of the Rub al-Khali. The old caravan routes had been found, but still no trace of a glorious city.

Finally, in 1990, a team of researchers from Southwest Missouri State University set out to finally excavate Ubar, including Arabic archaeology specialist Dr Yuris Zarin, Nicholas Clapp, a US writer, filmmaker and amateur archaeologist often referred to as the "real Indiana Jones", and British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

And indeed, in 1992, with the help of NASA images and Thomas' notes, the team discovered a caravanserai with a spring, at that time the last stop before the seemingly endless sand desert.

The city had apparently been literally swallowed up by the earth due to a subsidence of the ground. Some of the buildings have been dated to the third millennium BC. The search for Ubar and its breathtaking discovery was recorded by Sir Ranulph Fiennes in his book "Atlantis of the Sands - The Search for the lost City of Ubar", making the historical site world famous.


Sightseeing Shisr/Ubar

One of the orientation panels at the excavation site of Ubar in Shisr, Oman - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

Shisr is reached via the town of Thumrayt, after 16km a scenically boring dirt road turns off to the west, on which it is another 75km to Shisr.

Tip: Be sure to fill up your tank again in Thumrayt, as there is no petrol station on the onward journey towards the desert.

The modern Shisr welcomes its visitors with two snow-white round towers and presents itself behind them in a row of unspectacular single-storey houses, whose good 150 inhabitants are supplied by the (re)discovered spring.

Involuntarily, doubts arise as to whether we are actually in Ubar, since according to the Koran, "nothing like it has ever been built in the whole country". The excavation site of the legendary city is fenced in behind a grove of date palms.

Ubar excavation site

It's up to each person to decide whether a detour to the "Atlantis of the desert" in Shisr is worthwhile, Oman - © FRASHO / franks-travelbox
© FRASHO / franks-travelbox

The archaeological site of the lost Ubar is unfortunately not very impressive. Apart from a few piles of stones in the desert sand and a huge fissure in the ground, there is little to see. Shards from China, Rome and Egypt have been found, but nothing indicates a city on the scale described.

Nevertheless, Yuris Zarin and his team are sure they have found Ubar. For the Koran reports that Allah made Ubar disappear into the sand because of the lavish and sinful lifestyle of its inhabitants. And indeed, in the middle of the excavation site there is a 12-metre-deep crater that was created around 500 AD.

Everyone can decide for themselves whether a detour to the "Atlantis of the desert" is worthwhile. For fans of myths and legends, a walk through the legendary Ubar certainly has a very special charm.

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