Iram of the Pillars, the Lost ‘Atlantis of the Sands’

Iram of the Pillars, the Lost ‘Atlantis of the Sands’

10 JULY, 2014 – 23:53 DHWTY

The literature of past civilizations often mention cities which are now lost to humanity, the most famous of those being the lost city of Atlantis. On a smaller scale, Arabia has its own legend of a lost civilization, the so-called ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ – a lost city, tribe, or area spoken of in the Quran, which has come to be known as Iram of the Pillars.

In the Quran, Iram was said to be adorned with lofty buildings, and was populated by a group of people known as Ad. As they had turned away from Allah and led wicked lives, the prophet Hud was sent to summon them to return to the worship of Allah without ascribing partners to Him, and to obey Him. The people of Iram reacted with hostility and did not heed to words of Hud. As a result, the Ad were punished, and a sandstorm was sent against their city consecutively for seven nights and eight days. In the end, Iram vanished beneath the sands as though it had never existed. On one hand, the story of Iram may be taken just as a morality tale, used in order to preach that people must obey Allah, and not behave in an arrogant manner. On the other hand, there may be some truth to this story, and indeed there are many who believe that such a city could have once existed.

A sketch of Iram of the Pillars

A sketch of Iram of the Pillars. Image source.

In the early 1990s, a team, led by Nicholas Clapp, an amateur archaeologist and filmmaker, announced that they had found the lost city of Ubar, which was identified as Iram of the Pillars. This was achieved using NASA’s remote sensing satellites, ground penetrating radar, Landsat programme data, and images taken by the Space Shuttle Challenger, as well as SPOT data. These resources allowed the team to identify old camel trade routes and the points at which they converged. One of these converging points was a well-known water hole at Shisr, in Dhofar province, Oman. When an excavation was carried out at the site, a large, octagonal fort with high walls and tall towers was uncovered. Unfortunately, a large portion of the fort was destroyed when it sunk into a sinkhole.

Iram of the Pillars Fortress - Sinkhole collapse

A large portion of the fortress was destroyed when it collapsed into a sinkhole. Photo source: Wikipedia

So, is the city of Ubar identical to Iram of the Pillars as mentioned in the Quran? Perhaps it is. Yet, another interpretation suggests that Ubar was not a mystical city, but rather was the ‘Omanum Emporium’, as marked out on the map of Arabia compiled by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century A.D. After all, the old camel tracks do indicate that some kind of trade, most likely incense, was going on at the site of Ubar. In antiquity, Arabia was well known for its production of incense, a valuable and important natural resource used for religious ceremonies. Therefore, it is not surprising that towns and cities would have grew up on the routes of the camel caravans.

Although it remains uncertain if Iram of the Pillars actually existed, or whether Ubar and Iram are one and the same, it may be possible that the story of Iram was inspired by the city of Ubar. Merchants or travellers passing by the ruins of Ubar may have been puzzled about what happened to that city. Over time, the story about a race of people who defied Allah, and were punished for their wicked ways would have been told. As a result, this story would have become a familiar tale to the people of Arabia. Still, it is also possible that Ubar is not the legendary city of the Quran, and that the actual Iram of the Pillars, wherever it may be, remains hidden under the sands of Arabia, still waiting to be found.

Featured image: Artist’s interpretation of Iram of the Pillars. Credit: RogerMV

By Ḏḥwty


Colavito, J., 2012. Iram of the Pillars: A Pre-Human City. [Online]
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Maugh II, T. H., 1992. Ubar, Fabled Lost City, Found by L.A. Team : Archeology: NASA aided in finding the ancient Arab town, once the center of frankincense trade.. [Online]
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Tripzibit, 2011. Lost City of Iram. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Atlantis of the Sands. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Iram of the Pillars. [Online]
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Yahya, H., 2014. The People of ‘Ad and Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands. [Online]
Available here.

Zahid, I., 1992. Pictures taken from the space shuttle find lost city of Ubar. [Online]
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The People of ‘Ad and Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands 

And the ‘Ad, they were destroyed by a furious Wind,exceedingly violent; 
He made it rage against them seven nights and eight days in succession: so that thou couldst see the (whole) people lying prostrate in its (path), as they had been roots of hollow palm-trees tumbled down!  Then seest thou any of them left surviving? (Surat  al-Haaqqa: 6-8)

Another people who were destroyed and who are mentioned in various Surah of the Qur’an is ‘Ad, who are mentioned after the people of Nuh. Being sent to ‘Ad, Hud summoned his people, just like all the other prophets had done, to believe in Allah without ascribing partners to Him and to obey him, the prophet of that time. The people reacted to Hud with animosity. They accused him of imprudence, untruthfulness, and attempting to change the system their ancestors had established.

In Surah  Hud, all that passed between Hud and his people is told in detail;

To the Ad People (We sent) Hud, one of their own brethren. He said: “O my people! worship Allah! ye have no other god but Him. (Your other gods) ye do nothing but invent!
O my people! I ask of you no reward for this (Message). My reward is from none but Him who created me: Will ye not then understand?
And O my people! Ask forgiveness of your Lord, and turn to Him (in repentance): He will send you the skies pouring abundant rain, and add strength to your strength: so turn ye not back in sin!”
They said: “O Hud! No Clear (Sign) that hast thou brought us, and we are not the ones to desert our gods on thy word! Nor shall we believe in thee!
We say nothing but that (perhaps) some of our gods may have seized thee with imbecility.” 
He said: “I call Allah to witness, and do ye bear witness, that I am free from the sin of ascribing, to Him, Other gods as partners! so scheme (your worst) against me, all of you, and give me no respite. I put my trust in Allah, My Lord and your Lord! There is not a moving creature, but He hath grasp of its fore-lock. Verily, it is my Lord that is on a straight Path.
If ye turn away,- I (at least) have conveyed the Message with which I was sent to you. My Lord will make another people to succeed you, and you will not harm Him in the least. For my Lord hath care and watch over all things.”
So when Our decree issued, We saved Hud and those who believed with him, by (special) Grace from Ourselves: We saved them from a severe penalty.
Such were the Ad People: they rejected the Signs of their Lord and Cherisher; disobeyed His messengers; And followed the command of every powerful, obstinate transgressor.
And they were pursued by a Curse in this life – and on the Day of Judgment. Ah! Behold! for the ‘Ad rejected their Lord and Cherisher! Ah! Behold! removed (from sight) were ‘Ad the people of Hud! (Surah Hud: 50-60)

Another Surah mentioning ‘Ad is Surat ash-Shuara. In this Surah, some characteristics of ‘Ad are emphasised. According to this, ‘Ad were a people who “build a landmark on every high place” , and its members “get for themselves fine buildings in the hope of living therein (for ever)”. Besides, they did mischief and behaved brutally. When Hud warned his people, they commented that his words were “a customary device of the ancients”. They were very confident that nothing would happen to them;

The ‘Ad (people) rejected the messengers. 
Behold, their brother Hud said to them: “Will ye not fear (Allah)?
I am to you a messenger worthy of all trust: 
So fear Allah and obey me. No reward do I ask of you for it: my reward is only from the Lord of the Worlds. 
Do ye build a landmark on every high place to amuse yourselves? And do ye get for yourselves fine buildings in the hope of living therein (for ever)? And when ye exert your strong hand, do ye do it like men of absolute power? 
Now fear Allah, and obey me. 
Yea, fear Him Who has bestowed on you freely all that ye know. 
Freely has He bestowed on you cattle and sons,- 
And Gardens and Springs. 
Truly I fear for you the Penalty of a Great Day.”
They said: “It is the same to us whether thou admonish us or be not among (our) admonishers! 
This is no other than a customary device of the ancients, And we are not the ones to receive Pains and Penalties!” 
So they rejected him, and We destroyed them. Verily in this is a Sign: but most of them do not believe. 
And verily thy Lord is He, the Exalted in Might, Most Merciful. 
(Surat ash-Shuara: 123-140)

The people who showed animosity to Hud and rebelled against Allah,  were indeed destroyed. A horrible sandstorm annihilated ‘Ad as if they had “never existed”.

The Archaeological Findings of the City of Iram

At the beginning of 1990, there appeared press-releases in the well-known newspapers of the world declaring “Fabled Lost Arabian city found”, “Arabian city of Legend found”, “The Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar”. What rendered this archaeological find more intriguing was the fact that this city was also referred to in the Qur’an. Many people who, since then, thought that ‘Ad recounted in the Qur’an were a legend or that their location could never be found, could not conceal their astonishment at this discovery. The discovery of this city, which was only mentioned in oral stories of Bedouins, awoke great interest and curiosity.

It was Nicholas Clapp, an amateur archaeologist, who found this legendary city mentioned in the Qur’an. (7)Being an Arabophile and a winning documentary  film maker, Clapp had come across a very interesting book during his research on Arabian history. This book was Arabia Felix written by the English researcher Bertram Thomas in 1932. Arabia Felix was the Roman designation for the southern part of  the Arabian Peninsula which today includes Yemen and much of Oman. The Greeks called this area “Eudaimon Arabia” and medieval Arab scholars  called it “Al-Yaman as-Saida”. (8)

All of these names mean “Fortunate Arabia”, because the people living in that region in old times were known to be the most fortunate people of their time. Well, what was the reason for such a designation?

Their good fortune was in part due to their strategic location – serving as middlemen in the spice trade between India and places north of the Arabian peninsula. Besides, the people living in this region produced and distributed “frankincense”, an aromatic resin from rare trees. Being highly favoured by the ancient communities, this plant was used as a fumigant in various religious rites. In those times, the plant was at least as valuable as gold.

The English researcher Thomas, described these “lucky” tribes at length and claimed that he found the traces of an ancient city founded by one of these tribes.(9) This was the city known as “Ubar” by the bedouins. In one of the trips he made to the region, the bedouins living in the desert had shown him well-worn tracks and stated that these tracks led toward the ancient city of Ubar. Thomas, who showed great interest in the subject, died before being able to complete his research.

Excavations made in Ubar

Clapp, who examined what the English researcher Thomas wrote, was convinced of the existence of the lost city described in the book. Without losing much time, he started his research.

Clapp tried two ways to prove the existence of Ubar. First, he found the tracks which the Bedoins said existed. He applied to NASA to provide the satellite images of the area. After a long struggle, he succeeded in persuading the authorities to take the pictures of the region.(10)

Clapp went on to study the ancient manuscripts and maps in the Huntington library in California. His aim was to find a map of the region. After a short research, he found one. What he found was a map drawn by the Greek-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy in 200. A.D. In the map was shown the location of an old city found in the region and the ways that led to this city.

Meanwhile, he received the news that the pictures had been taken by NASA. In the pictures, some caravan trails became visible which were difficult to identify with the naked eye, but could only be seen as a whole from the sky. Comparing these pictures with the old map he had to hand, Clapp finally reached the conclusion he was looking for: the trails in the old map corresponded with the trails in the pictures taken from the satellite. The final destination of these trails was a broad site understood to have once been a city.

The location of the city of ‘Ad was discovered by photographs taken from the Space Shuttle. On the photograph, the place where caravan trails intersect is marked, and it  points towards Ubar.

1. Ubar, could only be seen from space before excavations were made. 
2. A city 12 metres below the sands was uncovered by excavations. 

Finally, the location of the legendary city which had been subject of the stories told orally by the bedouins was discovered. After a short while, excavations began and remains of an old city started to be uncovered under the sands. Thus, this lost city was described as “the Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar”.

Well, what was it that proved this city to be the city of the people of ‘Ad mentioned in the Qur’an?

Right from the moment remains started to be unearthed, it was understood that this ruined city belonged to ‘Ad and of Iram’s pillars mentioned in the Qur’an, because among the structures unearthed were the towers particularly referred to in the Qur’an. A member of the research team leading the excavation, Dr. Zarins, said that since the towers were alleged to be the distinctive feature of Ubar, and since Iram was mentioned as having towers or pillars, this then was the strongest proof so far that the site they had unearthed was Iram, the city of ‘Ad described in the Qur’an. The Qur’an mentions Iram as follows;

Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the ‘Ad (people),- 
Of the (city of) Iram, with lofty pillars, 
The like of which were not produced in (all) the land? (Surat al-Fajr: 6-8)

The People of ‘Ad 

So far, we have seen that Ubar could possibly be the city of Iram mentioned in the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, the inhabitants of the city did not listen to the prophet Hud, who had brought a message to them and who warned them, and so they perished.

The identity of ‘Ad who found the city of Iram has also created much debate. In historical records, there is no mention of a people having such a developed culture or of the civilisation they established. It might be thought quite strange that the name of such a people is not found in historical records.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be so surprising not to come across the presence of these people in the records and archives of old civilisations. The reason for that is that these people lived in South Arabia, which was a region distant from other people living in the Mesopotamia region and the Middle East, and which only had a restricted relationship with them. It was a common situation for a state, which is scarcely known, not to be recorded in the historical records. On the other hand, it is possible to hear stories among people in the Middle East about ‘Ad.

The most important reason why ‘Ad have not been mentioned in the written records is that written communication was not common in the region at that time. Therefore, it is possible to think that ‘Ad founded a civilisation but this civilisation had not been mentioned in the historical records of those other civilisations that kept documentation. If this culture had existed a little longer, maybe much more would be known about these people in our day.

There is no written record of ‘Ad, but it is possible to find important information about their “descendants” and to have an idea about ‘Ad in the light of this information.

Hadramites, the descendants of ‘Ad

The first place to be looked at while searching for the traces of a probable civilisation established by ‘Ad or their descendants, is South Yemen, where “The Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar” is found and which is referred to as “Fortunate Arabia”. In South Yemen, four peoples have existed before our time who are named “Fortunate Arabs” by the Greeks. These are the Hadramites, Sabaeans, Minaeans and Qatabaeans. These four peoples reigned for a while together in territories close to each other.

Many contemporary scientists say that ‘Ad entered into a period of transformation and then re-appeared on the stage of history. Dr. Mikail H. Rahman, a researcher at the University of Ohio, believes that ‘Ad are the ancestors of the Hadramites, one of the four peoples who lived in South Yemen. Appearing around 500 B.C., The Hadramites are the least known among the people called “Fortunate Arabs”. These people reigned over the region of South Yemen for a very long time and disappeared totally in 240 A.D. at the end of a long period of decline.

The name of Hadrami hints that those may be the descendants of ‘Ad. The Greek writer Pliny, living at the 3rd Century B.C. referred to this tribe as “Adramitai” – meaning the Hadrami.(11) The termination of the Greek name is a noun-suffix, the noun being “Adram” which immediately suggests that it is a possible corruption of “Ad-i Iram” mentioned in the Qur’an.

The Greek geographer Ptolemy (150-100 A.D.) shows the south of the Arabian Peninsula as the place where the people called “Adramitai” lived. This region has been known by the name of “Hadhramaut” until recently. The capital city of the Hadrami State, Shabwah, was situated at the west of the Hadhramaut Valley. According to many old legends, the tomb of the prophet Hud, who was sent as a messenger to ‘Ad, is in Hadhramaut .

Another factor which tends to confirm the thought that the Hadramites are a continuation of ‘Ad, is their wealth. The Greeks defined the Hadramites as the “richest race in the world…”. Historical records say that the Hadramites had gone very far in the agriculture of “frankincense”, one of the most valuable plants of the time. They had found new areas of usage for the plant and widened its usage. The agricultural production of the Hadramites was much higher than production of this plant in our day.

What has been found in the excavations made in Shabwah, which is known to have been the capital city of the Hadramites, is very interesting. In these excavations which started in 1975, it was extremely difficult for archaeologists to reach the remains of the city due to the deep sand dunes. The finds obtained by the end of the excavations were astonishing; because the uncovered ancient city was one of the most overwhelmingly interesting found until then. The walled town that was revealed was of a larger extent than of any other ancient Yemeni site and its palace was remarked to be a truly magnificent building

Doubtless, it was very logical to suppose that the Hadramites had inherited this architectural superiority from their forerunners, ‘Ad. Hud said to the people of ‘Ad while warning them;

Do ye build a landmark on every high place to amuse yourselves? And do ye get for yourselves fine buildings in the hope of living therein (for ever)? (Surat ash-Shuara: 128-129) 

Another interesting characteristic of the buildings found at Shabwah was the elaborate columns. The columns that were at Shabwah seemed to be quite unique in being round and arranged in a circular portico, whereas all other sites in Yemen so far had been found to have square monolithic columns. The people of Shabwah must have inherited the architectural style of their ancestors, ‘Ad. Photius, a Greek Byzantine Patriarch of Constantinople in the 9th. Century A.D., made vast research on the Southern Arabs and their commercial activities because he had access to the old Greek manuscripts no longer extant in our day, and particularly the book of Agatharachides (132 B.C.), Concerning the Erythraean (Red) Sea. Photius said in one of his articles; “It is said that they (South Arabians) have built many columns covered in gold or made of silver. Spaces between these columns are remarkable to behold” (12)

Although the above statement of Photius does not directly refer to the Hadramites, it does give an idea of the affluence and building prowess of the people living in the region. Greek classical writers Pliny and Strabo describe these cities as “adorned with beautiful temples and palaces”.

When we think that the owners of these cities were the descendants of ‘Ad, it is clearly understood why the Qur’an defines the home of ‘Ad as “the city of Iram, with lofty pillars” (Surat al-Fajr: 7).

The Springs and the Gardens of ‘Ad

Today, the landscape that someone, who travels to Southern Arabia, would most frequently come across is the vast desert. Most of the places, with the exception of the cities and regions that have been later afforested, are covered with sand. These deserts have been there for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

But in the Qur’an, an interesting information is given in one of the verses recounting ‘Ad. While warning his people, Prophet Hud draws their attention to the springs and gardens with which Allah had endowed them;

Now fear Allah, and obey me. Yea, fear Him Who has bestowed on you freely all that ye know. Freely has He bestowed on you cattle and sons,- And Gardens and Springs. Truly I fear for you the Penalty of a Great Day. (Surat ash-Shuara: 131-135)

But as we have noted before, Ubar, which has been identified with the city of Iram, and any other place which is likely to have been the residence of ‘Ad, is totally covered with desert today. So, why did Hud use such an expression while warning his people?

The answer is hidden in the climatic changes of history. Historical records reveal that these areas which have turned into desert now, had once been very productive and green lands. A great part of the region was covered with green areas and springs as told in the Qur’an, less than a few thousand years ago, and the people of the region made use of these endowments. The forests softened the harsh climate of the region and made it more habitable. Deserts existed, but did not cover such a vast area as today.

In Southern Arabia, important clues have been acquired in the regions where ‘Ad lived, which could cast a light upon this subject. These show that the inhabitants of that region used a highly developed irrigation system. This irrigation most probably served a single purpose:  agriculture. In those regions, which are not appropriate for life today, people once cultivated the land.

Satellite imaging had also revealed an extensive system of ancient canals and dams used in irrigation around Ramlat as Sab’atayan which is estimated to have been able to support 200.000 people in the associated cities.(13) As Doe, one of the researchers conducting the research, said; “So fertile was the area around Ma’rib, that one might conceive that the whole region between Ma’rib and Hadhramaut was once under cultivation.” (14)

The Greek classical writer Pliny had described this region as being very fertile, and mist-covered with forested mountains, rivers and unbroken tracts of forests. In the inscriptions found in some ancient temples close to Shabwah, the capital city of the Hadramites, it was written that animals were hunted in this region and that some were sacrificed. All these reveal that this region was once covered with fertile lands as well as desert.

The speed with which the desert can encroach can be seen in some recent research done by the Smithsonian Institute in Pakistan where an area known to be fertile in the middle ages has turned into sandy desert, with dunes 6 meters high, the desert being found to expand on average 6 inches a day. At this speed, the sands can swallow even the highest buildings, and cover them as if they had never existed. Thus excavations at Timna in Yemen in the 1950’s have been almost completely covered up again. The Egyptian pyramids were also entirely under sands once and were only brought to light after very long-lasting excavations. Briefly, it is very clear that regions known to be desert today could have had different appearances in the past.

How were ‘Ad ruined? 

In the Qur’an, ‘Ad are said to have perished through a “furious wind”. In the verses, it is mentioned that this furious wind lasted for seven nights and eight days and destroyed ‘Ad totally.

The ‘Ad (people) (too) rejected (Truth): then how terrible was My Penalty and My Warning? For We sent against them a furious wind, on a Day of violent Disaster, Plucking out men as if they were roots of palm-trees torn up (from the ground). (Surat al-Qamar: 18-20)

And the ‘Ad, they were destroyed by a furious Wind, exceedingly violent. He made it rage against them seven nights and eight days in succession: so that thou couldst see the (whole) people lying prostrate in its (path), as they had been roots of hollow palm-trees tumbled down! (Surat al-Haaqqa: 6-7)

Though warned previously, the people had paid no attention to the warnings whatsoever and continuously refused their messengers. They were in such delusion that they could not even understand what was happening when they saw the destruction approaching them and continued with their denial.

Then, when they saw the (Penalty in the shape of) a cloud traversing the sky, coming to meet their valleys, they said, “This cloud will give us rain!”. Nay, it is the (Calamity) ye were asking to be hastened!- A wind wherein is a Grievous Penalty! (Surat al-Ahqaf : 24)

In the verse, it is stated that the people saw the cloud that would bring them calamity, but could not understand what it was and thought that it was a rain cloud. This is an important indication as to how the calamity was as it drew near to the people, because a cyclone proceeding along whipping up the desert sand also seems like a rain cloud from a distance. It is possible that ‘Ad were deceived by this appearance and did not notice the calamity. Doe gives a description of these sand storms (which seems to be from personal experience); “The first sign (of a dust or sandstorm) is an approaching wall of dust-laden air which may be several thousand feet in height lifted by the strong rising currents and stirred by a fairly strong wind.” (15)

Thought to be the remains of ‘Ad, “the Atlantis of the Sands, Ubar” has been recovered from under a layer of sand metres thick. It seems that the furious wind lasting for “seven nights and eight days” by the Qur’an’s description, accumulated tons of sand on top of the city and buried people under the earth alive. Excavations made in Ubar point to the same possibility. The French magazine, Ça M’Interesse states the same as follows “Ubar was buried under a sand of 12 meters thickness as a result of a storm”(16)

The most important evidence showing that ‘Ad were buried by a sand storm, is the word “ahqaf” used in the Qur’an to signify the location of ‘Ad. The description used in the 21st verse of Surat al-Ahqaf is as follows;

Mention (Hud) one of ‘Ad’s (own) brethren: Behold, he warned his people about the winding Sand-tracts: but there have been warners before him and after him: “Worship ye none other than Allah: Truly I fear for you the Penalty of a Mighty Day.” 

Ahqaf means “sand dunes” in Arabic and it is the plural form of the word “hiqf” which means a “sand dune”. This shows that ‘Ad lived in a region full of “sand dunes”, which provided the most logical ground possible for the fact that they were buried by a sand storm. According to one interpretation, ahqaf lost its meaning of “sand hills” and became the name of the region in south Yemen where ‘Ad lived. This does not change the fact that the root of this word is sand dunes, but just shows that this word has since become peculiar to this area because of the abundant sand dunes in the region.

The region where ‘Ad lived was full of sand dunes.

As a consequence, it can be said that historical and archaeological finds indicate beyond reasonable that ‘Ad and the city of Iram must have existed and were destroyed as described in the Qur’an. By later researches, the remains of these people have been recovered from the sands.

What one should do in looking at those remains buried in the sands, is to take warning just as the Qur’an stresses. The Qur’an states that ‘Ad went astray of the right path because of their arrogance and said “Who is superior to us in strength?”. In the rest of the verse, it is said “What! did they not see that Allah, Who created them, was superior to them in strength?” (Surah Fussilat: 15)

What a person has to do is bear this unchangeable fact in mind all the time and understand that the greatest and the most honoured is always Allah and that one can only prosper by adoring Him.

Iram of the Pillars (Arabic: إرَم ذات العماد, Iram ḏāt al-`imād), also called AramIramIrumIremErum, or the City of the tent poles is a reference to a lost city, a tribe or an area mentioned in the Quran.[1]

The Quran (1,400 years ago) mentions Iram in connection with pillars [Qur’an: The Dawn 89:7]:[2]

There are several explanations for the reference to “Iram – who had lofty pillars”. Some see this as a geographic location, either a city or an area, others as the name of a tribe. Those identifying it as a city have made various suggestions as to where or what city it was, ranging from Alexandria or Damascus to a city which actually moved or a city called Ubar.[3] As an area it has been identified with the biblical Aram, son of Shem and the biblical region known as Aram.[4] It has also been identified as a tribe, possibly the tribe of ʿĀd, with the pillars referring to tent pillars.[5]

“The identification of Wadi Rum with Iram and the tribe of ‘Ad, mentioned in the Qu’ran, has been proposed by scholars who have translated Thamudic and Nabataean inscriptions referring to both the place Iram and the tribes of ‘Ad and Thamud by name.”[6]

According to some Islamic beliefs,[citation needed] King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud and God smote the city, driving it into the sands, never to be seen again. The ruins of the city lie buried somewhere in the sands of the Rub’ al-Khali. Iram became known to Western literature with the translation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Radar imagery uncovered a city buried under sand in Oman.

In the early 1990s a team led by amateur archaeologist and film maker Nicholas Clapp and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes, archaeologist Juris Zarins and lawyer George Hedges announced that they had found Ubar.[7] Initially, NASA satellite photographs guided the team to a well known, and previously identified water hole at Shisr in Dhofar province.[8] However, excavations of the site uncovered a large octagonal fort with 10 foot high walls and 8 tall towers on the corners. A large portion of the fortress was destroyed when it collapsed into a sinkhole, thus germinating a legend amongst the superstitious tribes of the area.[9]

The ruins of the Ubarite oasis and its collapsed well-spring


  • In Weaveworld (1987), by Clive Barker, one of the antagonists visits the Empty Quarter and finds what is presumably the magically restored ruins of Iram.
  • Iram is the theme of Daniel Easterman‘s novel The Seventh Sanctuary.
  • Ubar is mentioned in Chapter 7 of Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods (2001). It is mentioned by a cab-driver/ifrit as the perished ancient city and by Selim, a recent arrival to the US from Oman, as the Lost City of Towers that was allegedly found in a recent archaeological excavation.
  • Iram is used in quatrain 5 of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to describe the brevity of human endeavors.
  • H. P. Lovecraft places it somewhere near The Nameless City in his stories.[10] In “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) it is the supposed base of the Cthulhu Cult.
  • Sean McMullen‘s story “The Measure of Eternity” (published in Interzone 205) is set in Ubar, describing it as the wealthiest city on earth.
  • In Tim Powers‘ supernatural novel Declare (2001), Wabar was a city inhabited by djinni and their half-human progeny, and was destroyed by a meteor strike.
  • James Rollins‘ novel Sandstorm (2004) depicts Ubar as an underground city in a glass bubble with a lake of antimatter at the middle. The city, which was created as the result of a meteorite impact 20,000 years ago, is destroyed and becomes a massive lake known as Lake Eden.
  • “Iram” is the lost city where the Muslim hero Thalaba was kept safe in Robert Southey‘s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801)
  • “Wabar” appears in Josephine Tey‘s mystery novel The Singing Sands (1952), in which detective Alan Grant seeks to unravel the meaning of a strange poem found on the body of a young man. Wabar is one possible subject of the poem.

Video games

  • In the video game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, it is postulated that Sir Francis Drake made a detour here during his circumnavigation of the world and covered up all evidence of his voyage and the accursed lost city of Ubar, until hero Nathan Drake and an evil, shadowy secret society rediscover the city 500 years later.
  • In the video game Sunless Sea, a creation of Failbetter Games, Iram (here spelled “Irem”) was somehow brought into the vast cavern beneath the earth where the game is set, and can be visited and explored by the protagonist. Its characteristic pillars are present in great quantity, and it maintains the warmth of its original environment even far from the sun.

Tabletop role-playing games

  • In the New World of Darkness limited game line, Mummy: the Curse, published by White Wolf Game Studios-Onyx Path, Irem is the Stone Age city where the game’s protagonists, the Arisen, were created.


  • The middle eastern-themed folk metal band Aeternam features a track called Iram of the Pillars in their album Moongod.[11]


  1. Glassé, Cyril; Huston Smith (2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam (Revised ed.). AltaMira Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-7591-0190-6.
  2. “Surat Al-Fajr [89:6–14] – The Noble Qur’an – القرآن الكريم”. Retrieved 2013-08-16.
  3. Noegel, Scott B (2010). The A to Z of Prophets in Islam and Judaism. Scarecrow Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8108-7603-3.
  4. Al-Tabari (1999). Charles Edmund Bosworth, ed. The History of Al-Tabari: The Sassanids, the Lakhmids, and Yemen. State University of New York Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-7914-4356-9.
  5. Glassé, Cyril; Huston Smith (2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam (Revised ed.). AltaMira Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-7591-0190-6.
  6. “Wadi Rum (Jordan).” International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Evaluation Report. May 2011. 11.
  7. Wilford, J.N., “On the Trail From the Sky: Roads Point to a Lost City”, New York Times, 5 February 1992.[1]
  9. ^
  10. “The Nameless City”. Mythos Tomes. Retrieved 2013-08-16.

Further reading

External links

Atlantis of the Sands is a legendary lost city in the southern Arabian sands, claimed to have been destroyed by a natural disaster or as a punishment by God. The search for it was popularised by the 1992 book Atlantis of the Sands – The Search for the Lost City of Ubar by Ranulph Fiennes.[1] Various names have been given to this city, the most common being Ubar, Wabar and Iram.

In modern times, the mystery of the lost city of Atlantis has generated a number of books, films, articles, web pages, and two Disney features.[2][3] On a smaller scale, Arabia has its own legend of a lost city, the so-called “Atlantis of the Sands”, which has been the source of debate among historians, archaeologists and explorers, and a degree of controversy that continues to this day.

In February 1992, the New York Times announced a major archaeological discovery in the following terms: “Guided by ancient maps and sharp-eyed surveys from space, archaeologists and explorers have discovered a lost city deep in the sands of Arabia, and they are virtually sure it is Ubar, the fabled entrepôt of the rich frankincense trade thousands of years ago.”[4]When news of this discovery spread quickly around the newspapers of the world, there seemed few people willing or able to challenge the dramatic findings, apart from the Saudi Arabian press.[5]

The discovery was the result of the work of a team of archaeologists led by Nicholas Clapp, which had visited and excavated the site of a Bedouin well at Shisr in Dhofar province, Oman. The conclusion they reached, based on site excavations and an inspection of satellite photographs, was that this was the site of Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars, a name found in the Quranwhich may be a lost city, a tribe or an area.[6][7] Sir Ranulph Fiennes, another member of the expedition, declared that this was Omanum Emporium of Ptolemy‘s famous map of Arabia Felix.[5]

A contemporary notice at the entrance to an archaeological site at Shisr in the province of Dhofar, Oman, proclaims:“Welcome to Ubar, the Lost City of Bedouin Legend”.[8] However, scholars are divided over whether this really is the site of a legendary lost city of the sands.

Early explorers in Dhofar

In 1930, the explorer Bertram Thomas had been approaching the southern edge of the Rub’ al Khali (“The Empty Quarter”). It was Thomas’ ambition to be the first European to cross the great sands but, as he began his camel journey, he was told by his Bedouin escorts of a lost city whose wicked people had attracted the wrath of God and had been destroyed. He found no trace of a lost city in the sands, but Thomas later related the story to T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who regarded Ubar as the “Atlantis of the Sands”. Thomas marked on a map the location of track that was said to lead to the legendary lost city of Ubar and, although he intended to return to follow it, he was never able to.[9]

The story of a lost city in the sands became an explorer’s fascination; a few wrote accounts of their travels that perpetuated the tale. T. E. Lawrence planned to search for the location of a lost city somewhere in the sands, telling a fellow traveller that he was convinced that the remains of an Arab civilisation were to be found in the desert. He had been told that the Bedu had seen the ruins of the castles of King Ad in the region of Wabar. In his view the best way to explore the sands was by airship, but his plans never came to fruition.[10]

The English explorer Wilfred Thesiger visited the well at Shisr in the spring of 1946, “where the ruins of a crude stone fort on a rocky eminence marks the position of this famous well.” He noted that some shards found there were possibly early Islamic. The well was the only permanent watering place in those parts and, being a necessary watering place for Bedouin raiders, had been the scene of many fierce encounters in the past,[11]

The remains of the old fort at Shisr.

In March 1948 a geological party from Petroleum Development (Oman and Dhofar) Ltd, an associate company of the Iraq Petroleum Company, carried out a camel-borne survey of Dhofar province. Like Thesiger, the party approached Shisr from the south, along the Wadi Ghudun. Their first sight of Ash Shisur was a white cliff in the distance. As they drew closer, they could see that the cliff was in fact the wall of a ruined fort built above a large quarry-like cave, the entrance of which was obscured by a sand dune.[12]

The fort had been built from the same white rock as the overhanging cliff, giving the impression of a single structure. One of the geologists noted: “There are no houses, tents or people here: only the tumble-down ruin of this pre-Islamic fort.” The geologists, without the benefit of modern satellite analysis or archaeological equipment, were unimpressed by the ruin. Shisur, like Ma Shedid a few days before, was a simply ‘difficult water’ and their escorts spent the best part of their 3 day stay trying to extract water for their camels from the well.[12]

In 1953, oil man and philanthropist Wendell Phillips set out to discover Thomas’ track but was unable to follow it because of the heavy sands which made further travel by motor transport impossible.[13]

Some 35 years later, Clapp and his team reported uncovering what they described as a large octagonal fortress dating back some 2,000 years beneath the crumbling fort, and described a vast limestone table that lay beneath the main gate which had collapsed into a massive sinkhole around the well. This, some concluded, was the fabled city of Ubar, which was also known as Iram, or at least a city in the region of Ubar, once an important trading post on the incense route from Dhofar to the Mediterranean region.[7]

Some pointed to religious texts to support the theory that the city was destroyed as a punishment by God. Iram, for example, was described in the Qur’an as follows: “Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad – [with] Iram – who had lofty pillars, The like of which were not produced in (all) the land?” (Surat al-Fajr: 6–8)[14]

Theories about the location of a lost city of the sands


Bertram Thomas’ guide pointed to wide tracks between the dunes and said: “Look, Sahib, there is the way to Ubar. It was great in treasure, with date gardens and a fort of red silver. It now lies beneath the sands of the Ramlat Shu’ait.”[9] Thomas also wrote, “on my previous journeys I had heard from other Arabs of the name of this Atlantis of the Sands, but none could tell me of even an approximate location.”[15]

Rub al-Khali

Most tales of the lost city locate it somewhere in the Rub’ al Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter. This covers most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, including most of Saudi Arabia and areas of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. St. John Philby (who preferred the name “Wabar”) was an English adviser to Emir Aziz bin Saud in Riyadh. He first heard the story of Ubar from his Bedouin guide who told him about a place of ruined castles where King Ad had stabled his horses and housed his women before being punished for his sinful ways by being destroyed by fire from heaven.[16]

Anxious to seal his reputation as a great explorer, Philby went in search of the lost city of Wabar but, instead of finding ruins, discovered what he described as extinct volcano half-buried in the sands or, possibly, the remnants of a meteorite impact. Modern research has revealed this latter event to have been the cause of the depression in the sands.[16] Geologist H. Stewart Edgell observed that for the “last six thousand years the Empty Quarter has been continuously a sand-dune desert, presenting a hostile environment where no city could have been built.”[17]


Nicholas Clapp claimed that the discovery of the remains of towers at the excavation site supported the theory that this was the site of Ubar, the city of ‘Ad with “lofty pillars” described in the Qur’an.[5][7] Thomas dismissed the ruins at the well of Ash Shisur as a ‘rude’ fort which he took to be only a few hundred years old.[9]

Omanum Emporium

Ranulph Fiennes, explorer and adventurer, was a member of Clapp’s expedition and speculated that Ubar was identified on ancient maps as “Omanum Emporium”. This was a place marked on a map of Arabia compiled by Claudius Ptolemy in about 150 AD.[5]


When the explorer Freya Stark consulted the works of Arab geographers, she found a wide range of opinions as to the location of Wabar: “Yaqut says: “In Yemen is the qaria of Wabar.” El-Laith, quoted by Yaqut, puts it between the sands of Yabrin and Yemen. Ibn Ishaq… places it between “Sabub (unknown to Yaqut and Hamdani) and the Hadhramaut. Hamdani, a very reliable man, places it between Najran, Hadhramaut, Shihr and Mahra. Yaqut, presumably citing Hamdani, puts it between the boundaries of Shihr and San’a, and then, on the authority of Abu Mundhir between the sands of B.Sa’d (near Yabrin) and Shihr and Mahra. Abu Mundhir puts it between Hadhramaut and Najran.”

“With such evidence,” Stark concluded, “it seems quite possible for Mr. Thomas and Mr. Philby each to find Wabar in an opposite corner of Arabia.”[18]

The Shisr discoveries

Nicholas Clapp’s search for Ubar began after he read Thomas’ book Arabia Felix. Clapp had just returned from Oman, having helped to stock an oryx sanctuary on the Jiddat al Harassis, and was inspired by Thomas’ references to the lost city of Ubar. He began his search for Ubar in the library of the University of California in Los Angeles, and found a 2nd-century AD map by the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy which showed a place called “Omanum Emporium”. He speculated that this might be the location of Ubar, situated on the incense route between Dhofar and the Mediterranean region. Aware that Mayan remains had been identified from aerial photographs, Clapp contacted NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and obtained satellite images of Dhofar. These helped to identify ancient camel tracks hidden beneath the shifting sands of the desert which in turn might identify places of convergence such as wells and ancient cities.[7]

After Clapp’s team had visited a number of possible sites for Ubar, they found themselves drawn back to the crumbling ruin at Shisr. Although the fort had been written off as being no more than a few hundred years old by the earlier explorers, Clapp’s team began to speculate that the fort had been rebuilt in the 1500s on the remains of a far more ancient site.

Under the direction of Dr. Juris Zarins, the team began excavation, and within weeks had unearthed the wall and towers of a fortress dating back more than 2,000 years. Clapp suggested that the evidence was “a convincing match” for the legendary lost city of Ubar. The city’s destruction, he postulated, happened between A.D. 300 and 500 as the result of an earthquake which precipitated the collapse of the limestone table; but it was the decline of the incense trade, which led to the decline of the caravan routes through Shisr, that sealed Ubar’s fate.

Zarins himself concluded that Shisr did not represent a city called Ubar.[19] In a 1996 interview, on the subject of Ubar, he said: “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 Ptolemy’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 romanticised Ubar and turned it into a city, rather than a region or a people.”[20]

In a more recent paper he suggested that modern Habarut may be the site of Ubar.[21]

By 2007, following further research and excavation, their findings could be summarised as follows:[22]

  • A long period of widespread trade through the area of Shisr was indicated by artefacts from Persia, Rome, and Greece being found on the site. More recent work in Oman and Yemen indicated that this fortress was the easternmost remains of a series of desert caravansaries that supported incense trade.
  • As far as the legend of Ubar was concerned, there was no evidence that the city had perished in a sandstorm. Much of the fortress had collapsed into a sinkhole that hosted the well, perhaps undermined by ground water being taken to irrigate the surrounding oasis.
  • Rather than being a city, interpretation of the evidence suggested that “Ubar” was more likely to have been a region—the “Land of the Iobaritae” identified by Ptolemy. The decline of the region was probably due to a reduction in the frankincense trade caused by the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, which did not require incense in the same quantities for its rituals. Also, it became difficult to find local labour to collect the resin.[23] Climatic changes led to desiccation of the area, and sea transport became a more reliable way of transporting goods.
  • The archaeological importance of the site was highlighted by satellite imagery that revealed a network of trails, some of which passed underneath sand dunes 100 m tall, which converged on Shisr. Image analysis showed no further evidence of major undocumented sites in this desert region, which might be considered as alternate locations for the Ubar of legend.

 Media related to Shisr, Dhofar province, Oman at Wikimedia Commons

Critical reception

The Saudi Arabian press was generally sceptical about the discovery of Ubar in Oman, with Dr. Abdullah al Masri, Assistant Under-Secretary of Archaeological Affairs stating that similar sites had been found in Saudi Arabia over the past 15 years. In Ashawq al Awsat he explained: “The best of these sites was when, in 1975, we uncovered more than one city on the edge of the Empty Quarter, in particular the oasis on Jabreen. Also the name of Ubar is similar to that of Obar, an oasis in eastern Saudi Arabia. We must await further details but so far we have far more important discoveries at Jabreen or Najran.” However, Professor Mohammed Bakalla of King Saud University wrote that he would not be surprised if Ad’s nation cities were found underneath the Shisr excavation or in the close vicinity.[5]

More recent academic opinion is less than convinced about the accuracy of Clapp’s findings. One reviewer noted that Clapp himself did not help matters by including a speculative chapter about the king of Ubar in his book, The Road to Ubar, which in his view undermined his narrative authority: “its fictional drama pales next to the gripping real-life story of the Ubar expedition recounted in earlier portions of this volume.”[24]

The case for Shisr being Omanum Emporium has been questioned by recent research. Nigel Groom commented in an article “Oman and the Emirates in Ptolemy’s Map” published in 2007, that Ptolemy’s map of Arabia contained many wild distortions. The word “Emporium” in the original Greek meant a place for wholesale trade of commodities carried by sea, and was sometimes an inland city where taxes were collected and trade conducted. Thus the term could be applied to a town that was some distance from the coast. This, Groom suggests, may have been the case with Ptolemy’s ’Omanum Emporium’. He suggested that the Hormanus River, the source of which is marked on Ptolemy’s map as being north-east of Omanus Emporium, was in fact the Wadi Halfrain which rises some 20 kilometres north east of Izki in modern-day central Oman. Thus, Groom concludes, Omanum Emprorium was likely to have been located at Izki, possibly Nizwa, or in their vicinity.[25]

H. Stewart Edgell contended that Ubar is essentially mythical and makes arguments against any significant historical role for Shisr beyond that of a small caravansary. Edgell suggested that the building was small and used by a few families at most. He believed that all the “discovery” of Ubar showed was how easily scientists can succumb to wishful thinking.[26]

In an article on the Shisr excavations entitled “On the Incense Trail: The Empty Quarter to the Indian Ocean, In Search of the City of ‘Ubar'”,[27] Professor Barri Jones wrote: “The archaeological integrity of the site should not be allowed to be affected by possible disputes regarding its name.” A 2001 report for UNESCO states: “The Oasis of Shisr and the entrepots of Khor Rori and Al-Balid are outstanding examples of medieval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf region.” [28]

Writing about ‘Wabbar’, Michael Macdonald expressed doubts about the “discovery” since the site was known for decades and Sir Ranulph was stationed there.[29]


  1. Nabataea Net. “The Incense Road: Ubar”. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  2. Atlantis: The Lost Empire”.
  3. Atlantis: Milo’s Return”.
  4. Wilford, J.N., “On the Trail From the Sky: Roads Point to a Lost City”, New York Times, 5 February 1992.[1]
  5. a b c d e Ranulph Fiennes (1993), Atlantis of the sands, Harmondsworth: Signet, ISBN 0-451-17577-8, 0451175778
  6. Glassé, Cyril; Huston Smith (2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam (Revised ed.). AltaMira Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0759101906.
  7. a b c d Clapp, N., The Road to Ubar, (1998); Zarins, Juris, “Atlantis of the Sands”, Archaeology, May–June 1997.
  8. Andy in Oman. “Is “The Lost City of Ubar” Found or Still Lost?! Shisr, Southern Oman”. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  9. a b c Thomas, B.S., “Ubar – the Atlantis of the sands of the Rub’ al Khali”, Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, 20, pp. 259–65.
  10. T. E. Lawrence (1964), The letters of T.E. Lawrence, London: Spring Books
  11. Thesiger, Wilfred, “A New Journey in Southern Arabia, The Geographical Journal, Vol. CVIII, Oct.-Dec. 1946, p. 135.
  12. a b Morton, Michael Quentin (2006), In the Heart of the Desert (2nd edition) (In the Heart of the Desert ed.), Aylesford, Kent, UK: Green Mountain Press (UK), ISBN 0-9552212-0-X, 0-9552212-0-X
  13. Wendell Phillips (June 1972), Unknown Oman, Librairie Du Liban Publications, ISBN 978-0-86685-025-4, 0866850252
  14. “Islam 101”Ubar, the Lost City. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  15. Thomas, Bertram (September 1931). “A Camel Journey Across the Rub al-Khali”. The Geographical Journal 78 (3): 209–38. doi:10.2307/1784895.
  16.  a b Wynn, J.C., Shoemaker, E.M., “The Day the Sands Caught Fire”, Scientific American, Nov. 1998, pp. 64–71.
  17. Edgell, H. Stewart (2004). . “The myth of the “lost city of the Arabian Sands”” Check |url= scheme (help)Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 34: 105–120. Retrieved 11 July2012.
  18. Freya Stark (1936), The southern gates of Arabia, [New York]: E.P. Dutton & Co., inc., OCLC 557374
  19. Jurins, Z., “Atlantis of the Sands” in Archaeology (1997): 51—53
  20. Interview with Dr J. Zarins, Nova Online, Sept. 1996
  21. “Environmental Disruption and Human Response,” in Environmental Disaster and the Archaeology of Human Response, Anthropological Papers, ed. Garth Bawden and Richard M. Reycraft (Albuquerque: Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 2000), 7:35—49.
  22. Blom, R., Crippen, R., Elachi, C., Clapp, N., Hedges, G., Zarins, J., “Southern Arabian Desert Trade Routes, Frankincense, Myrrh, and the Ubar Legend” in Remote Sensing in Archaeology, Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology (2007).
  23. Lawton, John (May–June 1983). “Oman: Frankincense”Aramco World 34 (3): 26–27. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  24. Review of the Road To Ubar (Finding the Atlantis of the Sands) by Nicholas Clapp (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company.
  25. Groom, N. (1994), “Oman and the Emirates in Ptolemy’s map”, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 5: 198–214.
  26. “The Myth of the ‘Lost City of the Arabian Sands'” in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (2004), 34:105—20.
  27. Minerva vol. 3, No. 4 (July–August 1992), p. 17
  28. “Original Decision Document – World Heritage – UNESCO” (PDF). UNESCO. Retrieved 24 May 2012.
  29. “Wabbar” in J. Sasson, Civilization of the Ancient Near East, 8, London, p. 1351.

External links


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