The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sandsby Nicholas Clapp
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No one thought that Ubar, the most fabled city of ancient Arabia, would ever be found-if it even existed. Buried in the desert without a trace, it had become known as "the Altantis of the Sands." Many had searched for Ubar, including Lawrence of Arabia. Then in the 1980s, Nicholas Clapp, a documentary filmmaker and amateur archaeologist, stumbled on the legend of the lost city while poring over historical manuscripts. Filled with overwhelming curiosity, he led two expeditions to Arabia with a team that included space scientists and geologists. The discovery of Ubar was front-page news across the world and was heralded by Time as one of three major scientific events of the year.
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Read an Excerpt
Over Iran, December 1980 ... The small cargo plane flew on into a starry but moonless night.
"You cannot be up there," the voice crackled over the radio. "We are having a war here. You are not understanding? Yes?"
While the pilot worked the radio, the copilot tried to make some sense of the scattered lights below. Were they in southern Jordan or perhaps Saudi Arabia? No. It appeared that the aircraft had somehow strayed into Iran, which at the time was engaged in a heated war with Iraq.
"Okay, okay, okay. Got it," the pilot radioed back. With a sigh, he turned to the copilot. "We'll head west then? And sort things out." He paused. "Hopefully."
As the cargo plane banked, the flight engineer, wedged behind the copilot, checked his instruments-those that didn't have "INOP" stickers stuck to their faceplates. The oil leak seemed okay now, and the port engine wasn't overheating as long as they took it easy and held back on the throttle.
The journey had begun two days earlier in a winter storm that turned the San Diego Wild Animal Park into a sea of mud. In a driving rain, three of the zoo's rare Arabian oryxes -- magnificent black and white animals with long, tapered horns -- were patiently coaxed into a chute and loaded into large wooden crates. They were going home.
Once, great herds of oryxes had freely roamed Arabia. But in the early part of this century, the peninsula's bedouin began replacing their old flintlocks with accurate and deadly Martini-Henrys. A large oryx could feed a family for a month, and the hunt was exciting, a test of riding and marksmanship. Later, oil-rich princes joined the hunt, not on fiery Arab steeds but on military half-tracks fitted with heavy-caliber machine guns. For sport, not food, they would slaughter sixty or more animals in an afternoon. Until there were no more. By the early 1970s, the Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild.
Fortunately, a number of conservation groups had faced the reality that the animal was being wiped out in its native habitat and had initiated an innovative breeding program. Arabian oryxes in zoos were swapped back and forth so that a genetically sound "world herd" could be created. By 1980 there were enough animals in captivity that a few at a time could be returned to the wild.
On their journey home, San Diego's oryxes would have company: Dave Malone, a young zookeeper, and a documentary film crew, consisting of myself and my wife, Kay, cameraman Bert Van Munster, and soundman George Goen. As soon as the oryxes were secured in their crates, the clock began ticking, for it would be unwise to risk opening the crates to give the sharp-horned animals food or water. It was essential to get them to Arabia as quickly as possible.
The freeway north to Los Angeles was partially flooded and choked with traffic. The Wild Animal Park truck made it to Air France Cargo with not a moment to spare, and we and the oryxes were on our way to Paris. There we transferred to another cargo plane, flown by a pickup crew that normally worked for British Midlands. After nightfall they veered off course somewhere over eastern Turkey. The error was understandable. Of the crew, only the pilot had made the run before -- once, ten years ago.
Now I was in a jump seat behind the pilot, except the pilot wasn't there. He was all but on hands and knees, puzzling with the rest of the crew over navigational charts spread out on the cockpit floor. Gazing into the night, I thought I saw something. A glint in the moonlight.
"By any chance could we have company up here, coming our way?"
"Doubt it. Not at this altitude."
The pilot swung up, peered ahead, didn't see anything. But his eyes weren't accustomed to the dark. He flipped on the plane's landing lights. And in response, coming at us, another set of landing lights lit up the sky, the beams diffused by the petro-haze that hovers miles high over Arabia. The two planes streaked past each other. Dave, who'd been back in the cargo hold checking on the oryxes, poked his head through the cockpit doorway.
"You guys okay?"
"Just fine," the pilot said.
And we were. A few minutes later the copilot spotted the burning flares marking Saudi Arabia's major north-south pipeline. "Flying the pipeline" took us to within an hour of our destination: Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, where His Majesty Sultan Qaboos ibn Said had become intrigued by the plight of the oryx and had established a program to reintroduce the species into the wild.
At three A.M. we banked to the right just short of the silvery Arabian Sea and were on final approach to what the pilot was pretty sure was Muscat's Seeb Airport. We landed and barely had time for a catnap before three winged boxes emerged from a hangar and whirred toward us. They were Skyvans, small Irish-made military planes that could carry a small vehicle -- or a crated oryx -- and land it almost anywhere. The pilot in charge, Muldoon, Irish like his plane, supervised the loading with inordinate cheerfulness, considering the hour. Muldoon was a mercenary for Oman's fledgling air force. He was a good mercenary, he took pains to explain, busy with worthy missions (food drop, medical flights, and so on) in a time of peace.
We boarded Muldoon's plane. He flashed a thumbs-up and hit the throttle. Despite being loaded down with oryxes and fifty-five-gallon drums of fuel for the return flight, our three planes were quickly airborne. We circled over the sea to gain altitude and greeted the dawn as we headed toward the Jebel Akdar, the rugged "Green Mountains" that rise abruptly from Oman's coast. The greenery at first was limited to tiny terraced cornfields and vineyards. But then we flew into a long, winding valley and over grove after grove of palm trees.
Beside me, Kay had her face pressed to the window, taking all this in. Neither of us had ever been east of Europe, much less flown a barely charted desert in a tiny, mercenary-piloted plane. This didn't faze Kay a bit; she loved it. In everyday life, though, some things did faze her. Raised in the South, she could become distraught upon discovering that her navy shoes didn't match her new navy skirt or, worse yet, that her hair had become "a mop, with simply nothing to be done about it." Big things, like a crazed teenager trying to knife her or an international dope dealer threatening to have her "disappeared," didn't bother her at all. Our documentary filmmaking jaunts were breaks from her job as an in-the-trenches federal probation and parole officer. I remember her coming home one day all black and blue.
"Mom, what happened to you?" inquired first-born daughter Cristina.
"More aikido training with the FBI," she said nonchalantly. "This morning it was how to slow bad people down by, um, doing things to their kneecaps."
Always chipper, immensely capable, Kay is a good partner in strange places. We unbuckled our seat belts and squeezed by a crated oryx for a view from the cockpit. "The way to the interior," Muldoon the (beneficent) mercenary gestured, as our three Skyvans buzzed a crumbling old watchtower and cleared a narrow pass.
Ahead now was a vast, rocky plain dotted with mud-brick villages. But soon the villages were behind us, all but one, set in a lonely cluster of palms. "Adam, the oasis of Adam," Muldoon said, then mused, "Suppose that's where he and the missus got the gate?"
The oasis was a last landmark. Oman's interior, desolate and featureless, rolled off to the horizon. We droned on for an hour. The Skyvan couldn't go very fast and, with no pressurization, had to stay under 5,000 feet.
Ahead, fingers of red sand reached out for us. "The Rub`al-Khali?" I ventured, surely mispronouncing the Arabic for the Empty Quarter.
"If you want it to be," Muldoon replied. "Who knows where it begins?"
The Empty Quarter is the great sand sea of Arabia, the largest sand mass on earth. Following the fingers of sand to the horizon, Kay and I could see -- or thought we could -- distant dunes, dancing through the heat waves. And then the fingers of sand were gone, left behind. Muldoon squinted ahead and began his descent to Camp Yalooni. Beyond the reach of roads, with scant vegetation and no water (the nearest well was eighty miles away), it was the ideal place to release our oryxes, as far as possible from harm's way. A scattering of specks became a cluster of small prefab buildings and a water truck. No airstrip. Muldoon circled once, slowed till the plane's stall alarm went off, and hit the rocky terrain with a bump and a crunch.
By now the oryxes had been in their crates for just over sixty hours.
Clambering out of the Skyvans, we were greeted by Mark and Susan Stanley-Price, the personable wildlife biologists in charge of Camp Yalooni. Behind them, running across the desert, came a band of bedouin, shouting and waving rifles. Members of the Harasis tribe, they were garbed in turbans and long robes. Wickedly curved daggers were tucked into their belts, and state-of-the-art Motorola walkie-talkies hung from their shoulders. They were to be the oryxes' gamekeepers.
Mark Stanley-Price and the bedouin shouldered the first crate from the plane and carried it to the edge of a nearby fenced enclosure, the holding area for the animals until they were turned loose in the desert. Dave Malone scrambled up onto the crate and unlatched its sliding door. Mark nodded, Dave pulled up, and the first oryx flew out of the crate. We cheered. He slowed to a trot and circled, not the least bit the worse for wear. The bedouin broke into a tribal chant. The two other oryxes repeated the performance.
In honor of the occasion -- or so we assumed -- the Harasis prepared a favorite meal: Take one whole, tokenly eviscerated sheep, add rice. Cook. Flavor with half a case of La Ranchita taco sauce. From the day I had been given the okay to go to Arabia, I dreaded what I was sure was going to happen next. The sheep's eyeballs, I had read, were traditionally offered to honored guests. Kay had a plan, at least for herself. She would lower her eyes, and murmur words never to be breathed outside of Arabia: "Oh, how kind, but I'm not worthy, for I'm just a woman." Inevitably, an orb (perhaps two?) would be in my court. Were they viscous and slimy? Crunchy?
I was relieved when, apparently unaware of this tradition, the Harasis bedouin unceremoniously dug in, the dread orbs disappearing in a melee of hungry hands. The bedouin were fast eaters -- to avoid surprise attack, it's been said, but also, I suspect, to get the best parts and leave the gristle to the poky. When they rose from the feast, they were in an exceptionally good mood. They unsheathed their daggers and broke into a wild impromptu dance that somehow turned to terrorizing zookeeper Dave. He was a good, if nervous sport. As knives swiped within an inch of his nose, he pleaded to little avail, "Why me? I'm from New York."
"They're a little cranked up today," observed Mark Stanley-Price.
"It's a big event, the oryxes coming in," I added.
"The oryxes? Oh my, no, dear me. These chaps came back this morning from raiding their rivals, the next tribe off into the interior. Dynamited their best well, I hear."
"Oh ..." And I got a glimmer that even if ecology was not a major part of the Harasis ethic, it wouldn't be a very good idea to lay a hand on the oryxes they were now charged to protect.
Late that afternoon, when Camp Yalooni's drab plain turned fleetingly golden, Kay and I walked over to visit the oryxes. And we saw that myths could be real. Here it was the myth of the unicorn.
Though unicorns appear in Persian and biblical chronicles, their heyday was in medieval Europe. It has been suggested that a lone traveler to Arabia spied an oryx in profile, with one horn masking the other. On his return home, he entranced his friends and ultimately all of Europe with the vision of a magnificent one-horned creature. This seems unlikely, though, for even minimal and distant oryx-watching will be rewarded by a flick of the head and a view of the animal's two long spiraled horns. It is much more plausible that a single horn (minus oryx) made its way to Europe, and a horselike creature was dreamed up to go with it.
Either way, the Arabian oryx appears to have been the inspiration for the legendary unicorn. As described in a medieval book of beasts, he has "one horn in the middle of his forehead, and no hunter can catch him. ... He is very swift because neither Principalities, nor Powers, nor Thrones, nor Dominations could keep up with him, nor could Hell maintain him." Only a fair virgin could approach a unicorn and hear him say: "Learn from me because I am mild and lowly of heart."
Two of our oryxes were quietly foraging. The third was silhouetted against the setting sun. At a glance, the animals looked too delicate, too ethereal to survive in a land as harsh as this. They were certainly graceful, but they were also incredibly rugged. Sixty hours in a box was nothing. They could go days -- a lifetime, if need be -- without water, getting all the moisture they needed from scant forage. Comfortable in searing days and freezing nights, the oryx survived as if by magic. It was hard to imagine this lifeless landscape nurturing a mouse or a bird, but nevertheless ...
This was where unicorns lived.
Meet the Author
Nicholas Clapp, a noted documentary filmmaker, has lectured on Ubar at Brown University, the University of California at Los Angeles, California Institute of Technology, the National Georgraphic Society, and the Goddard Space Center. Clapp currently lives in Los Angeles, California.
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