Atlantis of the Sands?

Could a Mysterious Lost City in the Arabian Desert Answer Some Hard Questions about the Origins of Civilization?

The great H. P. Lovecraft, successor to Edgar Allan Poe, achieved early fame with his 1921 story, The Nameless City. It tells of Abdul Alhazarad, an Arab scholar whose quest for the secrets of black magic led him into a remote, forbid­ding area of the Sahara Desert. There, he stumbled upon an ancient city unknown to the outside world, a center for sorcery and witchcraft, inhabited by djinni and afreets, the ghouls and demons of Semitic folklore.

Passing through the dark streets and among the lofty columns of Iram, as the gloomy city was known to its resi­dents, he entered the temple of their patron deity, Cthulhu, a satanic figure. The high priest in attendance entrusted him with a thaumaturgic tome, the Al Azif. But translating its horrific text into Latin as the Necronomicon proved too much for Abdul, and he went raving mad before completing his task.

While most readers assume The Nameless City was an entirely original creation of Lovecraft’s fertile imagination, he actually based it on ancient Arab oral accounts. Bedouin myth described “Iram of the Pillars” (Iramu dat al-`imad) as a large, deeply prehistoric metropolis built after the great flood by a race of giants, the Ahd-al-Jann, in an uninhab­itable area of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Rub-el-Khali, or “Empty Quarter.” The city was said to have been a headquarters for the muqarribun, “Ghost Priests” of a profane, pre-Islamic cult. They worshiped Khadhulu (Love­craft’s Cthulhu), mentioned as a devilish conception in the fragmentary Al-Khaddif manuscript, which became the short story author’s Al Azif.

Iram was also uncommonly rich, thanks in large measure to its trade in al-luban—“the milk”—an aromatic resin taken from the bark of bosellia trees for the production of costly perfumes sought after by wealthy clients, and used in sacred rituals. Prized by the ancient Romans as olibanum for temple ceremonies, the substance, no longer availa­ble in Europe after the collapse of classical civilization cut trading ties with the outside world, was reintroduced sometime thereafter by the Franks, from which its modern name, frankincense, derived. From early medieval times, it was an integral part of Christian church services in large measure because al-luban had always been associated with the banishment of evil influences.

But its alleged purgative powers were inadequate to rid Iram of its muqarribun, djinni and afreets, even after Hud, a virtuous prophet, had been sent by God to convert the residents from their wicked ways. As punishment, Allah af­flicted them with a horrible drought, then caused a disastrous sandstorm to engulf the entire city. When the catas­trophic whirlwind passed, the formerly splendid urban center had vanished without a trace beneath the sands of the empty quarter. “Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the Ahd-al-Jann of the city of Iram, possessors of lofty build­ings,” asked the author of the Holy Qu’ran (Surah Al-Fajir 89 1-89:14),“the like of which were not produced in all the land? Therefore your Lord let down upon them a portion of his chastisement.” The sinful city was supposed to have been swallowed whole by the desert.

Until the time Lovecraft wrote The Nameless City and for most of the remaining decades of the 20th century thereafter, Iram was regarded as an entirely legendary place. But its mythical status did not prevent other authors from writing about it. Lovecraft’s literary predecessor, Washington Irving, described Iram in The Legend of the Arab Astrologer, part of his Tales of Alhambra, as a dream metropolis accessible only to sleepers, but disappears as soon as they exit through its gates. Frank Herbert’s version of the city surfaces in his Children of Dune as the “accursed sietch of Jacurutu,” and an antagonist in Weaverworld, by Clive Barker, discovers Iram, which magically rises from the ruins into its former glory. Even Kahlil Gibran, the third best-selling poet in history after Shakespeare and Lao Tse, wrote a play entitled, Iram, City of Lofty Pillars. The story of Iram had been introduced to the West in transla­tions of the famous Thousand and One Nights.

Despite its universally accepted non-existence, Iram clearly exerted a powerful hold on the minds of mythogra­phers from ancient to modern times. In 1968, however, the mists of legend began to coalesce into archaeological re­ality when Paolo Matthiae and his colleagues from the University of Rome La Sapienza, digging at an unidentified site at Tell Mardikh, in Syria, less than 35 miles southwest of Aleppo, excavated a statue dedicated to the Babylonian god­dess Ishtar. Its base was inscribed with the words, “Ibbit-Lim, King of Ebla,” a city that had vanished no less thor­oughly than Iram. Ebla, though, had been known to exist, because it was occasionally cited by dynastic Egyptian and Akkadian bureaucrats.

Throughout the 1970s, the Italians retrieved some 15,000 well-preserved cuneiform tablets that confirmed Tell Mardikh as the location for ancient Ebla. Because about eighty percent of the texts were Sumerian, archaeo-linguists were able to effectively translate the remainder written in the language of the city residents Eblaite, a West Semitic dialect. The structure in which the tablets were originally housed had not been a palace library, as originally suspect­ed, but rather a scriptorium, where apprentices made copies of original documents shelved according to subject. And they revealed interesting information.

Ebla, or “White Rock,” named after the limestone outcrop on which the site had been founded, was originally a Sumerian commercial center that prospered for 160 years beginning in 2400 B.C. Although the tablets mostly com­prised state revenue accounts, Sumerian-Eblaite dictionaries, school texts and diplomatic documents, they also ex­plained that the city was ruled by merchant aristocrats who elected their ruler for a fixed term of office, lasting seven years. The tablets also showed a change over time in theophoric identities from El to Yah, an early use of a divine name Matthiae and others point out later emerged as the Hebrew god, Yahweh. Ebla’s connection with the Old Testa­ment continues in many biblical names found nowhere else outside Genesis. These include the Eblaite A-da-mu (Adam), H’a-wa (Eve), Abarama (Abraham), Isura-el (Esau), Ye-ru-sa-lu-um (Jerusalem), etc., etc. Matthiae’s col­league, Giovanni Pettinato, claims to have even found references to Sodom and Gomorrah in the Tell Mardikh in­scriptions.

Ebla was itself destroyed in 2240 B.C., when Sarru-kinu, Sargon of Akkad, overthrew Sumerian civilization. The city was thereafter reoccupied by a Semitic people, the Amorites, who restored enough former prosperity to make it the target of another conqueror, the Hittite king, Mursili I, in 1600 B.C. His attack represented a deathblow from which Ebla never recovered, lingering on as a small village until the 7th century A.D., when its ruins were finally abandoned and covered by the sands of time.

But during exhaustive examination of the Tell Mardikh tablets, archaeologists were surprised to find documenta­tion of the “legendary” Iram, which the Elbaites clearly knew as a real place where they engaged in trade for many years. They referred to it as Iruma, the “City of Towers,” which subsequent traditions garbled as “Pillars.” Iruma or Iram was actually a title bestowed on the city, just as New York is today known as “The Big Apple,” or Chicago is called “The Windy City.” The lost city’s real name was Ubar, or “Ubar of the High Towers.” These were its outstanding features, because the commercial hub needed to defend its extraordinary wealth from the likes of Sarru-kinu or Mur­sili. The Ebla inscriptions also refer to Iruma-Ubar as a cult capital where all the profane arts of black magic and thaumaturgy flourished, just as portrayed in Bedouin myth.

Archaeologists henceforward scoured the sands of Arabia for any physical trace of the other lost city, but it seemed to have forever disappeared, just as specified by the Holy Qu’ran. In 1984, however, an orbital Challenger satellite tracing medieval routes used by spice traders followed their faint outlines into a far older network of roads in south Oman’s Dhofar Province. As Dr. Bob Curran relates in Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms (NJ: New Page Books, 2007), “Further investigation using x-ray scanning revealed the surrounding area was the roof of a large, underground, limestone cavern, filled with a huge, subterranean lake that had formed a water-table for a city built above it.”

Subsequent digs near the Ash Shisar oasis, amid ruins previously identified as a 16th century Shis’r fort, soon un­earthed Iram-Ubar. The excavated city showed every sign of fabulous wealth, resulting from extensive trade between the coastal regions and population centers of the Middle East, where it was a commercial center between Asia and Eu­rope. Copious amounts of frankincense, the fragrant resin associated with stories of Iram, were discovered at the site, the remnants of which likewise disclosed the nature of its disappearance.

The city had been built over the immense, limestone cap of an underground lake into which generations of resi­dents had sunk many hundreds of wells. This abundance of fresh water in the desert additionally augmented Ubar’s already prodigious affluence and influence. But millennia of withdrawing water from the lake gradually lowered the levels that supported the limestone cover and its city. By A.D. 500, the water table had dropped enough for the cav­ern’s natural props to give way. Its roof, upon which stood the proud city, suddenly collapsed into the subterranean lake, taking with it many if not most of its traumatized inhabitants. Over time, inexorable desert deposition effective­ly filled in the gaping crater with its human victims and ruined metropolis, which eventually passed from history into myth.

The demise of Ubar had taken place just as legend had described the fate of Iram. Decades before its discovery, T. E. Lawrence, more famous as “Lawrence of Arabia,” referred to Iram as “the Atlantis of the Sands.” And there may have been more truth to his characterization than he realized. For example, Bedouin tradition held that a race of giants, the Ahd-al-Jann, built the city after the great flood. So too, in classical Greek myth, the Atlanteans were iden­tified as “titans.”

The Persian astrologer, Abu Ma’shar Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi (A.D. 787 to 886), still regarded to­day as the foremost authority on ancient and medieval Arabic chronology, determined that the Deluge occurred be­tween the 17th and 18th of February, 3101 B.C. This date coincides with a consensus of scientific opinion reached in 1997 at Cambridge, England’s Fitzwilliam College, where archaeo-astronomers and geologists from around the world pooled their evidence to show that a global catastrophe occurred near the close of the 4th millennium B.C. That peri­od is additionally remarkable for the Maya calendar, which started in 3113 B.C.; the sudden beginning of Egyptian civ­ilization; the opening of the Hindu Kali Yuga, or “Great Year”; and numerous other, significant transitions around the world, all signifying major, abrupt change. If, as Arabic myth relates, the Ahd-al-Jann built Iram five generations following the flood, that would place its construction around 2975 B.C. Again, this date coincides remarkably well with organic materials retrieved from Ubar, where carbon-dating analysis established the city’s completion shortly after the turn of the 3rd millennium B.C.

The Ahd-al-Jann builders were themselves described in Bedouin folklore as a tribe of the Adites, remarkably skilled architects and builders who raised great stone monuments. Even today, rural Saudi Arabian tribes refer to any ancient ruins of prodigious size as buildings of the Adites. The Adites are regarded as the earliest inhabitants of Ara­bia, and referred to as red men, for the light color of their hair. Several accounts of Atlantis (Egyptian, Irish, Winne­bago, etc.), depict the Atlanteans, at least in part, as redheads.

“Ad” is still the name of a Semitic tribe in the province of Hadramut, Saudi Arabia, whose elders claimed descent from their eponymous ancestor, the great-grandson of Noah. In the 19th century, the royal monarch of the Mussulman tribes was Shedd-Ad-Ben-Ad, or “Descendant and Son of Ad.” The progenitor of the Arab peoples was Ad, grand­son of the biblical Shem. The Adites were said to have worshiped the sun from the tops of pyramids, a singularly un-Arabic practice more evocative of life in Atlantis. Ad was known as the City of Pillars, or the Land of Bronze. In his 4th century B.C. account of Atlantis, the Kritias, Plato similarly described the pillar-cult of the Atlanteans, while their city was the pre-classical world’s foremost clearinghouse for the bronze trade. The Adites had ten kings ruling various parts of the world simultaneously, the same number and disposition described by Plato. The Adites were said to have arrived in Arabia after Ad was annihilated by a colossal black cloud with the ferocity of a hurricane, an obvious refer­ence to the volcanic eruption that accompanied the destruction of Atlantis. Previously, Ad was a palatial island-capital, and Bedouin to this day apply the expression as old as Ad to anything of extreme age.

It would appear, then, that fifth-generation survivors from one of several natural catastrophes that devastated the kingdom of Atlantis fifty centuries ago built Iram-Ubar in what is today the Dhofar Province of southern Oman. It grew to become one of history’s longest-lived cities, flourishing for some 3,500 years, until it suffered a fatal disaster different from, yet strangely parallel to, the far more potent cataclysm that overwhelmed the Atlantis of its founding fathers’ ancestors.

But Iram’s Atlantean implications reach beyond these cultural comparisons, into our own time. For as long as men could remember, Iram was just a legend, a fit subject for the writers of fantasy or allegorical fiction. Yet, less than 25 years ago, its ruins came to light for the first time. Enduring myth became archaeological reality. So too the “myth” of Atlantis has persisted over time, and must some day, like Iram-Ubar, take its rightful place in history.


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