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The Planet Earth:
Satellite-Led Expedition Finds Atlantis of the Sands
Shuttle Endeavour radar image of desert around the lost city of Ubar in the modern nation of Oman. The outpost assembled caravans transporting frankincense across the desert, from 2800 B.C. to 300 A.D. Magenta depicts large sand dunes. Green is limestone rock on the desert floor. White is a wadi, or dry riverbed.
Observation satellites staring down from space have penetrated 600-ft. mountains of windswept sand to make a startling find on the fringe of the Arabian Desert. The faint shadow of a lost civilization has turned up like a ghost in computer-enhanced radar images of ancient ground under the Rub al Khali desert in the sultanate of Oman. A timeworn network of roads under the dunes seems to point to the burial place of the legendary society of Ad.
Referred to in the Koran, the tales of The Arabian Nights and the Holy Bible, Ad probably was the bustling hub of the world's frankincense trade 5,000 years ago. Biblical archaeologists suggest wise men traded there for frankincense they bore as gifts for the infant Jesus.
Frankincense is an aromatic resin from the sap of Middle Eastern and East African trees -- an incense used ages ago by monarchs and common folk alike, in cremations, religious rituals, ceremonies and imperial processions.
Back in the 1930s, the grinding sand of the Rub al Khali had defeated a water-short British explorer's search for Ad's ancient trade routes. Modern archaeologists still are unable to search the entire perilous desert. Instead, they work in shirtsleeves in laboratories, feeding data from satellite radar to computers searching for long-lost clues.
Ubar. In observation satellite photos made in the 1980s, archaeologists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California were able to see a 100-yard-wide, hoof-trodden path hidden under tons of sand in giant dunes.
Backed by in 1990 a wealthy businessman, a scouting expedition of NASA, British and private explorers tracked the trail they had concluded was formed by frankincense traders riding camels. Following their satellite map, the party looked for geological evidence of a trail through the now-barren land to the once-thriving city of Ubar.
The explorers stumbled upon Ad artifacts- 900 pottery shards and flint pieces -- on the trade route in the sprawling Rub al Khali desert in 1990.
The adventurer T.E. Lawrence once described Ubar as the "Atlantis of the sands." Frankincense was an important commodity in the ancient world before the rise of Christianity when Ubar may have been the main shipping center of Ad. Worldwide shipments of frankincense to markets as far away as China and Rome could have started at Ubar.
Ad society lasted from 3000 B.C. to the 1st century A.D. In the end, it was victimized by politics, economics and climate after a drop in demand for the frankincense fragrance as Christianity preached burying bodies instead of burning them. The abandoned villages of Ad eventually were inundated by tides of shifting sands, and eventually dunes reaching heights of 200 to 600 feet.
Shifting Sands. The world's largest desert fluctuated in size during the 1980s, according to a NASA study of observation-satellite data.
The Sahara Desert was observed in red light and infrared light reflected from the desert surface up to four orbiting American weather satellites, NOAA-6, -7, -9 and -10.
Desert fluctuations depended on the amount and distribution of the rainfall in the area. Rainfall controls the amount of vegetation seen from space. Scientists suggest changes in global desert area may be tied to global climate changes.
The Atlas Mountains and Mediterranean Sea make up a nearly immovable northern boundary, but the Sahara's southern boundary moved south 80 miles between 1980 and 1990.
After moving to the south between 1981 and 1984, the Sahara retreated northward 88 miles from 1985 to 1986. However, it migrated 34 miles south in 1987. The southern boundary retreated 62 miles to the north in 1988, then expanded 46 miles to the south in 1989 and 1990.
How The Expedition Found The Lost Arabian Society.
Radar satellites staring down from space at the local topography along remote reaches of the globe penetrated 600-ft. mountains of windswept sand to make the startling find on the fringe of the Arabian Desert.
A faint shadow of the lost civilization of Ad was turned up like a ghost in a computer-enhanced image of ancient ground under the Rub al Khali desert in the sultanate of Oman. The timeworn network of roads under the dunes seemed to point through the desert to the burial place of the legendary Ad society, believed to be the bustling hub of the world's frankincense trade 5,000 years ago.
Ad is referred to in the Koran, in the tales of The Arabian Nights, and in the Holy Bible. Some biblical archaeologists suggest wise men traded there for frankincense they bore as gifts for the infant Jesus.
The grinding sand of the Rub al Khali had defeated water-short British explorer Bertram Thomas looking for Ad's ancient trade routes in the 1930's. Today, unable to search the entire perilous desert environment, modern archaeologists have worked in their laboratories, feeding data from satellite radar pictures to computers searching for long-lost clues.
In the satellite photos, Charles Elachi and Ronald Blom of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, were able to see a 100-yard-wide hoof-trodden path hidden under tons of sand in giant dunes. A 1990 scouting expedition tracked that trail which may have been formed by frankincense traders riding camels.
Atlantis of the sands. Frankincense is an aromatic resin from the sap of Middle Eastern and East African trees. Ages ago, it was an incense used by everyone, monarches and common folk alike, in cremations, religious rituals, ceremonies and imperial processions.
Backed by wealthy businessman Armand Hammer, the Ad expedition included Blom, Elachi, British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Los Angeles attorney and part-time explorer George Hedges, and an archaeologist, geologist, computer scientist and documentary filmmaker.
Following their satellite-drawn compass, a scouting expedition looked for geological evidence of a trail through the now-barren land to the once-thriving city of Ubar, once the main frankincense shipping center of Ad. The adventurer T.E. Lawrence once described Ubar as "the Atlantis of the sands." The city was a starting point for worldwide shipments -- to markets as far away as China and Rome -- of frankincense, an important commodity in the ancient world before the rise of Christianity.
Ad society lasted from 3000 B.C. to the 1st century A.D. In the end, it was victimized by politics, economics and climate after a drop in demand for the frankincense fragrance as Christianity preached burying bodies instead of burning them. The abandoned villages of Ad eventually were inundated by tides of shifting sands. Today those dunes reach heights of 200 to 600 feet.
Subtle signs. There have not been many scholarly writings about Ad. Because of a lack of ruins to study, many archaeologists have said the Ad civilization was mythical. The JPL scientists found both modern tracks and ancient ones in their satellite maps. The new ones go around the dunes while the old ones go underneath. The main 100-yard-wide path seen in satellite photos is very subtle with the ground worn slightly into the desert floor.
The explorers had been preparing for six years to start excavating in January 1991 when they stumbled upon Ad artifacts -- 900 pottery shards and flint pieces -- on the trade route in the sprawling Rub al Khali desert during a three-week scouting expedition in July 1990. High winds drove the team away, leaving the artifacts in the hands of Oman's Department of National Heritage until the expedition returns. The main expedition in 1991 will try to prove the Ad people existed.
The winds of war in the Middle East delayed the main expedition in 1991. Oman, once known as Muscat and Oman, is a sultanate on the southeast side of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bounded on the north by the Gulf of Oman and on the east and south by the Arabian Sea. To the southwest is Yemen. To the west is Saudi Arabia. On the northwest border is the United Arab Emirates. The Rub al Khali desert extends into the western area of Oman, but is mostly in Saudi Arabia.
About one million people live in Oman. Besides commercial quantities of oil found in 1964, they export dates, limes, cereals and fish.
Oman was ruled for centuries by emirs controlled by a caliphate at Baghdad. Later it was controlled by Portugal followed by the British government of India. Today, the ruling sultan has close ties with Great Britain.
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ancient Sahara caravans
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