A City Lost to Time and an Adventure like No Other
Of all the most mysterious and legendary locations known to mankind, Ubar is perhaps one of the more exotic and enticing. Sometimes known as Wabar, Iram of the Pillars, or the ‘Atlantis of the Sands;’ it is thought - by many - to be the Quranic version of Sodom, and was even mentioned in the tales of Marco Polo.
Said to have been built nearly 5,000 years ago, Ubar was thought to have been a processing and shipping center for the aromatic resin known as frankincense; a substance that was once as valuable as gold. It could be found in the nearby Qara Mountains and was used in all aspects of life back then - beauty, medicine, religious ceremonies.
This influx of wealth would lead to Ubar’s rulers becoming too powerful and cruel, or so Islamic legend dictates, and God was said to have destroyed the city in a rage to serve as an example to others who were tempted by greed.
This fable, and the lost city itself, hold a special place in the heart of Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Indeed, the whole of the region does, as he has spent so much time there during his life. Not only did he serve in the Army of the Sultan of Oman in the deserts of Dhofar for several years - fighting against Marxist insurgents - but Ran also co-led the fateful expedition that eventually found what many consider to be Ubar.
For countless years, many searched for this mysterious desert place. In the early 1900s, explorers like Bertram Thomas would write about the fabled grand pillars and the legendary stories about the city. Bertram himself told these tales to T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), which inspired him to one day embark on his own search for this lost city of legend - an expedition he was sadly never able to begin.
While serving in the British Army in the region, Ranulph Fiennes first heard about the lost city of Ubar. Much like those who came before him, Ran was endlessly fascinated by the prospect of discovering a city lost to time.
Ran’s first major expedition to discover the city was in 1968. Understanding the terrain and the people so well was something Ran prided himself on. In harsher days, knowing that land could be the difference between life and death. As an explorer, however, knowing the land would be the difference between failure and success in their search.
‘True grit’ is a phrase that crops up time and time again when reading about the many expeditions and adventures undertaken by Ranulph, and it’s a phrase which describes his perseverance and dedication perfectly. The perils faced on this decades-long journey serve as proof that Ran will never stop searching for adventure once he’s had a taste.
It took eight more long expeditions before they finally found what they were searching for. In the early nineties, using a mixture of old-fashioned detective work and cutting-edge satellite imagery, the team discovered the true importance of a small village known as Shis'r. An ancient road on the outskirts of the village was thought to have once led to Ubar. After further research and detective work, though, the team, under world-famous archaelogist Dr Yurys Zarins, discovered that they had it all wrong - the lost city was actually right under their noses.
The shifting sands of the barren Rub’ al Khali desert hid the ancient fortress city. This land was so forgotten and seemingly innocuous that it was often referred to as the Empty Quarter, and it was the perfect place for something impossible to happen - for an entire city to disappear.
Excavations on the site proved fruitful and the team found ancient tower structures, fragments of pottery from all around the world, incense burners, bones, and coins. The ruins of this city are still contested to this day, with many theories speculating about just how big the city was, where its true heart lies, and whether its many secrets will ever be uncovered. Ran himself believes that the location marked ‘Omanum Emporium’ (on a map of Arabia by Claudius Ptolemy in 150AD) could actually be the real Ubar and is at Shis’r.
Looking back on this incredible discovery and his time in the region, Ran has nothing but fond memories of Oman and its many mysteries. The unique landscape and the bustling mixture of people that inhabit it are always remembered with great affection. The slightest reminder - sand in the tyres of a four-wheeler, the sweet aromatic scent of frankincense, or the sun hitting the mountains just right - will bring back memories of a time when he was part of a truly historical moment.
The expeditions for the lost city of Ubar - and many more journeys over the years - have helped to inspire the rich tastes of Sir Ranulph’s Great British Rum. The wood from date palm trees in Oman have been used in the distilling and flavouring process, as a way to honour one of the greatest achievements of Ranulph’s life and the ancient land that he has always respected and been captivated by.