The section of the Dhofar Mountains north of Salalah, known as the Jebel Qara, is less spectacular than the ranges to the east and west, although it boasts a couple of worthwhile attractions, including the peaceful mausoleum of Nadi Ayoub (popularly known as Job’s Tomb) and the Pools of Ayoun. The main attractions north of Salalah, however, lie in the interior beyond the mountains, in the fragmentary remains of the legendary city of Ubar at the village of Shisr and, further inland still, in the great sand dunes at the edge of the Empty Quarter, one of the world’s greatest and most inhospitable deserts.
The legendary Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) is one of the world’s largest and most famous deserts, stretching northwards from Oman into Saudi Arabia, Yemen and up into the western UAE. The scale of the desert is jaw-dropping: a thousand kilometres long and five hundred wide – bigger than France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Most of the desert consists of huge swathes of dunes reaching heights of up to 300m, interspersed with gravel plains and occasional salt flats, such as the notorious “quicksands” of Umm al Samim – first described by Thesiger – which even local Bedu ventured into only rarely and with extreme caution.
Most of the Empty Quarter lies within Saudi Arabia, although there are significant portions in Oman, stretching across the northern sections of Dhofar and Al Wusta and into Al Dhahirah, which is where you’ll find the Umm al Samim. The scale of the dunes and the largely pristine natural environment (particularly when compared to the Wahiba Sands) is as memorable a taste of the desert as you’re likely to get anywhere – although expeditions into the sands should only be attempted with a proper guide and full equipment. The cheapest way to explore the desert is by signing up for an overnight trip with Al Fawaz Tours or via Salalah Beach Villas. Upmarket tours with a Bedu guide can be arranged through Safari Drive (wwww.safaridrive.com).
The legend of Ubar (or Wubar) is one of the most persistent in the Arabian peninsula. The name seems originally to have referred to a region or a tribe in or near the Empty Quarter but later became associated with a legendary city – also known as Iram (or Irem) – which grew immensely wealthy as a result of trade between the coast and population centres inland to the north. According to the story as related in the Qur’an, the city’s rich but godless inhabitants were repeatedly warned to mend their ways by the prophet Hud, but ignored him – after which God destroyed the city, which collapsed back into the sands, never to be seen again.
The first sign that the legend of Ubar/Iram might have a basis in historical fact was hinted at by English explorer Bertram Thomas, the first European to traverse the Empty Quarter in 1930–31 (a journey desribed in his Arabia Felix). Travelling north of Shisr, Thomas saw a series of “well-worn tracks”, described by his Bedu companions as the “Road to Ubar”, which they said lay buried under the sands, although no one could say where. A number of other explorers subsequently searched for the city during the 1930s and 1940s, but without success.
The trail then went cold until the 1980s, when American film-maker and amateur historian Nicholas Clapp had the bright idea of using high-definition radar imaging, carried on board the US Space Shuttle, to search for Ubar. A detailed satellite picture of the area in which Bertram Thomas had seen the “Road to Ubar” was slowly put together, and in 1990 a team including Clapp, British explorer Ranulph Fiennes and archeologist Juris Zarins set out to follow these leads on the ground. Some eighteen months later, they finally discovered the remains of an ancient trading town next to Shisr. The discovery made headline news around the world in 1992, while both Clapp and Fiennes subsequently wrote books about their part in the discovery. Whether the ruins at Shisr are in fact those of the legendary Ubar remains something of a moot point, however – and one that will probably never be fully resolved.