Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rub' Al Khali - The Legendary Sea Of Sands

For several years now I have been an expatriate in the Middle East. I have spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia and currently I am in my fourth term in Oman. Part of my job with my previous employer, a North American telecommunications provider contracted by the national telecommunications carrier of Saudi Arabia was to travel within the interiors of the countryside and look after the operations & maintenance of the Subscriber Remote System (SRS).

There was one occasion that I was tasked with the implementation of a rapid deployment of firmware and software upgrade for all the SRS stations. The zone I was assigned to was the southern part of Asir Province starting from Jizan, Sharurah, Najran Province including the remote villages located in Rub Al Khali.

My first perception after learning I will be setting foot in Rub Al Khali with a lone guide and provisions to last the trip was a combination of absolute awe and thrill.

I am already familiar with the environment of Rub Al Khali since I have read and viewed numerous publications and documentaries about that mythical fraction of the Arabian Peninsula.

A road sign before access to the Empty Quarter 

Rub’ Al Khali or Empty Quarter is a world of contrasting extreme, it is considered as one of the most inhospitable place on Earth. Since time immemorial, the vast expanse has opposed settlement because it is one of the hottest, driest, and most unyielding environments in the Arabian Peninsula. But for a few, the proud Bedouins have established their society to adapt its existence based on the foundation of Islam, ancient tribal culture and adjust to the demanding, fast-paced modern world that include the newfound riches in the oil and gas industry.

The Enhanced Thematic Mapper on NASA's Landsat 7
Satellite captured this image of Rub' Al Khali

Rub’ Al Khali is the world’s largest sand sea, holding about half as much sand as the Sahara Desert. It covers 583,000 square kilometers (225,000 square miles), and stretches over parts of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid wilderness larger than France.

Map of Rub' Al Khali

Parallel rows of auburn and white alternate creating a rippling
pattern. White salt flats known as sabkhas separate the dunes.

The immense expanse of sands and the profound heat is unforgiving that only the most resourceful human beings would consider Rub’ Al Khali a wasteland to trek rather than a landscape to settle in.

Barchan Dunes

Sand dunes near the Oman border

Oil exploration in Rub' Al Khali

In 1931 an English scientist named Bertram Thomas recorded Bedouin tales of a fabled trading city that disappeared beneath the sands of Rub’ Al Khali. According to myth, Ubar was a sumptuously rich city, made famous from its frankincense trade. Believed to have been destroyed as punishment for its inhabitants' transgression, the city remained elusive for centuries.

It was not until 1992, that scientists finally made headway. Using space-based radar imagery, they detected ancient caravan tracks that converged near modern-day Shisr in southwest Oman. The excavations uncovered a large octagonal fortress with thick walls standing ten feet (three meters) high, along with eight towers at its corners. Greek, Roman, and Syrian pottery remains discovered in the ruins dating from 4,000 years suggested the site was indeed an important trading center. The fact that the city seemed to have met with a rather cataclysmic end, much of it fell into a sinkhole created by the collapse of an underground limestone cavern was compelling evidence to suggest that the ruin was the fabled city of Ubar.

In the decade since its discovery, scientists dismiss the site as the lost city of Ubar. They point out that Ubar was probably a region or a people, not a single city, and that the Shisr site is more likely the remains of one of many ancient trading stops or perhaps just an isolated town near a water hole.

Expedition continues around the region, archaeologists continue to dig into the mysterious and colorful past of Rub’ Al Khali.

Shaybah Oil Field - a major crude oil producing site in
Rub' Al Khali, Saudi Arabia located 10 kilometers south of the
border to Abu Dhabi, UAE owned and operated by Saudi Aramco

Shaybah Oil Field - with an estimated reserves of over 14
billion barrels of crude oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas

Photo credits: Earth Observatory, Wikipedia, National Geographic Magazine

1 comment:

Desert Girl said...

... inhospitable, yes... but sooo beautiful on the other hand. I love the pic of the Barchan Dunes - thanks for sharing!


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