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Arabian Expedition Found Second, Bigger Ancient City

April 21, 1992

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ Explorers who uncovered the lost Arabian city of Ubar by using ancient maps and photographs from space have also found a bigger site, the expedition’s anthropologist said Monday.

The second site, at the base of Oman’s Qara Mountains about 20 miles northeast of the Indian Ocean port of Salalah, was called Saffara Metropolis on the map of Roman historian Claudius Ptolemy, drawn around A.D. 100, said Juris Zarins.

″This site probably controlled the entire coastal trade which went by sea, both to the west and to the east″ to Yemen and Mesopotamia, Zarins said.

Zarins said the find indicates an Arabian Peninsula network of frankincense trade existed more than three millenniums before scholars previously believed.

″It was probably traded overland across the great Empty Quarter to Mesopotamia as early as 5000 B.C.,″ said Zarins, who returned last week from the excavation to his position at Southwest Missouri State University.

Two experts questioned Zarins’s time estimate but said the two cities could have been part of an overland frankincense trade network later.

″I don’t know where he’s getting those early dates, but the sites sound very interesting,″ said Gus Van Beek, a curator of Old World archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He said 1500 B.C. was a more likely date for the trade network.

Ray Tindel, registrar and associate curator at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said the discovery of Ubar looked solid, but proving the second site is Saffara Metropolis might be more difficult.

″The trouble with the Saffara Metropolis of Ptolemy is it could be a rather common name on the Arabian Peninsula ... sort of like Springfield in the United States,″ he said.

The Trans-Arabia expedition used images taken by satellites and some taken by the space shuttle Challenger in 1984, more than a year before it exploded, to discover ancient trade routes leading to Ubar, which was the last source of permanent water on the route north.

Ubar, whose discovery was announced in February, was probably a trade outpost controlled by Saffara Metropolis, about 100 miles away, Zarins said.

The two sites have the same fortress-like design of large towers, he said. Eight towers of varying shapes were discovered at Ubar; 15 were found at the Saffara Metropolis site.

Crews discovered similar artifacts at both sites, including Greek painted pottery, Zarins said.

Zarins said the second site is much better preserved than Ubar, which probably collapsed into a limestone cave centuries ago.

Frankincense - a fragrant gum resin produced only in Oman and the Horn of Africa - was coveted in ancient times for pagan rituals and a status symbol.

The cities were abandoned around A.D. 300, probably because the frankincense trade lost its value after the Roman Empire collapsed and the Roman Catholic Church disassociated itself from pagan rituals, Zarins said.

Zarins said the expedition would propose a three- to five-year excavation of desert sites around Ubar, the Qara Mountains and the coast.

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