Archaeology and Ancient Religions

In Search of ‘The Atlantis of the Sands’: Iram of the Pillars and the People of Ad – Part I

Desert Rub’ al Khali
©Shutterstock

Rizwan Safir, UK – Editor Archaeology Section

For centuries, the quest to find one of Arabia’s lost cities has attracted an eclectic band of detectives. From the famed explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker, Nicholas Clapp, to the conspicuous figure of 20th-century Arabian politics, T.E. Lawrence – known more popularly by his moniker, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – the search for this long-lost glorious city that was spectacularly destroyed rumbles on. Lawrence referred to it as ‘The Atlantis of the Sands’, enshrining its legendary status buried deep within the deserts of Arabia.

Portrait of T.E. Lawrence in 1919 (Source: Lowell Thomas. “With Lawrence in Arabia”, book is in public-domain, full text available at Archive.org; originally from University of Toronto)

Known as Iram of the Pillars, the city has captured the imagination of poets, travellers and archaeologists. Its legacy has endured even in the current day. The video game Uncharted 3 includes a dramatic reconstruction of a lavish, sprawling metropolis emerging from the desert called Iram and similarly dubbed ‘The Atlantis of the Sands’. 

Despite its popularity and lure for adventurers over past centuries, Iram remains relatively unknown and understudied. Its association with the fictional city of Atlantis has meant most identify Iram as part of folklore; a tale passed down from generation to generation relegated to the realm of pseudo-history. 

As with many so-called myths and parables that repeatedly appear in ancient tradition, its origins are typically rooted in truth. The passage of time and memory often distort the original version entirely out of shape, creating a sensational rendition of an account that closer resembles a fantasy trilogy. 

Mythical depiction of Iram (source: Jens Heimdahl – Facebook : Art of Jens Heimdahl)

There are numerous examples of this. King Midas from Greek mythology, said to have turned everything he touched into gold, was most likely an immensely wealthy ruler of Phrygia in the 8th century. [1] Ferocious Viking warriors known as ‘Berserkers’ (incidentally where the word ‘berserk’ originates from) were believed to transform themselves into bestial forms, but their consumption of powerful hallucinogens and application of animal skins in battle invited such stories from a petrified opposing army. [2] The amalgam of ‘Robyn’, a popular name in Medieval England, and ‘hude’ meaning an individual who wore a head-covering, created the symbol of Robin Hood — not one individual but multiple individuals in Medieval England that took rampant inequality into their own hands, stealing from the rich to distribute to the poor. [3]

In each instance, a factual predecessor for mythical stories can be directly traced. The insertion of extraordinary occurrences was often deliberate, a device to ensure the story survived beyond the next generation. To relate a story of a city that rose and fell is mundane. Add in mythical creatures, spectacular natural disasters, superpowers and other mysterious ingredients and your account is more likely to be taken up and passed on. 

This is where the search for Iram currently sits, shrouded in mystery but clearly a place that has historical basis. So what do we know of Iram and its apparent existence? A closer look reveals a fascinating reality. 

Iram and the People of Ad

The notoriety of Iram originates from one major source, the Qur’an. Some pre-Islamic poetry recounts the name, but the Qur’an was the earliest complete text to expound on the city of Iram and deliver a comprehensive account. Although the word ‘Iram’ is used only once, the city is associated with a mighty tribe known as the Ad. The following verses outline the link between Ad and Iram:

اَلَمۡ تَرَ کَیۡفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّکَ بِعَادٍ

اِرَمَ ذَاتِ الۡعِمَادِ

الَّتِیۡ لَمۡ یُخۡلَقۡ مِثۡلُہَا فِی الۡبِلَادِ

‘Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with ‘Ad—The tribe of Iram, possessor of lofty buildings, The Like of whom have not been created in these parts’ [4]

In brief, the Qur’an further outlines the following in relation to the tribe of Ad:

  1. They built lofty buildings, assuming power unrivalled by any other civilisation in Arabia [5]
  2. They lived immediately after Noah (as) [6]
  3. They built monuments on elevated places [7]
  4. The land they occupied was known as ‘Ahqaf’, meaning zigzag sandhills [8]
  5. They were swept away by a violent wind which presided over their land for seven consecutive days, engulfing the city [9]
  6. The destruction left no trace of the city, except for some dwellings [10]

For centuries, European critics and Biblical scholars denounced the existence of Ad and their people known as the Adites. [11] No reference to Ad or Iram exists in Abrahamic tradition, unlike other prominent accounts such as Noah (as) and the flood, the Pharaoh of Moses (as) or the Kingdom of Solomon (as) which are shared across all three holy books. 

The Flood of Noah account is shared across Abrahamic faiths, but has similarly been distorted over time (source: Own work, Pierre5018, 2015-03-01 12:22:17)

Criticism stemmed from a lack of archaeological evidence for the Ad or Iram, both of which could not be found other than a few references in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. This fostered the baseless allegations that Iram made its way into the Qur’an by virtue of being a popular legend at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). [12]

For some 1400 years, the criticism of the Iram narrative lingered as its reference in historic records remained elusive. Not until the rise of archaeological excavations in the 20th-century did a remarkable discovery change everything, shattering the perception that Iram was a mere legend that sneaked its way into Islam’s sacred book.

Prior to this discovery, it is necessary to understand how the story of Iram became distorted over time, resembling a mythical parable that was far removed from the version outlined in the Qur’an.

The Creation of a Fantasy

The distortion of the Qur’an’s Iram narrative stems from as early as the 7th century. A narration attributed to Ka’ab al Ahbar, a Jewish Rabbi that converted to Islam, portrays an extravagant account of the people of Ad and the city of Iram:

Mu`awiyah called Ka‘ab al Ahbar and said, ‘O Abu Ishaq! Have you received the information about a city in this world, which is made of gold and silver? Its pillars are made of rubies and emerald and its palaces and windows are made of pearls. Its flower-beds have trees and streams flow beneath them?’ Ka‘ab said, ‘Yes, such a city was built by Shaddad bin Aad. It is Iram Dhatul Imad… [13]

Whilst Ka’ab was respected for his knowledge of the Old Testament, his accounts and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sa)) have not been featured in the authentic corpus of books, such as Sahih al-BukhariTirmidhi, or Muslim. His tendency for exaggeration was attested by contemporary scholars such as Ibn Ishaq, considered to be amongst the foremost authorities on the hadith and early traditions of Islam. [14]

By the 10th century, such accounts were perpetuated, fuelling the creation of a myth. The Persian scholar Sheikh Al Saduq, writing in the late 10th century, forwarded the above account by Ka’ab al Ahbar, equally referencing pillars encrusted with jewels and an abundance of pearls, musk and saffron. The 13th-century Andalusian scholar, Al Qurtubi suggested the city took three hundred years to build, was laden with gold, silver and, of course, bejewelled columns. [15]

Conversely, there were others that reverted to the Qur’an’s account, suggesting genuine interpretations of what may have happened to the Ad and where the city could have been. The 11th century Arab historian Nashwan bin Saad al Himyari spoke of the land of Ahqaf and stated:

It is the name of the land which belonged to the Ad in the eastern part of Yemen; today it is untrodden desert owing to the drying up of its water…

Iram is believed to be buried somewhere in the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter (source: Nepenthes, Creative Commons)

Similarly, one of the most respected Islamic scholars and historians from the Medieval Period – Ibn Khaldun – writing in the 14th century, registered a vociferous rebuttal against the Iram narrative that had become prevalent. In Book One of the acclaimed Muqaddima (literally translated as ‘Introduction’ but considered one of the most comprehensive compilations of Islamic history), Ibn Khaldun notes: 

Even more unlikely and more deeply rooted in baseless assumptions is the common interpretation of the following verse of the Surat al-Fajr ‘did you not see what your Lord did with Ad – Iram, that of the pillars’… It is said to have been a large city, with castles of gold and silver and columns of emerald and hyacinth, containing all kinds of trees and flowing rivers… [some] go so far in their crazy talk as to maintain that the city lies hidden from sensual perception and can be discovered only by trained (magicians) and sorcerers. All these are assumptions that would be better termed nonsense. [16]

Ibn Khaldun continues by quoting examples of similar fabricated stories that had seeped into Islamic tradition, without having any basis in the Qur’an or authentic hadith. Despite his efforts, the mythical version continued to trump the sober version, harnessing ever greater attention. 

By the 16th century, the renowned Ottoman literary figure Muhammad Abdulbaki – known as ‘Sultan of Poets’ – recalls Iram as a reflection of ‘Paradise on Earth’, demonstrating the reversion to aggrandisement above hard facts. [17]

Whilst this to-and-fro between myth and reality continued within Islamic literary tradition throughout the Medieval Period, one piece of text would wrestle the narrative firmly into the realm of fantasy. First translated into French in 1704 by Antoine Galland, Alf Laylah wa-Layalah– more commonly known as the One Thousand and One Nights – ensured Iram became the subject of intense fascination.

A Legend Spreads Across Europe: Iram and the ‘Arabian Nights’

The One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights, had a profound impact on European perceptions of the Arabian Peninsula. Galland’s 1704 translation introduced the collection of stories to a European audience which became widely popular, with translations into English, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Russian and other languages published by the end of the century. [18]

First European edition of Arabian Nights (Les Mille et une Nuit), by Antoine Galland, Volume 11, 1730 CE, Paris (wikicommons)

A collection of hundreds of Middle Eastern folk tales, it was widely consumed by readers in search for the magical, sensual, grotesque and romanticised depiction of a mystical land. Its influence continues today; ‘Alladin’s Wonderful Lamp’ and ‘Ali baba and the Forty Thieves’ did not feature in the original Arabic version but were added to in the French rendition and have since become synonymous with Arabian culture, despite resembling little by way of reality. [19]

It is here that the most elaborate, detailed and spectacular account of Iram made its way to a European audience. ‘Night 277’ of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (Malcolm C. Lyons translation) features the story of Iram – a story which had now reached the height of its grandiosity. In reference to the construction of Iram, the book recalls:

The quantities of these that reached the builders were more than could be described, counted or quantified. Three hundred years were spent on the work and, when it was finished, the builders came to the king and told him that it was done. He then ordered them to build a strong fortress towering high over the city, around which there were to be a thousand palaces, each supported on a thousand pillars, every one the residence of a vizier. The builders left at once and spent twenty years on the work, after which they returned to Shaddad and told him that they had done what he wanted. He then ordered his thousand viziers, his principal officers and the soldiers on whom he relied, together with others, to be ready to travel in order to move to Iram, City of the Columns… [20]

The introduction of Iram through ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ to a western audience at a time of colonial expansion created a fervour. Explorers, writers, servicemen and emerging archaeologists and anthropologists – relatively new fields of study at the time – turned attentions towards finding this spectacular city to reveal its many thousands of secrets. 

The American poet and travel author Bayard Taylor compiled his ‘Poems of the Orient’ in 1854, including one entitled ‘The Garden of Irem’. The opening lines begin with:

Have you seen the Garden of Irem?

No mortal knoweth the road thereto

The poem continues with Taylor depiction of Iram’s discovery:

Till deep in the Desert the spot I found,

Where the marvellous gates of Irem threw

Their splendours over an unknown ground,

Mine were the pearl and ivory floors,

Mine the music of diamond doors, [21]

The fascination with Iram had truly begun. The English explorer Charles Montagu Doughty in his 1888 publication ‘Travels in Arabia’ noted ancient ruins which he assumed could have been Iram. [22] The English diplomat, Betram Thomas, who became the first westerner to cross the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert in southern Arabia claimed to have been shown the path to Iram by the Bedouin who accompanied him on his journey – although the contemporary title for the site now went by the name Ubar (also known as Wubar/Shisr). [23] His 1932 book entitled ‘Arabia Felix’ is thought to have sparked a fascination towards Ubar as the apparent site of Iram.

In 1933, the British diplomat, Arabist and intelligence officer set out on an expedition of the Rub al Khali with the intent to find Iram. Philby’s Bedouin guides also led him through tracks headed towards a site known as Wubar, from which he collected remains that were housed at the British Museum. [24]

Harry St John Philby in Saudi Arabia(public domain)

The succession of attempts to locate Iram eventually piqued the interest of the British diplomat and army officer who rose to fame for his role in the Arab Revolt during WWI: T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Although he specifically did not name Iram, Lawrence was convinced the city lay somewhere within the Rub al Khali:

I am convinced that the remains of an ancient Arab civilization are to be found in that desert. I have been told by the Arabs that the ruined castles of the great King ‘Ad, son of Kin’ ad, have been seen by wandering tribes in the region of [Wubar]. There is always some substance in these Arab Tales. [25]

The cast of journeymen continued well into the 20th century, with Raymond O’Shea (British airman), Wilfred Thesiger (British explorer), Wendell Phillips (American archaeologist) and several others clambering to locate the city – a city which seemingly promised an endless supply of treasure. 

An Astonishing Archaeological Discovery

With the rise of archaeological excavations throughout the 20th century, attentions turned once again to Iram. The Middle East served as the hotbed for archaeological discovery throughout the century; each discovery superseding the last to become the new astonishing find. 

Despite archaeological breakthroughs in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Levant, central and southern Arabia, Iram remained elusive. Criticism of the Qur’an’s account continued to surface, with scholars suggesting the pace of archaeological discovery should have at least revealed the name Iram in some form within the archaeological record. Paired with centuries of myth surrounding Iram, accusations continued to be thrown against the Qur’an that it contained parables and legends that were untrue.

Writing in 1939 for the American School of Oriental Research in Chicago, Harold Glidden – a former member of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research – wrote a paper on the topic of Iram. Glidden suggested the entire account was a local legend which filtered through into the Qur’an:

While tarrying there for water the Arabs of the Hijaz saw the columns and stones of overthrown temples and thus confected the legend which finally found its way into the Koran. A most illuminating illustration of the mythopoeic tendencies of the Arabs, and one which suggests how the Iram dhat al-Imad legend must have arisen… [26]

It was not until some 30 years later that a remarkable discovery at another site, with seemingly no connection to Iram, rebuked these baseless accusations. Dr Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome led the Italian Archaeological Mission to a remote location in northern Syria to excavate the city of Ebla. By the mid-1970s, Dr Matthiae had spent some 15 years carefully piecing together the city, unearthing houses, temples, walls, gates and substantial buildings. Ebla was a regional centre dating back some 4500 years. It rivalled the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, considered the first recorded world power.

The ruins of the magnificent city of Ebla, Syria (source: Gianfranco Gazzetti / GAR)

In 1975, Dr Matthiae’s team stumbled upon one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century. Amidst the ruins of this great city, more than 15,000 cuneiform tablets were found representing one of the most substantial collections of ancient text. These texts offered clues as to neighbouring and regional cities that Ebla traded with – names such as Byblos, Damascus, Gaza and others are mentioned. [27]

Also mentioned was Iram… [28]

Part II of In Search of ‘The Atlantis of the Sands’: Iram of the Pillars and the People of Ad will delve into the ramifications of this discovery, the true interpretation of the Qur’an’s narrative and where we are now in the search for Iram.

About the Author: Rizwan Safir, Editor of the Archeology Section of The Review of Religions, is a Senior Research Consultant specialising in archaeology and museums, with over 10 years experience in the Middle East. He has worked for the British Museum, Humboldt University Berlin, Copenhagen University and other such institutions on excavations and heritage conservation projects in the Middle East region; including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Qatar. Rizwan currently works for Barker Langham on the development of new museums and exhibitions in the Gulf region.

ENDNOTES


[1] Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. ‘Phrygia, Gordion, and King Midas in the Late Eighth Century B.C.’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phry/hd_phry.htm (October 2004)

[2] Anatoly Liberman, ‘Berserks in History and Legend.’ In Russian History/Histoire Russe32, no. 3–4 (Fall- 5 Winter 2005): 401–11. Translation Liberman’s

[3] A.J. Pollard. Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context. London: Routledge, 2004

[4] Holy Qur’an [89:7-9]

[5] Holy Qur’an [89:9]

[6] Holy Qur’an [7:70]

[7] Holy Qur’an [26:129]

[8] Holy Qur’an [46:22]

[9] Holy Qur’an [69:7-8]

[10] Holy Qur’an [46:26]

[11] Glidden, Harold W. ‘Koranic Iram, Legendary and Historical.’ Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 73 (1939): pp. 13-15

[12] Ibid

[13] Rosenthal, Franz. The Muqaddimah. An Introduction to history. The Classical Islamic History of the World.Ibn Khaldun. Princeton: Princeton University Press: pp. 63

[14] Tabari – History of al-Tabari, v1, p62 – 63

[15] Tafsir Al Qurtubi Vol. 4, 1272

[16] Muq., vol. 1, pp. 73–74; cf. al-Mas‘udi, Muruj al-dhahab wa-ma‘adin al-jawhar (Paris, 1861–77), vol. 2, pp. 425–27.

[17] Orhan Elmaz, ‘A Paradise in the Desert: Iram at the Intersection of One Thousand and One Nights, Quranic Exegesis, and Arabian history’, In To the Madbar and Back Again, Leiden: Brill (2017):pp. 539

[18] Dwight Reynolds, ‘A Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and its Reception’, In Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2006): pp. 270-291

[19] Ibid

[20] The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 1, Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons. London: Penguin Classics (2008): pp. 1351

[21] Bayard Taylor, Poems of the Orient, Boston: Ticknor and Fields (1854), pp. 71

[22] Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta(University Press, 1888)

[23] Forman, Henry James ‘Across Arabia’s Unknown Sands; Captain Bertram Thomas tells the story of his great trek’, New York Times, March 6th 1932

[24] Philby, H. St. J. B ‘The Empty quarter Being a description of the great south desert of Arabia known as Rub’ Al Khali’, 1933, p365-369

[25] O’Shea, R ‘The Sand King of Oman’, 2000: 181 https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.80029/2015.80029.The-Sand-King-Of-Oman_djvu.txt

[26] Glidden, Harold W. ‘Koranic Iram, Legendary and Historical.’ Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 73 (1939): pp. 13-15

[27] Howard La Fey, ‘Ebla’ In National Geographic, Vol. 154 No. 6, pp. 736 

[28] Ibid