© Mark Lowey 2021. All rights reserved.

Atlantis of the Sands? A lost city? A meteorite impact site? For years, the mystery of Wabar fascinated a young associate professor of geology at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. This is the story of his travels to the site – in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter – with the aid of Bedouin desert specialist, and Aramco retiree, Quriyan Mohammed Al-Hajri.

In a series of video call interviews, Professor Khalid Al-Ramadan shared his experiences with Mark Lowey.

Professor Al-Ramadan

Khalid Al-Ramadan wasn’t drawn to the desert at first. He was born in Saihat, a coastal city along the Arabian Gulf in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. “We, in Saihat, are not like the Bedouins like Quriyan Abu Mohammed, who was born in the desert. We were born in the interface between the sea and the farm. I was not that familiar with the desert until I became a geologist.”

“I did my PhD at Uppsala University in Sweden, and, compared to others in my field, they always did their PhD in the U.S. and U.K. Since 2006, I have been teaching as an instructor, as well as leading many scientific researches, at KFUPM’s College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences.”

Khalid first met Quriyan, the legendary Bedouin, in 2016. “I was the Faculty Advisor for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), student chapter. We were assigned to organize a social gathering. One of my students who was the president of the chapter, knew about Quriyan’s farm in Junayah, outside of Abqaiq, and suggested we visit. From there I met Quriyan, and he offered his services. Quriyan told me, ‘Whenever you need any help, just let me know.’”

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
Khalid Al-Ramadan.
Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
Ready for field research.

Rub Al Khali

Khalid had conducted research in the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) twice. “Once, in 2013, with a Belgian-Italian team to study the sand’s origin, the provenance. We completed this – to understand the origin of the sand dunes in the Empty Quarter. This was published in Journal of Sedimentary Research [1], and we concluded that some of the sand was coming from the Hadramaut Arch and Oman mountains, while some was coming from the Arabian Gulf, the Anatolia Plateau, and the Zagros Mountains. This was like a five-star trip after a 10-hour drive, accommodations in Shaybah, then to a controlled location next to the skid road. It was adventurous to some extent, but it did not require us to stay in tents!”

“The second trip was funded by a research team from Desert Research Institute in Nevada, USA, in 2016. We went to Shaybah to sample one of the dunes close by. We wanted to age-date a 150-meter-high dune located along the newly built road connecting Saudi with Oman using Optically Stimulated Luminescence testing. The results have not yet been finalized – the project is ongoing.”

These initial trips established his fascination with the Rub Al Khali. Khalid Al-Ramadan found himself wanting to visit again.

The Legend of The Lost City

Harry St. John "Jack" Philby, the English explorer and adviser to King Abdulaziz bin Saud in Riyadh, first heard the story of Wabar, also known as Ubar, from his Bedouin guides. They told him about a place, described in the Holy Qur’an, of ruined castles where King Ad had stabled his horses and housed his women before being punished for his sinful ways by being destroyed by fire from heaven. [2] They called the area Al Hadidah ("place of iron" in Arabic) where a piece of iron the size of a camel had been found.

Anxious to seal his reputation as a great explorer, Philby went in search of the lost city of Wabar. On February 2, 1932, after a month's journey through desert landscape so harsh that even some of his camels died, Philby arrived at a patch of ground about a half a square kilometer in size, littered with chunks of white sandstone, black glass, and chunks of iron meteorite. Philby identified two large circular depressions partially filled with sand, and three other features that he identified as possible "submerged craters." He also mapped the area where the large iron block was reputed to have been found. Philby thought that the area was a volcano, and it was only after bringing back samples to the U.K. that the site was identified as that of a meteorite impact by Leonard James Spencer of the British Museum. [3]

In his 1933 book, The Empty Quarter, Philby describes the scene:

A volcano in the midst of the Rub' al Khali! And below me, as I stood on that hill-top transfixed, lay the twin craters, whose black walls stood up gauntly above the encroaching sand like the battlements and bastions of some great castle. These craters were respectively about 100 and 50 yards in diameter, sunken in the middle but half choked with sand, while inside and outside their walls lay what I took to be lava in great circles where it seemed to have flowed out from the fiery furnace. Further examination revealed the fact that there were three similar craters close by, though these were surmounted by hills of sand and recognizable only by reason of the fringe of blackened slag round their edges.[4]

The Lure of Wabar

During his professorship, Khalid heard many stories about Wabar and the mystery and legends surrounding it. Khalid read the technical reports and dreamed of conducting his own investigations and research at the site. He wanted to visit Al Hadidah and utilize the latest technology to see if there might be yet undiscovered meteorite fragments under the shifting sands. Khalid was interested, “to study and map the lateral and vertical extent of the meteorite crater.”

“The Hadidah meteorite is known to be one of the best examples of an Iron-Nickel meteorite in the world. It is one of the world’s newest, arriving just 300 years ago. The material has not been subjected to weathering, to alteration, it’s considered fresh, so, whatever you find there represents the original material because, on the earth’s geological timeline, 300 years is nothing.”

Scientific interpretations correlate the Wabar impact event with the description, given in two historic poems of a bright fireball on September 1, 1704, observed in Tarim, Yemen, 620 kilometers SSW of Wabar. [2]

First Attempt Fail

“In June 2019, a Danish scientist from the research arm of KFUPM, Dr. Theis, approached me and asked, can I come with him to Al Hadidah to explore and collect meteorite samples. I said OK, but we need to have a permit. We need to prepare. He said we can go; we just need to pack the car and go. So, we went.”

It was mid-summer in Saudi Arabia. and the inexperienced group didn’t know what to expect. Khalid recalls, “We were six, four expats and my brother and me. None of us had experience driving in the sandy desert. We had two vehicles and not enough extra water and fuel. Quite honestly, it was a suicide mission.” They set their GPS and took off. They didn’t get far.

Saudi National Guard To The Rescue

The team thought they were going to Umm Al-Hadidah. Instead, they became stranded in the scorching desert, and the situation was dire. “It was an area unknown to us. And we just had the location, the GPS and we went. We had two Land Cruisers and when we came to the end of the compacted skid road, we deflated the tires and went in the soft sand. Boom, Dr. Theis stuck his car. It was noontime and over 45 degrees centigrade (over 113F). I tried to rescue him, back and forth, but couldn’t. Then, I stuck my car into the sand, as well, up to the chassis.”

“Luckily, we had a satellite phone. After a few hours, my brother contacted a friend who knew someone at the government Border Guard. They finally arrived after four or five hours, just before the sunset, and started to photograph us. Alhamdulillah, they freed our vehicles from the sand and brought us out of the desert to safety.”

Trending on Social Media

“The next day, back in Dhahran, when I woke up, the photos of us were trending on all the news agencies like Al Arabiya, Saudi Press Agency and on WhatsApp and Instagram. Luckily, our names were not there. They just mentioned that three Danish and one Canadian with two Saudis had been rescued by the port and border guard. Oh, boy.”

Quriyan's Call

“Everyone knew about our plight. The comments on social media said we were foolish to have attempted such a trip. Quriyan heard about our story and called me the next day. He laughed, ‘Are you crazy? Why didn’t you call me? I told you that I would have helped you.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I swear, it slipped my mind. The other guy asked me if I could help him and I thought, OK, I can do it. Let’s go!”

“Quriyan said, ‘If you need my help, I would be happy to.’” That was July 2019. From that moment, serious and proper preparations commenced for an expedition. “We spent six months getting ready. More than SR 50,000 (USD $13,330) was spent just to prepare. To equip the cars with the right tires, and a walkie-talkie communication system, to have all it takes to make this a success. Quriyan took the lead.”

At last, in December 2019, with proper permits and documentation, four 4x4 vehicles, loads of geo-survey equipment, provisions, and extra fuel and water the expedition team set off from Dhahran. The group of ten included the Dean of the College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences, AbdulAziz Al-Kaabi, and Dr. Theis who first approached Khalid with the idea of visiting the site.

“We organized a perfect, well-organized trip to the Wabar meteor site,” said Khalid.

Traveling to Al Hadidah

Before dawn on day one, the team departed Dhahran and drove to Quriyan’s farm in Junayah for breakfast. From there they headed towards Haradh, passed the Harmaliyah turnoff, and stopped at a remote petrol station at Al Tawaiylah. Then fifty kilometers to the Niban oil and gas plant and another fifty kilometers to the Natgan water well.

“Natgan’s water has the rotten egg smell of sulfur, suitable only for irrigation. Then from Natgan we headed southeast on the skid road. At a point known only to Quriyan, we turned south and into the desert sands. We headed towards the meteorite site.”

Finally, they traveled 80 kilometers through a soft sand area to reach destination, Umm Al-Hadidah. In all, the trip was around 655 kilometers, one way.

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
Map of the journey, hand drawn by Quriyan.

“I had already been to the Empty Quarter (Shaybah) twice, but this time was completely different. Because we were with a real Bedouin, Quriyan. A real guide who has a lifetime of experience. You know him; you know him better than me. He is like a school, a walking school. Whenever we stop, he will tell his stories.”

“He will tell you, amazingly without using GPS, where to go, how many kilometers remain, within plus or minus one kilometer. I swear, he says, ‘You go 39 kilometers to the next turn.’ I say, ‘The GPS says 40 kilometers.’ He says, ‘I don’t care.’ And he was completely right! He is driving in new areas without stopping. We drove, by the way, nearly 1,400 kilometers round trip.”

Please Speed Up!

The Toyota Land Cruiser lead vehicle was driven by Abu Mohammed (Quriyan) with Dr. Al-Kaabi in the passenger seat. The second vehicle was the supply truck – a Ford Silverado long bed. “I was the driver of the sweeper car, the back vehicle, also a Land Cruiser.”

“We had communication between the vehicles, a walkie-talkie system. Quriyan would instruct Dr. Al- Kaabi what to say and the doctor would communicate with the other vehicles.” Sometimes it would be general conversation and then, suddenly, urgent commands like, “Please you need to speed up! Don’t use your brakes! Keep space between the vehicles!”

Stuck in The Sand

“Even with Quriyan guiding us, we got stuck. The Silverado truck in front of me, this truck was loaded with four large drums: two of water and two of gasoline, plus all the geotechnical equipment. Definitely, the Ford truck is powerful, but the distance between the front and back tires is far. You know what I mean – if you go up onto the crest of a dune, it will get stuck. It stuck one time in the soft sand, and no one knew what to do. We had tried with one Land Cruiser to pull it out but failed. Then, Quriyan had a brilliant idea. He said, ‘We have two Land Cruisers, let’s use both.’ I drove one, attached to the truck, and Quriyan’s in front of me, tied to me. Two Land Cruisers and it worked very well. Incredible. That was Quriyan. If not for him, I think we would have still been there.”

Research and Testing Begins

Upon arrival at Umm Al-Hadidah, the group got to work on four types of geophysical surveys, 1) magnetic, 2) electrical, 3) GPR (ground penetrating radar), and 4) shallow seismic. “During the three days we spent testing at the site, we did these four physical techniques to reveal, to unearth, to, sort of, ‘see’ how deep the meteorite had gone. We also did some geological tests to discover the characteristics of different types of impactite* formations.”

* When a meteorite strikes a planet's surface, the energy release from the impact can melt rock and soil into a liquid. If the liquid cools and hardens quickly into a solid, impact glass forms before the atoms have time to arrange into a crystal lattice. Impact glass (impactite) is dark brown, almost black, and partly transparent. [2]

“We found at least three circular craters. The theory is that a large meteorite came close to earth and was shattered into three pieces before impact. This created three craters: one is 116 meters diameter; one is 64 meters across and the third is 11 meters. After their founder, they are named ‘Philby A’, ‘Philby B’ and ‘11m.’ When people visit, they refer to the sizes from the original study by Abdullah (Philby). The large one, we conducted our investigations there.”

Camping in The Desert

They camped for three nights at the site. They arranged their individual tents near their vehicles and set up a seating area and cooking fire with several carpets. I asked Khalid if he enjoyed camping in the desert, sleeping there for three nights.

He sighed wistfully and said, “I did camping in Oman in 2018 with sixty students. But this was totally different. To come in the middle of nowhere, you are the only one with the dunes. You are the only ones – no one else is there. It was . . . well, that man Quriyan made it special. It is something I would love to repeat, to go again and again. With some person like Quriyan who gives you all this information – you cannot go by yourself. At least, I can’t.”

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
The Campsite at Umm Al-Hadidah.

A Lonely Friday Walk

“‘We were there from Wednesday to Saturday. Friday was the main day of the geophysical survey work. One memorable thing was that on Friday, Quriyan went for a walk alone. He was gone for three or four hours. We were busy doing the work for the survey. He returned and his face was pale. He might have been crying. He came to us and said, ‘I saw some clothing, the collar of a man’s thobe, buried with a drum, someone might have died there.’ But he was not sure, he said from the style, from the way the clothes were left there – nobody would leave their clothes like that unless they died there. Quriyan was almost crying again. He didn’t see any skull or skeleton, but he said the body must be somewhere close by.”

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
Quriyan Al-Hajri at Umm Al-Hadidah.

A Visitor

Another interesting event took place when a wayward egret, pure white and emaciated, landed near the campsite. “There was an egret that visited our camp and stayed the whole time. That bird was not scared of us, he was going around through the camp, walking, around the cars. It might have been lost and just came to this area. It must have been hungry. We gave it some bread and water.” They considered this bird a sign of good luck.

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
An egret visited the campsite.

A Triumphant Return

“Our return was a different path. The route that we tried to come on my other attempt in July. This path is the most difficult, the softest sand. It is the most difficult. The most adventurous – the softest sand I had ever seen. 38 kilometers from the meteorite site to the Al Hadidah water well, which is the beginning of the skid road. 38 kilometers of soft sand, even if it’s flat, you have to be careful. And then you go up a dune, and every time he would say, “Please you need to speed up!”

Tales of the Bedouin–Part XIV: The Lost City of Wabar
A few days after their return, the team visited Quriyan’s farm and presented him with a special gift.

Research Results

I asked Khalid, “What will be the outcome of your survey work? A report or presentation?”

He told me, “We are progressing with three steps. First, there will be reviews of our videos and written articles to the university. The data, images and videos will be used to benefit the students as instructional aids in our classrooms. That’s normal procedure.”

“Second, will be to publish the results in scientific publications because this is the first time that a combined study was conducted at the site; geology and geophysics, to go with this number of scientists participating.” (Draft articles have been submitted for review and are currently under revision.)

“And third, this was suggested by Quriyan, to visit the prince of the Eastern Province and tell him about the things that we did and how important it was. And maybe to convince him to make sure that that area is kept as a science park or otherwise protected. Because with time, you know, people will start going there and collecting everything and making litter. Yes, we ourselves left three empty drums and Quriyan said, “Leave them for the Bedouins. They will take them.”

Ma Salama and Shukran

At the end of our final video call, I asked Khalid if he would be willing to answer any additional questions I might have, by message or email, when finalizing this account. Khalid leaned towards his computer’s camera, touched his right index finger to his nose said, “You know what this is?” He said, “It means, ‘It's my obligation.’ [5] If you need another interview or any information, I will give it.”

We had formed a long-distance bond by virtue of a mutual friendship with Quriyan Al Hajri. I told him, “Thank you so much. You are very kind. Insha’Allah, I hope to meet you one day, in person.”

Insha’Allah,” he responded as we closed the call.

A post from Khalid Al-Ramadan’s LinkedIn page:

“What a great moment being in the middle of the Empty Quarter with great team members (Dean, Chairman and CPG researchers) conducting a combined geological and geophysical field work to study and map lateral and vertical extent of the Wabar (Al Hadidah) meteorite crater in the Arabian Peninsula. Reaching the meteorite site wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance of Mr. Quriyan Al-Hajri: A legendary school of desert terrain.”

Footnotes and References

[1] Garzanti, E., Vermeesch, P., Al-Ramadan, K.A., Ando, S., Limonta, M., Rittner, M. & Vezzoli, G. 2017. Tracing Transcontinental Sand Transport: From Anatolia-Zagros to the Rub' Al Khali Sand Sea. Journal of Sedimentary Research, vol. 87, no. 11, pp. 1196-1213.

[2] Gnos, Edwin, et all. The Wabar Impact Craters, Saudi Arabia, Revisited. 09 September 2013.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabar_craters

[4] Philby H. S. J. The Empty Quarter. 1933. London: Constable and Company Ltd. 433 p.

[5] Saudi Arabia: Saudis and Non-Verbal Communications. September 21, 2010. American Bedu, https://delhi4cats.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/

It's my Obligation” – The gesture of placing the right hand or its forefinger on the tip of the nose, on the right lower eyelid, on top of the head, on the mustache or beard, has the meaning of, “It’s in front of me,” “I see it” or “It’s on my head to accomplish.

Mark Lowey

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

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