Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ubar: God Punished Them

Part of my wonderful week in Chicago over Thanksgiving -- the part when I was not going to the opera or having rowdy dinners with lively people -- was spent at Renaissance Books in Milwaukee, four (unheated) floors of dusty fabulousness. Among the books I did not buy (because who wanted to carry all that stuff home? AND find a place for it in my bulging flat?) was Nicholas Clapp's The Road to Ubar -- I remember when the reviews came out, licking my lips. Anyway, it was at my branch library when I got home. Now I'm a little sorry I didn't purchase a copy -- would have made a swell present for godchildren.

Clapp makes documentaries and has a thing for the Arabian desert. He'd already published a book on the Queen of Sheba (I've reserved that one, thanks NYPL) when he wandered through Oman (one of the world's two remaining sultanates -- the other is Brunei) and heard legends of the Lost City of Ubar. Ubar, aka Iram, was a city of matchless wealth and wickedness (can't have one without the other) that (insert name of deity here) punished in some mysterious manner at a point a few generations before Mohammed -- he mentions it in the Koran as a city given over to idolatry. It turns up in many Arab geographies and legendaries (including the 1001 Nights) after that, but -- to Clapp's surprise -- Ubar and its inhabitants, the People of 'Ad, turn up in Ptolemy's Geography, too, listed as a thriving metropolis near Oman. Moreover, bedouins had pointed out some ancient caravan trails (ten lanes wide) as "the Road to Ubar" to an exploring Brit in 1930 (but the road promptly disappeared under dunes). Bedouins, like rural folk anywhere, have long memories, but they also let tales grow and are hazy about dates and facts on the ground. (Ask the locals in Britain or France about the origins of the local Neolithic monuments. Ask them before they read scientific articles, as nowadays they probably have. So have many bedouin.)

It was all very mysterious to Clapp except that there had been a source of fabulous wealth in the area: the Dhofar mountains of Oman had been the world's only source of high-quality frankincense, the mana of the gods, once passionately sought from Rome to Egypt to Jerusalem to Mesopotamia. Caravans crossed the desert for thousands of years. (Some of the trade went by sea, or via the kingdom of Sheba -- yes, her. But the direct route lay through the Empty Quarter.) So Clapp gets the coordinates for that British sighting in 1930 and goes to the satellite boys connected with the Challenger, and sure enough ... there are ancient caravan trails all over the place. Most of them seem to converge near an oasis or two (what a surprise), and soon Clapp and a bunch of crazy adventure-and-archaeology types (with help from the oil companies and approval from Sultan Qabus, a notably progressive type -- does his name signify he's the end of his train, I mean line?) approach an oasis city (pop: 36) that has been built by a ruined fort beside a still-fertile spring that was once a huge oasis (history of the region, once lakes and rivers and savannah, is traced back 100,000 years). The kicker is an enormous sinkhole with the spring in the middle of it. Was this once a city? Did they grow fabulously rich and not too friendly (high prices for passing tourists) on the caravan trade? Did they use so much water that, as the water table sank, it hollowed out a huge cavern under the city? Did the cavern fall in one night, to the shock of everyone in the region -- a shock still reverberating a century or two later, when Mohammed produced the Koran? And are the people of the region, who speak languages unlike any other and only very, very distantly related to Arabic, the ancient wicked people of 'Ad? They say they are, and they still harvest frankincense.

But read the book. It's a very good book, cleverly arranged, a fine mixture of adventure story and scientific report, study of ancient manuscripts and the latest scientific understanding. (You can get a copy from Amazon for two bucks, plus shipping.)

The kicker for me is the myth the disaster aroused: God punished them (because a natural disaster could not have been explained any other way in 350 CE), ergo they were unspeakably evil, not merely rich and inclined to stay that way at your expense. Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah any more evil than that? (Genesis suggests they were inhospitable, which would annoy bedouin.) Or, to take more modern instances (when people should know better, if people ever learned from experience), have you ever read or seen a fictionalized or filmed version of the end of Pompeii that did not attribute the eruption to immoral behavior, idolatry and all? And say very little about continental drift? How about such American disasters as the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Fire-Quake? Yes, they were all attributed to the Almighty's personal intervention to punish the wicked. New Orleans and the WTC? You bet.

If there are gods, they really don't care about idolatry and ill will of men towards men. They've got other fish to fry. They're keeping the natural forces coming and going. They don't speak to us in our own language either. "I told you not to build there! What did you think that lightning bolt meant? No one in his right mind (except a human) would build a city there. It's below sea level. It's right on a major fault line. That mountain smokes, you fools. It's not because it's had a hard day and wants to relax." The book God (or the Gods) writes is the geology of the earth, and we should be able to read it pretty well now -- some splendid minds have been deciphering it, ever since Agassiz and Humboldt. Some of my favorite parts of Ubar concern the piecing together of the ecological history of Arabia, which was verdant and populous before the Red Sea began to widen, pushing Arabia steadily upwards and its water table down and the mountains too high for the monsoon to get over them.... (Clapp mentions that the Red Sea once had a land bridge at its mouth, and Homo erectus could easily stroll across to settle in what is now Yemen.)

People love to project their personal morality onto deity. Don't trust yourself when you do that. Don't trust anyone else who does it, including authors of books hundreds or thousands of years old. Trust geology. Trust scientific evidence. Reinterpret that all you like (by damn, those dinosaurs and their wicked, idolatrous ways), but ... make sense of it ... and you'll find you're reading the real Gospel.


Peter Bishop said...

There's a saying among modern Pagans (well, at least my wife says it sometimes) that anything that happens in sacred or magickal space happens because it was meant to. A difficulty for the ancients was that to them, the whole world was sacred and magickal. A modern Pagan, or anyone in the modern world with mystical inclinations, is always seeing the world like one of those optical illusions that could be either of two completely unrelated images depending on which way your brain interprets it. Look at the sky from within a cast circle and a shooting star is a sign from the Gods, unwrapped just for you. Step out of the circle and it’s all about F = GMm/R². Both are true.

You’re right when you say, “People love to project their personal morality onto deity. Don't trust yourself when you do that.” But trusting only geology isn’t the answer either. The Gods do care about us, but sometimes in ways that are deeper and more complicated than our mortal selves can understand. Often what we love to project isn’t our morality so much as our own sense of inadequacy and self-hatred.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I had heard of the discovery of Ubar; thanks for reminding me about the book.

Do the gods "love" us, Peter? Their powers are strong -- too strong if you get too big a dose.

Sometimes I think I should just turn Stoic: Honor the Gods and fulfill your civic duties.

d said...
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Susan said...

I'll try this again.

Is cause and effect sacred? I don't know. If their city did collapse because they drained the water beneath--then wasn't that an act of god? Even if that god was the god of physics?