Ash Shisr (often just Shisr) is on the edge of the Empty Quarter and the confluence of Wadi Ghadun and Wadi Malhit. The water from the Qara mountains flowing underground has created a number of springs in this area. One such spring, which was the source of water that enabled the settlement, was previously at Ash Shisr too. However the constant pumping of underground water to irrigate the pivot fields to the east has dried up the spring at the base of the collapsed cave. The water which today is pumped up, is used to irrigate grass fodder fields the hay from these is then trucked into Salalah to feed the livestock there.
The modern quest that resulted in Ash Shisr becoming one and the same as Ubar (called Wabar Archaeological Site by the Oman government) evolved gradually. Bertram Thomas, the first European to cross the Rub Al Khali, was guided in 1930 by Bedouin from the tribes that have now settled in Bithnah, Al Hashman and Mitan in the Empty Quarter.
Wilfred Thesiger explored the area in the late 1940s with guides from the same families as those who had helped Thomas. He wrote, ‘We watered at Ash Shisr, where the ruins of a crude stone fort on a rocky mound mark the position of the famous well, the only permanent water on the central steppes.’ Wendell Phillips, who came to Dhofar in 1952, tells of meeting a Bedouin and, ‘When I asked him if he knew the location of Ubar he shouted into my ear, “Only the devil knows.”’
The discovery of Ubar by the Fiennes/Clapp team, was announced with much fanfare in the New York Times of 5 February 1992 and it was included in the Land of Frankincense UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000. For many visitors the fame of Ubar eclipses its very modest reality today. The entry signage notes ‘Wubar Archaeological Site’. A small information kiosk has a short video giving an overview of the location.
The feature that dominates the site is the sinkhole, into which a substantial part of the fortress collapsed. At its base a water spring supplied water to the settlement and in more recent times to a date garden and its agriculture next to the site. Pumping of the aquifer for irrigating the modern pivot fields near Ash Shisr has dried up this spring. The lack of water hasn’t deterred bats, which roost in the cave. Behind the ancient fortification is a more modern whitewashed fort, built in 1955 using stone from the older fort.
The ancient fort is a distorted oblong shape with its walls fortified by seven towers, some of which would have served as living quarters; in the northwest corner was the citadel. Set within its wall, the principal gate faced west, the direction for which most camel caravans would have departed. The newly renovated low wall of the fort and a small building within those walls are all that remain of the building.
Evidence points to the site having been used since the Stone Age (around 5000 BC) and the style of the fortifications suggests that it was originally constructed during the late Iron Age (from 325 BC). Just outside the settlement a stone axe has been found, which is now on display in the National Museum Muscat and dated up to 2 million years.
Objects found at Ash Shisr have been eclectic: Neolithic spear points and arrowheads (8th–7th millennia BC); glass bracelet fragments (9th–16th centuries AD), Abbasid coins (8th–10th centuries AD); and, most intriguingly, part of a chess set (8th–10th centuries AD).