Qidan, The Lost City of King Ad: Hoax or Reality?
In the middle of World War II a Royal Air Force (RAF) transport plane flying off course over the Arabian desert found a ‘lost city’ deep in the Empty Quarter. It was never seen again. Or was it?
In 1944 an RAF pilot flying a routine two hour trip in a Lockheed Lodestar cargo transport going from Salalah in southern Oman to Muscat lost his bearings, and instead of flying east over the gravel plains and mountains of southern Oman, flew north and found himself lost deep in the Empty Quarter before eventually reaching the coat of the Arabian Gulf and landing, almost out of fuel, at an RAF base in Sharjah in the northern Emirates.
Mysterious Sighting in the Desert
He had an intriguing tale to tell. Several hours into the flight and having by that time realized that he was lost, the pilot was surprised to spot—hundreds of miles into what is the largest desert in the world—what looked like a small town. Hoping to be able to use it to find his bearings he descended to five hundred feet to take a closer look, but found only ruined buildings, including several fort-like structures. Even more curious, the ‘town’ was on top of a flat-topped hill which rose steeply out of the desert, making it a natural fortress. Circling around a couple of times he could see no sign of any people, and since it was clear he couldn’t land he continued on his way.
Intended route (dashed line) and presumed actual route (solid line), and approximate area the pilot saw a “ruined city” (black circle). Image credit: Google Earth
The story of the lost flight was a topic of lively discussion amongst those at the base at the time, including an RAF officer named Raymond O’Shea, who had met the pilot himself and spent hours with him trying to reconstruct his route as best they could. Bitten by the ‘lost city’ bug, O’Shea and a friend called Schultz decided to spend their next leave period in an attempt to find it. With much secrecy to avoid being forbidden by their commander from entering the Empty Quarter which at the time was as notoriously lawless, they borrowed a truck and arranged some local guides to help them on the journey.
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Rub' al Khali or Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert on earth. ( CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Search for the Lost City
Together with the trusty Schultz, O’Shea drove the truck from Sharjah to the oasis at Buraimi, and then continued by camel into the desert for a number of days, passing the Liwa oasis and on into the Empty Quarter proper towards the location the pilot had indicated. Soon they encountered high dunes and soft sand, slowing their progress to a crawl. After some days they spotted a large, flat hill rising out of the desert, and headed towards it.
O’Shea’s original map of his journey and the location of the Lost City of ‘Ad. Image credit: The Sand Kings of Oman (1947)
Leaving their camels at the base, they made the stiff climb to the summit on foot, where they saw a sight which took their breath away.
The top of the hill was not flat as it had appeared from below, but concealed a large bowl-shaped depression, at the center of which was a small group of derelict buildings about a hundred yards across. He describes in detail two towers about forty feet high, and how the walls were made of stone blocks measuring up to two feet in width, held together by mortar.
As someone who had evidently developed quite an interest in Arabian history and culture, O’Shea speculated that the ruins might have been those of Qidan, the legendary lost city of King ‘Ad, or perhaps was the home of some lost tribe which had wandered across the desert centuries earlier, making their home on the top of the hill, away from the infamously xenophobic Bedouin tribes of the region. Being low on water and time they stayed only a few hours before returning to Liwa and the base at Sharjah.