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.
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Was the Whole Thing a Hoax?
After the war O’Shea published an account of his time in the Emirates called The Sand Kings of Oman in which he described his journey and discovery of the lost city, and encouraged archaeologists to go and find the city and solve the mystery of the people who had built it. However, the closer you look into O’Shea’s account the more holes appear in his descriptions of his route and the places he passed through, including relatively well-known places such as villages near Liwa. Areas he described as ‘flat’ are in reality covered by large dunes of soft sand. The times he said he took to cover certain distances are not realistic for travel by camel in the desert; when they first spotted the hill, he said that they reached it by a ‘hard gallop across the sands’, which again would have been impossible on soft sand.
Later, he said that they decided to travel along the crests of the dunes to avoid the soft sand, whereas anyone familiar with the desert knows that the crests are the softest and most difficult areas to walk on, and the preferred method of travel is along the flat valley floors between the dunes. Wherever O’Shea went, it seems hard to imagine it could have been the great sand desert southwest of Liwa where he claimed to be. The terrain sounds like the area much further west, but that would not match his journey times and distances.
Despite giving clear indications of where the ‘town’ was, and it allegedly being only twenty or thirty miles from the oasis of Liwa, and close to what is now the major oilfield at Shaybah, no one has ever found O’Shea’s ‘lost city of Qidan’ again.
Close up of the general area where O’Shea claimed to have found Qidan. The crescent to the NE is the Liwa Oasis, and the white line is the UAE-Saudi border. Image credit: Google Earth
The Mystery Endures
While it’s understandable in the heat of war that no one would search for it further, you would think that in these days of satellite images it would be simple to track it down. But finding a few buildings in area of less than a hundred yards across in a desert of 250,000 square miles is not so easy. So did O’Shea find his lost city but think he was somewhere he was not? Or was it just a hoax?
Although his published journey has plenty of inconsistencies, they might have been the result of O’Shea not being where he thought he was. There is also no reason to doubt the original pilot’s report, who readily admitted he had no idea where he was. In those days of primitive instrument navigation he could easily have been more lost than he realized.
There could still be a ruined city on a hill out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. The Empty Quarter is an awfully large place…
Empty Quarter in the general region where O’Shea claimed to have found Qidan. Photo credit: David Millar
By David Millar
Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates by David Millar, Melting Tundra Publishing, 2014
The Sand Kings of Oman by Raymond O’Shea, Methuen, 1947
The Road to Ubar by Nicholas Clapp, Marine Books, 1999