In southern Arabia, between the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf to the east and extending southwest to the Red Sea, lies a desert as broad as the state of Texas. On aerial navigation charts its 647,250 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) are shown as a stippled blankness, indicating desert. Map-notes read laconically, "sand dunes," "undulating plain," "rocks," "no vegetation."
For years, this desert seemed impenetrable. Even T.E. Lawrence, no novice in desert travel, said that "only an airship could cross it," and Bedouins warned English explorer Harry St. John Philby that "where there is no water, that is the Empty Quarter; no man goes thither."
In 1932, however, Philby was in no mood to listen to such warnings. For 14 years he had "worked and waited" for a chance to verify a strange Bedouin story he had heard in 1918 from his guide, Jabir ibn Farraj: that somewhere out in that forbidding desert lay a ruined city called Wabar. According to Bedouin legend, Wabar had been leveled by a destructive wind because its wicked and lustful ruler, 'Ad, had ignored the warnings of his brother, Hud - generally identified with the biblical Heber. Legend also said that near this lost site lay a block of iron "as big as a camel's hump." Since tribesmen called the place "al-Hadida," and since hadida in Arabic means a piece of iron, Philby presumed that there were iron artifacts in the city, perhaps of great value.
Having learned Arabic, embraced the Muslim faith and adopted Bedouin garb, Philby at that point had resolved to simultaneously unravel the mystery of Wabar and, his main goal as an explorer, become the first European to cross the Empty Quarter.
Sadly, that honor was denied him. In 1931, a full year before Philby's expedition was to have set out, a compatriot - Bertram Thomas - made a sudden successful dash through the Empty Quarter from Oman and for Philby, the news proved so bitter that he shut himself indoors for a whole week. Since Thomas had been a friend, Philby felt betrayed and later expressed his hurt by quoting an Arab poet:
'Twas I that learn'd him in the archer's art;
At me, his hand grown strong, he launched his dart.
Eventually, however, Philby's frustration gave way to hope; there was still a lot of Arabia to explore and there was still Wabar, with its potential ruins and maybe even buried treasures. So, on a chilly January morning in 1932, only days after King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud gave the go-ahead, Philby and 15 seasoned Arab tribesmen finally plunged into "an ocean of sand," as he later wrote.
It was a large expedition: 32 sand-bred Ramliyat camels (from raml , meaning sand), laden with bags of rice, dates and coffee. This was enough to sustain the expedition for 75 days - yet even so, unbearable heat and lack of water forced half the party to turn back; for drinking water the team had to rely entirely on scattered wells, dug by the few Bedouin tribes which ventured into the sands.
Cheered and chided by Philby, however, the remainder pushed on. "Even the raven knew it was no use looking for food here," he wrote, and eventually, two camels had to be slaughtered for meat. During one stretch of the march, the animals went two days without food, and 10 days almost without water. Wisely, the Bedouins prevented the suffering beasts from drinking, instead pouring the precious water down their nostrils to "cool their brains" - a practice known as "snuffing."
The star performers of the mission were two Arab guides, Ali Jahman and Salim ibn Suwailim, who, relying only on their memories and extraordinary sense of desert navigation, eventually led the group to the Wabar site after a month of traveling.
For Philby, the first sight of Wabar was almost as disappointing as the news of Thomas' crossing: instead of a find to match Petra or Tutankhamen's tomb, he found himself gazing down, not at the ruins of a city, but into the mouth of what he took to be an extinct volcano with twin craters side by side. Surprised and deeply disappointed, he wrote in his diary: "I knew not whether to laugh or cry..."
Nevertheless, Philby was also fascinated by the scene. Rationalizing that the two great sand-filled craters, encircled by a rim, did bear an absurd resemblance to the tumbled remnants of man-made castles, he described a structure "whose black walls stood up gauntly above the encroaching sand like battlements and bastions of some great castles." But all his hopes faded when, after four straight days of searching, he uncovered one "silly little fragment of iron about the size of a rabbit," instead of the iron mass as big as a camel's hump.
His Bedouins were also to be disappointed. They stuffed their saddlebags with "little jet-black shining pellets" that they thought were pearls - only to learn that they were worthless globules of crystallized glass. Philby tried to tell them. "There are no castles of the ancients," he said sadly, "but... volcanic peaks of the Harra which you have doubtless seen on the way to Makkah, on your right hand as you go up. These mouths are even as the mouths of the Harra thrust up by the inner fire from the belly of the earth."
Ali Jahman disagreed. "No," he said, "they are the castles of 'Ad. They are his mansions for sure, and see how the bricks have been burned with fire, as they relate!"
Neither, as it turned out, was correct. What Philby and his companions had discovered was the site of a rare cosmic accident that geologists and space scientists now call "astroblemes" - craters that result from the explosive collision of a stray meteor fragment with the earth. Nor can Philby be faulted for not knowing; in 1932, only six other impact craters were known in the entire world. Even today, the total count is only 10, all found in the world's remote deserts because that is where they show up best. The most recent one, discovered by satellite photography and named Tabun Khara Obo, is in lower Mongolia.
Scientists today count two, possibly three astroblemes at al-Hadida. The largest measures about 91 meters (300 feet) in diameter, just what Philby measured, and its sides slope down some 12 meters (40 feet), although, before sand began filling the basin, it may have been twice or three times as deep. A meteor from space entered the earth's atmosphere - possibly tens of millions of years ago - and broke up shortly before impact, its fragments exploding in the sand within a half kilometer (quarter mile) of each other. The impact blasted molten sand into the air, where it cooled, drizzling down as the glassy pellets the Bedouins thought were pearls.
After his journey, Philby sent the rabbit-size fragment to Dr. L. J. Spencer of the British Museum for analysis. The fragment was found to be an alloy of iron and nickel, two common constituents of meteorites. "The kinetic energy of a large mass of iron traveling at a high velocity," Dr. Spencer explained, "was suddenly transformed into heat, vaporizing a large part of the meteorite and some of the earth's crust, so producing a violent gaseous explosion, which formed the crater and back fired the remnants of the meteorite. Such an explosion crater will be circular in outline what ever the angle of approach of the projectile. The materials collected at the Wabar crater afford the clearest evidence that very high temperatures prevailed: the desert sand was not only melted, yielding a silica-glass, but also boiled and vaporized. The meteoritic iron was also in large part vaporized, afterwards condensing as a fine drizzle "
As it turned out, Bedouin tradition had the last word. A few years after Philby died, the National Geographic's author-photographer Thomas J. Abercrombie drove "more than 645 kilometers (400 miles) with hardly a landmark" to the craters of al-Hadida, inspected the site again and found Philby's iron. As Abercrombie put it in an article entitled "Beyond the Sands of Mecca" in the January 1966 National Geographic, "rumor has become a reality; the biggest iron meteorite ever found in Arabia lay at our feet... shaped roughly like a saucer, it measured about four feet in diameter and two feet thick at center. A little quick geometry puts its weight at almost two and a half tons "
It was a description that would have amused Ali Jahman, for he never wavered in his belief that the Koranic text was correct: "Nay, it is that whose speedy coming ye challenged - a destructive wind wherein is an afflictive punishment.
Zayn Bilkadi, a Tunisian raised in Lebanon, is a research scientist with 3M.