Iram of the Pillars seems like something out of an Indiana Jones movie: a lost city of Arabia, a great metropolis buried somewhere beneath the sands. It has the attention of the famous explorer Ranulph Fiennes, the award winning filmmaker Nicholas Clapp, and of course, almost inevitably Lawrence of Arabia.
However, despite all of their efforts, it remains hidden, lost perhaps forever. Lawrence referred to the city as the Atlantis of the Sands where he claims that there are legendary treasured stored within the vast deserts of Arabia.
This lost city is also known as Iram of the Pillars. It has captured the imagination of archaeologists, poets, and travelers. So much so that it has even been used in modern video games such as Uncharted 3 in which a dramatic reconstruction is presented.
The video game presents the city as a lavish, sprawling metropolis found in the desert called Iram, and the game is named for it, being called Atlantis of the Sands. Unusually, despite their being a lot of attention, the city is relatively understudied and unknown in wider society. It has an association with the mythical city of Atlantis which may aid its unknown status.
As with many stories, it is likely that this city has its origins in truth but as the tradition is passed on orally, it will have distorted and out of shape. The rendition that people end up with is closer to a fantasy city than the grain of truth it began with.
This is not uncommon for stories from classical civilizations. In Greek Mythology, King Midas turned everything to gold when he touched it. It has been suggested that this myth is perhaps based on the incredibly wealthy ruler from the 8th-century Phrygian monarchy.
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Even in England, some stories have been twisted from truth to fiction. The valiant Robin Hood likely stemmed from a group of people. Robyn was a relatively common name in Medieval England and a “hude” was a head covering worn by many travelers. It is not hard to see how a legend began.
The People of Ad
The main source for Iram is the Qur’an. Pre-Islamic poetry uses the name, and there are clues here and there, but there is little information on the Pillars of Iram until the Qur’an.
It is the first account to deliver a comprehensive description of the city. Iram is only used for one place, and it is used in association with the people of Ad. It is found in the following description:
Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with ‘Ad—The tribe of Iram, possessor of lofty buildings, The Like of whom have not been created in these parts
The information that comes from the Qur’an describes the city as one with lofty buildings that were unrivaled by any other nearby city or civilization. It was said to have an origin dating back to Noah’s flood.
They had the space to build monuments on elevated paces and it was built on a land with zig-zagging sandhills. The city and its people, according to the Qur’an, were swept away in a violent wind that happened consistently for over 7 days which engulfed the city, leaving no trace of the city or its people.
For many years, European and biblical scholars have denounced the existence of the People of Ad and the pillars of Iram. There is no reference to Ad or Iram in any Abrahamic tradition, for example, although these holy books in this tradition do have tales which might seem as unbelievable.
There is little evidence for any people or the settlement that should be there. This is both archaeologically and in the contemporary sources.
The Story of Iram
The creation of the Iram narrative comes from as early as the 7th century. Ka’ab al Ahbar, a Jewish Rabbi that was converted to Islam gives an account of the city of Iram and the people of Ad. It goes as follows:
“Mu`awiyah called Ka‘ab al Ahbar and said, ‘O Abu Ishaq! Have you received the information about a city in this world, which is made of gold and silver? Its pillars are made of rubies and emeralds and its palaces and windows are made of pearls. Its flowerbeds have trees and streams flow beneath them?’ Ka‘ab said, ‘Yes, such a city was built by Shaddad bin Aad. It is Iram Dhatul Imad.’”
This account was later fueled by 10th-century accounts by the Persian scholar Sheikh Al Saduq. He quoted the above account and referenced more treasures such as jewels, saffron, and an abundance of pearls. Another scholar from Andalucia, Al Qurtubi, claimed that the city was laden with gold and took over three hundred years to build.
However, even older scholars and historians have questioned the validity of these accounts. Ibn Khaldun, writing in the 14th century as a respected Islamic scholar, said that the Iram narrative was a fabricated story that had no basis in the Qur’an.
In the 16th century, the Ottoman figure Muhammad Abdulbaki claimed that the persistence of these stories was a reflection of people looking for paradise on Earth.
Throughout the 20th century, there was a rise in archaeological excavations across the Middle East searching for the missing city. This led to a spate of discoveries that were ever more astonishing.
There have been discoveries in Egypt, the Levant, and central Arabia but there has been no sign of Iram. Thanks to the drive and determination of archaeologists, many huge cities and finds have been made. The city of Elba was one of these. It is a huge city with temples, walls, and gates of a vast size leaving hope that the infamous city of Iram can be found one day.
Top Image: Iram of the Pillars was said to be fantastically wealthy and beautiful. Source: Jens Heimdahl / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Kurt Readman