The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: O

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"A maritime nation which was a source of gold from at least the reign of Solomon (1Ki 9:28; 22:49; 2Ch 8:18). It also provided fine wood and precious stones (1Ki 10:11; 2Ch 9:10; Job 28:16). All of these were delivered to Israel by ship through the port of Ezion-geber on the Red Sea. The gold seems to have been of a particularly high quality since in some of the passages it is used in conjunction with more specific Hebrew terms for fine, choice gold (Job 22:24; Psa 45:9; Isa 13:12). Ophir became so associated with this rare metal that the name Ophir itself, without any further qualifier, is to be understood as "gold" in Job 22:24. Gold from this source is also known from an extrabiblical inscription from Israel.

"In poetic and prophetic references to the wealth of Ophir, it is not the source or origin but rather the quality of the metal which is stressed. It is said to be precious indeed, but less so than wisdom (Job 28:16), a relationship with God (Job 22:24), or even humanity itself (Isa 13:12).

"The geographical location of Ophir is unclear, and the question has raised a multitude of suggestions ranging from southern Africa to India. The popular attraction to the romantic idea of some distant, exotic location of fantastic wealth has undoubtedly fueled the speculation" (ABD).

"The claim of Southeastern Arabia as the land of Ophir has on the whole more to support it than that of India or of Africa. The Ophir of Gen 10:29 beyond doubt belonged to this region, and the search for Ophir in more distant lands can be made only on the precarious assumption that the Ophir of the Kings is not the same as the Ophir of Gen. Of the various products mentioned, the only one which from the OT notices can be regarded as clearly native to Ophir is the gold, and according to Pliny and Strabo the region of Southeastern Arabia bordering on the Persian Gulf was a famous gold-producing country. The other wares were not necessarily produced in Ophir, but were probably brought there from more distant lands, and thence conveyed by Solomon's merchantmen to Ezion-geber. If the duration of the voyage (3 years) be used as evidence, it favors this location of Ophir as much as that on the east coast of Africa. It seems therefore the least assailable view that Ophir was a district on the Persian Gulf in Southeastern Arabia and served in old time as an emporium of trade between the East and West" (ISBE).

Modern discoveries suggest that the Biblical Ophir might be identified with Ubar, the legendary lost city of gold in southern Arabia.

From ancient accounts, the basis for Ubar's existence was frankincense, a sweet smelling incense then as valuable as gold. It was used as a fragrance, for medicinal purposes, and for embalming. The frankincense was prepared from the gum or sap of trees grown in the nearby Qara mountains. From there it was transported by camel caravan to the world centers of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Damascus, and beyond to the western Mediterranean. Ubar became enormously rich from this trade in frankincense. What started as a small town around an oasis became a walled city of great renown.

But the city ceased to be inhabited, for reasons unknown. Legends suggest it came to a sudden, cataclysmic end. Ubar was lost for thousands of years, perhaps buried under the shifting sands of the desert of the Arabian peninsula. TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) called it the "Atlantis of the sands," but he died before he could lead his own expedition to find it. Many archaeologists believed that the existence of a prosperous trading center was much more than a fable told by nomadic tribesmen, but all searches for Ubar came up empty.

The question with Ubar was where exactly to look. It was thought to be in or near the Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter), a great sand sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula. This very arid area is roughly the size of Texas with sand dunes over 600 feet high. Searching such a vast area was a considerable challenge.

Then an investigator decided to enlist NASA's help because of its expertise in applying remote sensing. Data from an experiment on the NASA space shuttle using imaging radar was of particular interest. This experiment bounced radar off the Earth's surface to determine the type of terrain. Since the radar penetrated through dry sand, it was hoped that the remains of a buried fortress might be revealed.

The initial radar images yielded no direct indication of the location of the site, but images from the Landsat and SPOT remote sensing satellites showed distinct tracks through the desert. The researchers identified these tracks as old caravan routes. The caravan routes converged at a place called Ash Shisr, near the eastern edge of the Empty Quarter in southern Arabia.

Two expeditions to Oman were mounted; one in 1990 and one in 1991. The expedition team investigated the area around Ash Shisr, and soon an archaeological excavation began.

The excavations uncovered a large octagonal fortress with thick walls ten feet high and eight tall towers at the corners. The archaeologists also found Greek, Roman, and Syrian pottery, the oldest of which was dated at more than 4,000 years old. The discovery of these types of artifacts from far away places indicated that this was indeed a major center for trade and likely the fabled Ubar.

One startling result of the excavation was that it appears that Ubar did meet with a catastrophic end, as many of the legends describe. The excavation revealed a giant limestone cavern beneath the fortress. Scientists believe that Ubar may have been destroyed when a large portion of it collapsed into the cavern.

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