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Empty Quarter
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Empty Quarter @ National Geographic Magazine
By Donovan WebsterPhotographs by George Steinmetz

Spilling across four Arab nations, the world's largest sand desert has been defined as much by Bedouin tradition as by geography. Now oil and politics are changing the definition.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Welcome to the Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter—a world of harsh extremes that may rank as both the least, and most, hospitable place on Earth. I arrived in Arabia last January with photographer George Steinmetz and a plan to explore the Empty Quarter. Before our eight-week expedition is over, we will cover more than 5,300 miles (8,500 kilometers) on a journey through Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. We will also be shot at—in the most genial of ways—not once but several times, invariably followed by an invitation to drink tea.
For thousands of years this territory has resisted settlement as one of the Earth's hottest, driest, and most unyielding environments. Yet it's also home to a culture on the edge, a proud Bedouin society working to adapt its mix of Islam, ancient tribal custom, and newfound oil riches to a demanding and fast-paced modern world.
Taking up a fifth of the Arabian Peninsula, the Rub al Khali (literally, "quarter of emptiness"), or the Sands for short, is the world's largest sand sea. At more than 225,000 square miles (583,000 square kilometers), it takes in substantial portions of Saudi Arabia, as well as parts of Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates to create an arid wilderness larger than France. It holds roughly half as much sand as the Sahara, which is 15 times the Empty Quarter's size but composed mostly of graveled plains and rocky outcrops.
Because of these sandy expanses, not to mention its profound heat, the Sands have long been judged too unforgiving for all but the most resourceful humans, considered more a wasteland to cross than a landscape to settle in. Still, along its edges—and venturing across it from time to time—the dozen tribes of leathery and enterprising Bedouin, also known (especially in Arabia) as Bedu, have survived here since before recorded time.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Strap into photographer George Steinmetz's and assistant Alain Arnoux's ultralights for a bird's-eye view of the Sands.

Sights & Sounds
Experience a journey across the world's largest sand sea and meet the Bedouin, its legendary inhabitants.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
In 1932 Bertram Thomas recorded Bedouin tales of a fabled trading city that disappeared beneath the sands of the Empty Quarter, beginning a love affair between Western explorers and the ancient city of Ubar. According to myth, Ubar was a sumptuously rich city, grown fat from the frankincense trade. Said to have been destroyed as punishment for its inhabitants' impiety, the city remained elusive for centuries.

It wasn't until 1992, after decades of fruitless exploration, that scientists finally made headway. Using space-based radar imagery, they detected ancient caravan tracks that converged near modern-day Shisr in southwest Oman. Their excavations uncovered a large octagonal fortress with thick walls standing ten feet (three meters) high, along with eight towers at its corners. Greek, Roman, and Syrian pottery shards discovered in the ruins—the oldest dating from 4,000 years ago—suggested the site was indeed an important trading center. The fact that the city seemed to have met with a rather cataclysmic end—much of it fell into a sinkhole created by the collapse of an underground limestone cavern—was compelling evidence to suggest that this was indeed the fabled city of Ubar.

But in the decade since its discovery, the Shisr site has lost some of its thunder. Several scientists now warn that labeling this site as the lost city of Ubar is a stretch of the imagination and a prime example of the effects of wishful thinking. They point out that Ubar was probably a region or a people, not a single city, and that the Shisr site is more likely the remains of one of many ancient trading stops or perhaps just an isolated town near a water hole.

Today excavations continue around the region, as archaeologists continue to dig into the mysterious and colorful past of Arabia.

—Sarah Degen
Did You Know?

Related Links
Types of Dunes
Learn more about the five basic types of dunes and where they are found.
Great Desert Explorers
Discover more about the early European adventurers who crossed the inhospitable Empty Quarter.  
Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula
Explore the traditions and customs of the Bedouin.


Harris, Nathaniel. Atlas of the World's Deserts. Brown Reference Group, 2003.
Keohane, Alan. Nomads of the Desert. Kyle Cathie Limited, 2003.
Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands. Penguin Books, 1985.
Thomas, Bertram. Arabia Felix: Across the "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. C. Scribner's Sons, 1932.


NGS Resources
Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Desert. National Geographic Books, 1999.
Gore, Rick. "The Desert." National Geographic (November 1979), 586-639.


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