In the middle of The Arabian Peninsula lies the Empty Quarter, or Rub’ al Khali, the world’s largest sand sea. This inhospitable space covers over 225,000 square miles of land, and occupies parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and United Arab Emirates.
The land is unoccupied, save Bedouin tribes, although adventurers frequently attempt and occasionally succeed in crossing it. Thousands of years ago, though, the Empty Quarter may not have been so empty. The area once contained lakes and rivers, and even supported farm crops and livestock.
From 6,000 to 3,000 B.C., ancient civilizations sprung up in this area. Traders came here to trade horses and frankincense, a plant resin used in perfumes and burial ceremonies. Frankincense was as valuable as gold.
The Koran and “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” share stories of a long-forgotten city, Ubar, renowned for its splendor and wealth. For many years, scientists wondered if this “Atlantis of the Desert” really existed or if it was merely a myth.
In 1992, archaeologists finally uncovered the real Ubar. Using satellite imagery, they found packed down ground marking trade routes used by traders and their burden-laden camels. They suspected any city would lie where these trade routes intersected. Their hunch was right. The scientists did not find a large city as we know it, since most people then lived in tents that have long since disappeared. Instead, they found a fort protected by eight thick walls.
The researchers discovered that the city had been built atop a limestone cavern. The weight of the fort caused the cavern to collapse, and the fort to sink. Soon, the desert sands completely covered the city, leaving no trace that it ever existed.
Fun Facts About the Empty Quarter for Kids
- The Empty Quarter is 620 miles long and 310 miles wide.
- Feldspar gives the sand there a reddish-orange color.
- Fossils of animals such as the water buffalo, hippopotamus and long-horned cattle have been found in there.
- This region is classified as “hyper-arid”.
- British explorer Bertram Thomas was one of the first non-resident explorers to cross the area in 1931.
- The animals that live there today include scorpions and rodents.
- The highest elevation of the area is 2,600 feet.
The Empty Quarter Vocabulary
- Inhospitable: Barren or forbidding; not offering shelter
- Unoccupied: Vacant; not inhabited
- Valuable: having qualities that make something desirable or wanted
- Imagery: Visible representations of things
- Intersect: To cross
- Limestone: Rock made of marine and fresh-water sediments
Learn More All about the Empty Quarter
This is the best video we found for kids to learn all about the Empty Quarter:
A video documentary all about the Empty Quarter and its history.
The Empty Quarter Q&A
Question: Is the Empty Quarter good for anything other than scientific research?
Answer: Absolutely. The Empty Quarter has been used or even featured in several works of fiction over the years. It was the site of Machine City, Zero-One, in the Matrix series, one of the settings for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception for the PlayStation 3 and the site of the “Kataron’s” hidden base in the Japanese animated series Mobile Suit Gundam 00. Also, part of the largest oil field in the world extends into its northernmost parts.
Map of the Empty Quarter
Here’s a map of the Empty Quarter and all its neighboring cities and villages. Zoom in to get into street level or zoom out to see other countries around the Empty Quarter! You can see the terrain, but also see the roads, images of the buildings and even take a 3D tour through the streets of the cities around the Empty Quarter, as though you are actually there!
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