Ubar, also called Iram, established around 3000 B.C. on the Arabian Peninsula, was once the center of the frankincense trade and the wealthiest city in the world. Tradition holds that it was punished by God for its faithlessness and decadence, and the sands of the desert rose up and swallowed it whole.
Once I bathed in a basin of frankincense
once I drank a resin–tea both red and clouded
once hojari flowers wove through my hair:
Such was the wealth of Ubar in days long dim,
when we did not know what gold was.
Once the streets were slick and fragrant;
every alley–crack was filled with hard sap and gleaming.
My sandals used to slip on the gloss, rich as yolk,
in the summer when the sun was a long white shriek
I used to go out into the dust–green groves
the tree–cleavers swung me laughing between them.
Once I licked the slashed sap from the hojari —
it tasted bitter, like old glass.
Like sweat, amber pooled in my navel,
as though I were a tiny cup,
filled up to brimming with the blood of Ubar.
II: Iram of the Pillars
Into the bases of seventy–two pillars was poured the al–luban,
the milk–sap of vivisected trees. From these heights
long fern–strands hung like wet linen, tipped in sapphire
which had puddled and run in the heat — even our houseplants
had their regalia.
It used to fall to the waxen curb–side,
drop by drop — that slow gem–melt
was then our only rain.
The great market: a platform between towers,
eight–sided; shaded in red yellow–silk. The air hung like draperies,
and no scent was there of myrrh or cinnamon —
frankincense held us all by the wrists, and permitted no alloy.
In the great market: a cistern, bronze, bright
as a seraph’s immolation. A slow simmer of the cloud–stitched sap
bubbles all the hours of night and noon —
into this seethe of sweetness, each man dips his ladle.
Such was the wealth of Ubar
when we minted coins in resin
and chewed mint leaves rubbed with palm oil.
They chose me for my hair, I think. When my mother
was as full of me as a barrel of uncrushed grapes,
she leaned over the rim of the cistern —
it burned her belly in a long red line
so well did the sun bake the metal to glowering —
to fill her diamond ladle with incense. She fell
like an onion into stew, her fast–sinking fingertips
caught by my father, (a maker of shoes cut from emerald
and porphyry), who would not lose his wife to the boil.
A portent: she did not burn skin from bone
under the sap–liquor. They scraped it from her like honey,
and the glimmering mire that sloughed from her
made the finest perfumes of the year. But when I was born
my hair was the color of frankincense, and my eyes:
Such was my strangeness
that marked me among all children
beneath the pillars’ blazing shade.
IV: Ubar, the Lost
We chose her for her hair. And for the thinness of her wrists
and the promise of her hips, which seemed to foreshadow sons,
and for the way she played in the alley–ways, the slip–jump
of her dancing gait on sap–strung terraces.
We had to choose someone.
The al–raml was cast, flung high
into the shadowless sun:
The sands showed the fourth daughter conjunct. Prophets
always did a brisk business here — they wept and refused their ladles,
keened and preached that we should not have worshiped
the pillar–gods with their stone breasts, their resin–altars,
should not cast the al–raml, should not do this,
should not do that.
But the truth is:
the desert is always thirsty.
It needs no reason to drink.
The sand–augur shouted down the howl of holies:
the dunes do not thirst but lust. Give them
a daughter of Ubar and they will quiet, they will recede,
they will retire to a dusty wedding–bed curtained
with saltbush and mouse–bones.
will feed dwarf–acacias
and pale yellow spiders.
Even among the seventy-two pillars whose roofs
bruise the stars’ bellies, I had never known anything
so fine as the black veils of my wedding dress.
The scent of the veils against my nose was of skin
and emerald dust, and frankincense, always frankincense,
that slow rosy sigh.
I walked to the edge of the sand where the palm fronds wither,
and behind me walked Ubar, cymbals clanging and throats ululating —
trumpets announced my virginity to the crawling gray scrub.
A red ribbon was laid over my wrist,
and over a rise of rough sand —
I swore to obey it, and serve it,
and bear it children
with yellow eyes running over like hourglasses.
In the desert, the nights are colder than you expect:
The resin hardens. The cistern cools. I was afraid —
the moon was so dry and empty, a bone bowl filling up with sky.
I was knotted to a stake deep-driven, spangled with sapphire-rain —
they had known better than to let me choose.
Long hours ground against me. The wind came up
through the white grasses.
A skinny, dry-whiskered mouse darted near —
in the marrow-sucked moonlight,
he began to nibble my toes.
VI. Rub’ al-Khali: The Empty Quarter
Perhaps it did not love her. She was so strange, after all.
The desert did not push open her untried legs
and forget us in the sweetness of her mouth.
It did not want her.
Perhaps a black-haired girl
would have satisfied it.
The pillars fell onto the sand softer than memory.
Even we did not hear them go — until all the eyes of Iram
were drowned in a shower of gold.
The earth was wet for years afterward, wet and glittering
and stinking of incense, so that even the fleas would not come near.
The cistern soaked the earth for miles,
though the ash-sand covered the market like a page.
Such was the death of Ubar
when the desert unhinged its jaw,
when the desert did not want her.
There are no bones here, not even hers. We sank so far
we tasted water — water at the root of all this rainless waste.
But it is not deep enough, never deep enough to find silence.
We still hear it, we still hear it and there are no palms left
to press against desiccated ears, we hear and hear and cannot stop:
Such are the wails of Izdihar the Dune-Wed,
who yet pleads to come home.
About the Author: Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the The Orphan's Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass–Cutting Sword, and three books of poetry, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs. For more information, please visit her website.
"The Child Bride of the Lost City of Ubar" is copyright © 2006 by Catherynne M. Valente. The poem may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express permission.