The news is all about the Middle East today, as a ten-year manhunt comes to an end. It seems a good time to remember that there is more to this part of the world than the human activities in it.
Photographer George Steinmetz took this photo in the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter. Beneath the sand formations of this massive desert lie the borders of four nations: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAE. If a traveler headed northeast across the Empty Quarter, she would eventually arrive at the Gulf of Oman. Across that stretch of water lie Iran and Pakistan.
Two thousand years ago, caravans were still crossing the Empty Quarter as they transported frankincense to distant markets for immense profit. The desert has grown in size since then, and is barely navigable even for modern vehicles. It swallowed up the ancient city of Iram, and continues to shift its sands back and forth, creating sculptures of great and forbidding beauty in the process.
It’s difficult to grasp the sheer size of this place. With an area of 650,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles), it’s two and a half times the size of my home state of Oregon, and larger than the Netherlands, Belgium and France combined. Hard to imagine crossing something even half that size with nothing but camel power. No wonder frankincense was so valuable.
(Click on the image to wallpaperize.)