“—below me, as I stood on that hill-top transfixed, lay the twin craters, whose black walls stood up gauntly above the encroaching sand like the battlements and bastions of some great castle. These craters were respectively about 100 and 50 yards in diameter, sunken in the middle but half choked with sand, while inside and outside their walls lay what I took to be lava in great circles where it seemed to have flowed out from the fiery furnace.” (H. St John Philby, January 1933. “Rub’ al Khali: An Account of Exploration in the Great Desert of Arabia under the auspices and patronage of His Majesty ‘Abdul ‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud, King of the Hejaz and Nejd and its Dependencies”. The Geographical Journal 81 (1), p. 13.)
St. John Philby ventured deep into the hostile Empty Quarter of what is now Saudi Arabia in 1932, in search of the legendary city of “Ubar”. Ubar was essentially the Islamic equivalent of Biblical Sodom & Gomorrah, a city destroyed by fire from heaven for its sins. Circular courtyards with vitrified walls were reportedly strewn with the incinerated pearls of the harem. Irregular masses of iron were all that was left of the former inhabitant’s implements.
Philby initially thought he was looking at volcanic features, but it was later understood to be a cluster of meteorite impact craters. A massive iron meteorite totaling some 3500 tonnes fragmented and slammed into the desert sands forming glass- walled craters and a large field of glassy impactites and meteorite fragments. As the desert winds shifted the sands, positive relief circular “walls” emerged and flat floors of sand formed the courtyards.
The largest of the fused iron “implements” was recovered in 1966. The 2.2 tonne “Camel’s Hump” meteorite now sits at the entry to the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. Only a small number of expeditions have ever reached the remote crater site, and recent reports are that the shifting sands have now covered nearly all of the impact features.
Impactite collectors have always coveted the tiny black glass beads known as “pearls of the harem” or more simply, “wabar pearls”, in no small measure for the general romance of the story. But this month’s featured stone is a major rarity in an already elite population: a well-formed little dumbbell! It is 39.8 mm in length (~1.6 inches) and weighs 0.7 gms. It resides —proudly— in the author’s private collection. This may well be one of a kind.