Mystery of Singing Sands

Many desert travelers have been frightened or awed by this amazing phenomenon

Great Desert

One of the strangest tales of the desert happens to be true—sands that roar so loud one has to shout to be heard! A yet unsolved riddle of Nature.

The two explorers, Mr. Bertram Thomas and Mr. H. St. John Philby, the only white men ever to have crossed the Great Desert of the so-called “Empty Quarter” of Arabia, both describe how they were startled by the phenomenon known as “singing sands,” the exact causes of which have long been debated by scientists.

Mr. Thomas and his party were in the heart of the vast desert, floundering along through heavy sand dunes, when the intense silence was suddenly broken by a loud droning of a musical note. One of his Badu companions pointed to a steep sand cliff about 100 feet high and shouted, “Listen to that ridge of sand bellowing!”

All the explorer could see was a filmy wisp of sand being carried up the gentle windward slope to spill like smoke over its top. On another occasion, Mr. Thomas was similarly startled by a curious note emitted from the sand as his camel trod on it, but the tribesman at his side, a Murri who was quite familiar with the phenomenon, could only give as an explanation some dark activity in the uppermost of the seven underworlds. The Arabs, as a matter of fact, attributed the sounds to the spirits of the sand dunes talking.

The explorer was resting in his tent when his attention was arrested by a deep, musical, booming sound.

In Mr. Thomas’ case, the note continued for about two minutes, ceasing as abruptly as it had begun. When Mr. St. John Philby experienced a similar thing a few months later, it was set up artificially, although accidentally. He, too, was in the heart of the Empty Quarter, and he heard the noise in the afternoon, at about the same time as Mr. Thomas had heard it. The explorer was resting in his tent when his attention was arrested by a deep, musical, booming sound. Looking out, he discovered that it had been set up by one of the party walking up the steep sand slope of the dune encircling the camp.

The traveler’s own description of what he heard and saw is worth quoting: “Quite suddenly the great amphitheatre began to boom and drone with a sound not unlike that of a siren or perhaps an aeroplane engine—quite a musical, pleasing, rhythmic sound of astonishing depth.... The conditions were ideal for the study of the sand concert, and the first item was sufficiently prolonged—it lasted perhaps about four minutes—for me to recover from my surprise and take in every detail. The men working at the well started a rival and less musical concert of ribaldry directed at the Jinns [desert spirits] who were supposed to be responsible for the occurrence.... I realized that the key to the situation was Sa’dan, seated on the top of the slope. It was evident that the music was being engendered by the sand sliding down the steep slope from under him.”

Mr. Philby followed Sa’dan’s example and found that he, too, was able to produce the same sound by setting masses of sand in motion down the side. The noise commenced with a grating sound and was gradually increased into a musical booming, which just as gradually decreased until it died away. He experimented by pushing a bottle into the singing sand, and as he withdrew it there followed a wail like that of a trombone. At another time he plunged into the moving mass of sand halfway down the slope, and it appeared to throb beneath him like a great organ.

The writer said that in the height of summer this hill of sand gave out sounds of itself, but if trodden by men or horses, the notes could be heard for long distances.

These singing sands of southern Arabia have only become known to science this century, but it has been truly said that there is nothing new under the sun. The phenomenon was known to the Chinese at least a thousand years ago. One of their writers left an account of an area in the province of Kansu where it had been noted in the ninth century. The document speaks of the “Hill of Sounding Sand,” which was 500 feet high in places. According to the author it possessed strange, supernatural qualities: “Its peaks taper up to a point, and between them there is a mysterious hole which the sand has not been able to cover up.” The writer said that in the height of summer this hill of sand gave out sounds of itself, but if trodden by men or horses, the notes could be heard for long distances. The manuscript also spoke of a queer custom which was followed at the time to induce the singing. The account runs, “It is customary on the tuanwu day (the Dragon Festival on the fifth of the fifth moon) for men and women from the city to clamber up to some of the highest points and rush down again in a body, which causes the sand to give forth a rumbling noise like thunder. Yet when you come to look at it the next morning the hill is found to be just as steep as before. The ancients called this the Hill of Sounding Sand; they deified the sand and worshiped it there.”

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