Sondra Quatrain (1943 - 2021)

In the summer of 1973, Sondra Quatrain crested a sun-warmed rocky hillock in the Harlaa region of Ethiopia three miles south of a newly discovered 12th century mosque. Spread out before her was rough terrain: terraced slopes with scrubby grasses, drooping brownish-green shrubs, and the ubiquitous pyracantha coccinea, then in bloom with small bursts of bright red berries. She was searching for more artifacts when she turned her ankle—and as she sat down to gather herself, she noticed a strange, round rock, slightly dun colored, and lighter than the surrounding landscape.

That rock turned out to be a clay pot. Tucked inside was a wax-sealed leather case of intricate and startling design that protected a tightly rolled scroll made from a material similar to Greek papyrus. It was the discovery of a lifetime.

That’s how I like to imagine it happened. One big, gorgeous vista, and an accident that would send Quatrain down a spiraling hole of never-ending paranoia and obsession.

It wasn’t immediately clear how important Quatrain’s discovery was until months later, after the artifact had been dated back to the 1st century BCE. The text was written in Middle Persian, and Quatrain worked tirelessly with several notable scholars to produce the definitive translation. The incredible text was read for the first time in public by Quatrain in a lavish ceremony sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum. CLICK HERE to read the story for yourself, but in short: a young girl travels a long distance to unclog a pipe at the bottom of a lake in order to restore running water to a city. It’s a strangely modern narrative, and I always found it quite beautiful and moving. But the story itself didn’t interest Quatrain, except for one detail. She’d never heard of a place called Verash before, and the more Quatrain studied the scroll, the more she was convinced that she’d discovered an advanced civilization.

Most scholars I spoke with dismissed the issue entirely. Some claimed the word “Verash” was a mistranslation of “Carthage” from the ancient Hebrew. Others believed the story was simply fiction.

Quatrain ignored her critics. She began to hunt for Verash. Because of her new fame, she was able to secure several lucrative grants, and dragged a team of graduate students all across Africa, Asia, and South America in search of more clues. Not much survived from those trips aside from vague rumors about wild shrieking and fits of rage, and thousands of wasted dollars, washed down the drain on a hunch.

Verash did not reveal itself, and after seven years, the money disappeared. Quatrain was forced to return home to the University of East London, where she attempted to resign herself to the life of a relatively famous academic. From interviews I’ve read, and email exchanges with students she had at the time, it’s clear that Quatrain struggled to acclimate to civilian life again. There were fights with faculty members, screaming matches at committee meetings, baffling and impossible assignments, long disjointed lectures about lost ancient cities and cultures, most of which bordered on the bizarre.

Her tenure was denied, and she was fired in 1985 after allegedly calling Chancellor Benedict Sanguine a “fat old alligator with a small cock.”

Quatrain fell into a deep despair, but her obsession with Verash never flagged. She bounced between regional colleges before leaving academia entirely. In the 90s, as the internet rose to prominence, she began posting feverishly on various message boards. In 1994, she renounced her British citizenship due to “political differences with the Queen” and moved to America. She worked as a waitress at various IHOPs across Illinois to support her obsession for the remainder of her life.

The Verashni movement coalesced around Quatrain’s ceaseless posting. I won’t go into detail, since everyone’s familiar with their beliefs by now, but those early days focused mainly on the city, and the violence and racism we’re most familiar with now hadn’t yet taken over the group. Quatrain helped raise funds for several trips with her followers to African in those days, trekking through uncharted deserts, and never finding anything of value.

But Quatrain was undaunted. She believed Verash was out there, and for the next thirty years, she dedicated her life to uncovering the truth. That led her down some very dark alleys: human biodiversity theories, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and radical violent oppression of journalists, which culminated in the murder of reporter Roger James in 2006 by one of her most ardent followers. Through it all, Quatrain remain devoted to the city of Verash, even while her Verashni group broke down into conspiracy theory and terrorism.

She died of heart failure at the age of 78 on March 3rd, 2021. It’s likely that she had little to no involvement with the Verashni movement in her final decade, as her followers further radicalized and her health deteriorated. Still, during her incredible life, she wrote millions of words on the city, published several books and papers, doggedly followed her hunch, and carried her conviction into the grave, despite everything.

There’s no evidence that Verash exists. Most scholars agree that the city was a fabrication. But Quatrain’s obsession spawned a movement, which morphed into a radically violent extremist group, and the deaths of at least ten people stain her hands. I find her story fascinating—how one woman could fall from the heights of her profession, and find herself down in the dreck of humanity, still clinging to her dreams despite the obvious truth: Verash never existed, and never would. But Quatrain didn’t care what the world thought, and according to an email exchange with the nurse that was by her side during her final moments, Quatrain died with the city’s name on her lips.

ps, Kind of an odd one for you today! Next week’s story is about a dragon (sort of) so stay tuned, thanks for reading, and share if you like what I’m doing. - DC