In a remote desert valley of Hadramawt in Yemen, lies an astounding walled city with 500-year-old skyscrapers. According to the Guinness World Records, Shibam has the oldest skyscrapers known to mankind. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that the city was built using nothing but mud.
What makes it particularly spectacular is that it blends in almost seamlessly with the vast open desert surrounding it. As a result of its distinct architecture, it earned the title of “Chicago of the Desert” or “Manhattan of the Desert” by the explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s.
Built on the incense and spice roads of centuries past, these 500-year-old skyscrapers now stand as testimony to the ingenuity of a lost civilisation. The unique architectural heritage of Shibam exemplifies the traditional way of life of the Hadrami people. Shibam architecture can be considered a cultural symbol or artefact as it reflects the Hadrami civilisation. On the one hand, the environment is a manifestation of the culture and social values of the Hadramis. On the other hand, part of human identity could be found in its urban environment.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
When people think of Yemen, they associate it with Al Qaeda or war. However, Yemen is first, and foremost, a historical, cultural and architectural treasure trove. Four UNESCO World Heritage Sites can be found in this country alone. Shibam’s 500-year-old skyscrapers were found to represent one of the most accomplished examples of traditional urban architecture. This is visible in both the grid and in the layout of its streets and squares. As a result, it was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982.
The ancient town has its origins in the pre-Islamic period. The first known inscription about the city dates from the 3rd century CE. Named for King Shibam Bin Harith Ibn Saba, Shibam became the capital of Hadramawt after the destruction of the earlier capital of Shabwa. Shabwa was located further along the wadi (valley or ravine).
The most popular theory to account for the 500-year-old skyscrapers’ building style is that residents fleeing from the destroyed city of Shabwa rebuilt Shibam. Their new home was based on the design and structure of Shaqir, the great palace of Shabwa. The theory makes sense, as the inhabitants would no doubt long for a piece of their old home. Therefore, they would try to bring it with them.
Shibam was the capital of the Hadramawt Kingdom of Yemen. Interestingly, beneath the town lies another settlement that got partially washed away by massive floods sometime in 1533. The original settlement at Shibam belongs to the 13th century. A remnant from that era still exists in the form of an unnamed castle in the walled town. Experts say the castle dates from the 13th century. However, the Friday Mosque inside the city is even older. It dates from the 9-10th century. In the 20th century, it was one of the three major cities of the Qu’aiti Sultanate, the others being Al-Mukalla and Ash-Shihr.
Today, Shibam’s main road links Sana’a and other cities of western Yemen to the far eastern territories. While Shibam has been in existence for an estimated 1,700 years, most of the city’s iconic houses originate from the 16th century. Many, though, have been rebuilt numerous times in the last few centuries.
Unique Architectural Value
Shibam represents one of the best and earliest examples of urban planning that used the construction of multiple-storied vertical structures. Both the architectural style of the 500-year-old skyscrapers and the design of the city are unlike anything else in Yemen.
According to UNESCO, Shibam has attributes that carry an outstanding universal value that justifies their choice. These include the city layout, the skyline, the city wall and the traditional buildings. Additionally, it includes the relationship between the city and its surrounding landscape.
The city has some of the tallest mudbrick buildings in the world. Some of them are over 30 meters (100 feet) high, densely packed together on a small mound. The windowless ground floors are used for livestock and grain storage. However, the uppermost levels typically serve as communal floors for socialising. There are 444 of them which rise 5 to 11 storeys high. Each floor has one or two rooms.
The fragility of the mudbrick means that the 500-year-old skyscrapers need regular maintenance. Therefore, fresh mud and limestone need to be applied periodically. This serves to renew and protect the walls from the elements and pests.
The Rationale Behind the 500-Year-Old Skyscrapers
Several factors possibly contributed to moulding the plan of Shibam into its present.
Some speculate that this architectural style was used in order to protect residents from attacks. Shibam had a strategic location on the spice and incense routes. As a result, the city emerged as a beacon of wealth in the Southern Arabian plateau. This meant that it was prone to attack by rival families and under constant threat from bedouins. They had to defend themselves from these groups.
Every aspect of Shibam’s design is strategic. First, the 500-year-old skyscrapers are strategically divided. Typically, livestock, tools, and grain are stored on the bottom, windowless floor. On top of that, the middle floors are for the elderly and for socialising. The highest floors are reserved for young families, and newlyweds are on the roof.
Second, it is perched upon a rocky spur, surrounded by a giant flood wadi. However, its elevated position shields it from flooding while keeping it close to its primary source of water and agriculture. Third, the defensive character of the city can be seen as it was built behind a fortified wall. This is a defensive arrangement that protects its inhabitants from rivals. Evidently, it offered a high vantage point from which enemies would be seen approaching. This is evident in the height of the wall that surrounds the city, which varies between 6 and 9 meters.
Moreover, only one main gate to the city exists. When closed during the night and in wartime, it isolates the city from the outside world. Additionally, connective bridges and doors between buildings also provided a means of quick escape. This was another one of the city’s impressive defensive features. This attests to the strong competition that existed between rival families in this region.
Another theory is that in the 16th century, Shibam’s inhabitants found they had run out of space to expand. To compensate, they began to build on a rectangular street grid. Then, instead of spreading out, they built up. Consequently, the city’s 500-year-old skyscrapers were created.
The city’s location could be an important factor in its building style. First, the city lies along a rocky mountain in the south, making it expand in that direction. Second, the area is prone to flooding as it lies in a river valley. The houses could have been built to protect the people from the high tides that covered the whole valley. So, people could escape to the higher floors until the water went down.
Traditionally, architectural layout and planning in dry and hot regions have met with two major problems. The first was securing protection from heat. The second was providing sufficient air conditioning. Mudbrick has a higher heat capacity and lower conductivity than concrete. This means it slows the rate at which the temperature within the building changes. Furthermore, mudbrick is easy and cheap to produce. Therefore, it is the natural choice of material in the climate of Shibam.
Unlike fired bricks, the physical structure of dried bricks does not change during the drying process. Without its white protective layer, a wet brick simply becomes mud. However, in order to protect the buildings from rain and erosion, the walls must be routinely maintained by applying fresh layers of mud. Equally important to note is that the outside surface of these buildings is painted with lime. Lime is highly reflective compared to other materials. The houses are topped by flat roofs surrounded by parapets to form terraces. These terraces are waterproofed with an application of ramad (plaster of lime), wood ashes and sand.
In Shibam, climatic considerations manifest themselves in more than just the building material. Additionally, wooden windows provide privacy, refract glare and promote air circulation. This is achieved by their low placement and small ventilation holes near the ceiling. Furthermore, narrow streets and open plazas further enhance this air circulation at the city level. Thus, the architecture of Shibam reveals a complete approach to urban planning. It is fine-tuned to the city’s climate and social structure.
Mudbrick is cheap, durable and readily available. The city was constructed from the fertile soil surrounding the city. Today, a soil, hay, and water mixture are still fashioned into bricks and left to bake in the sun for days.
From a historical point of view, these 500-year-old skyscrapers are incredible pieces of engineering. But does the city also hold the key to more sustainable architecture? The city’s use of mudbrick is a key technique developed to cope with challenges posed by the harsh climate. However, it has many environmental advantages. Not only does the production of sun-dried bricks involve no polluting emissions; the bricks are also reusable. These traditional methods are certainly a viable alternative to less environmentally sustainable modern methods.
Plus, mudbrick architecture is more sustainable if one factors in the environmental costs. For example, materials and labour can usually be sourced locally. Therefore, it benefits the local economy rather than relying on input from outside. This also affects the energy costs involved in transportation. Consequently, its environmental impact is minimal.
But these historic buildings are not only of architectural value. Shibam is a testament to mankind’s adaptability to the most formidable of environments. It is the meaning, concept of the buildings, and daily and continuous life in them that makes them valuable. The finding of The UNESCO World Heritage Centre that Shibam bears witness to the cultural identity of the people of Wadi Hadramawt confirms that.
Shibam’s 500-year-old skyscrapers are frequently threatened by wind, rain, and heat erosion, and require constant upkeep to maintain their mudbrick structures. Therefore, routine maintenance is required. Furthermore, the city was heavily affected by flooding from a tropical cyclone in 2008. The foundations of many of the buildings in the city were compromised by the floodwaters. Eventually, it led to their collapse.
The city is also under manmade threats. In 2009, four South Korean tourists were killed in an Al Qaeda bomb attack just outside the city. Later, in 2015, Shibam was added to the list of World Heritage sites in danger. This was when a violent civil war erupted in Yemen. Historic buildings were significantly damaged during the heavy bombing in Sana’a. They still remain at risk from armed conflict.
Today, as a result of Yemen’s complex civil war, many of the country’s wonders have been damaged or are under threat. There is no argument that the destruction pales in comparison to the human cost of the conflict. However, the country’s rich cultural heritage has also been ravaged. Fortunately, Shibam’s 500-year-old skyscrapers have escaped most of the destruction that the ongoing conflict is causing. However, UNESCO’s planned introduction of permanently secured water supplies, underground electricity, telephone cables and updating the sewage system has been stopped. This will ensure the preservation of Shibam’s unique historical value for the city.
Significance in Architectural Heritage
The conservation of architectural heritage has enjoyed a long course of development over recent decades. Shibam’s 500-year-old skyscrapers fall into the historical, social, architectural and technical sphere of UNESCO’s protection scope. These mudbrick buildings induce a sense of place, identity and social structure. They enrich the lives of the people living in them due to their physical and semantic characteristics. Not only do they reinforce the identity, but also increase the importance and value of the architectural heritage in Yemen.
In addition to its economic value based on tourism, Shibam’s architectural heritage can be seen as social wealth. The reason for this is it provides potential that can be used for building or rebuilding the identity, developing the culture, the growth of ethics, and social improvements in Yemen after the war.
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Very well written, informative. I can definitely say that I learned something new today.