Yemen: The Amazing Ancient 500-Year-Old Skyscrapers Made From Mud

Shibam Hadramawt, a small town with 500-year-old made from mud, has been a tourist attraction in Yemen for its unique characters and structures.

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Deep in Yemen’s most remote valley lies the city of Shibam. Surrounded by palm groves, and flanked by the steep cliffs leading up to the Yemeni highland on both sides, the city of 2,000 inhabitants hardly seems impressive. Just a handful of high-rise residential buildings, not so different from the Soviet-style blocks found across the Arab world.

Yet these buildings don’t date from the 20th century, or even the late 19th century. They were built almost five centuries ago, and have remained largely unchanged since.

Photo:  ArchDaily
Photo: ArchDaily

Shibam Hadramawt is a town in Yemen. With about 7,000 inhabitants, it is the seat of the District of Shibam in the Governorate of Hadhramaut. Known for its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings, it is referred to as the “Chicago of the Desert”, or “Manhattan of the Desert”.

At the edge of a desolate expanse of desert known as the Empty Quarter, the 16th-century Walled City of Shibam remains the oldest metropolis in the world to use vertical construction. Once a significant caravan stop on the spice and incense route across the southern Arabian plateau, British explorer Freya Stark dubbed the mud city “the Manhattan of the desert” in the 1930s, according to National Geographic.

Every aspect of Shibam’s design is strategic. Perched upon on a rocky spur and surrounded by a giant flood wadi, its elevated position shields it from flooding while maintaining proximity to its primary source of water and agriculture. The city was built on a rectangular grid behind a fortified wall—a defensive arrangement that protected its inhabitants from rival tribes and offered a high vantage point from which enemies would be seen approaching.

Photo: Financial Times
Photo: Financial Times

The mud-brick high-rises, which stretch up to seven stories high, were constructed from the fertile soil surrounding the city. A soil, hay, and water mixture were fashioned into bricks and left to bake in the sun for days. The windowless, ground floors were used for livestock and grain storage, while the uppermost levels typically served as communal floors for socializing. Connective bridges and doors between buildings also provided a means of quick escape—another one of the city’s impressive defensive features.

The structures are constantly threatened by wind, rain, and heat erosion, and require constant upkeep. In 2008, a tropical cyclone flooded Shibam, damaging several structures and threatening to topple its earthen towers.

History of Shibam Hadramawt town

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

There is no definite date for the original construction of Shibam, although it is locally dated back to at least 300 BCE. Villagers claim that the central Jami mosque was constructed during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786–809AD). A recently restored carved minbar from this mosque was dated to the ninth century AD. Inhabitants believe the older housing to be 200-300 years old, but it is an established fact that these buildings have been repeatedly reconstructed over the centuries, which has sustained the architectural mass and volume of the city, according to Architectural Review.

Between 2009 and 2014, further public and private buildings were renovated, three in Wadi Hadramut – Sah, Aynat, and Shibam; and two in Wadi Dawan – Rabat and Qarn Majid. Again, the implementation of the repairs was impeded due to the war. The political unrest in Yemen and the dire economic situation since 2011 made security an issue in the country. The logistics of working in Hadramut became increasingly precarious and difficult. However, the support and modest funding received ensured the restoration and reconstruction of the few distinguished landmarks and buildings that have impacted the urban fabric and communities there.

 Earthern wear: mud cities in Hadramut, Yemen 6 FEBRUARY 2020 BY SALMA SAMAR DAMLUJI EARTH  Add to Bookmarks The ancient mud structures of Hadramut in Yemen are under threat due to both age and the relentless onslaught of the civil war, but rescue attempts are under way  In the ancient city of Shibam, mud-brick high-rise buildings are clustered in a walled mass that exudes the genius of Yemeni earth architecture. Once the commercial capital where caravans assembled on the Arabia trade route, Shibam is one of three major urban centres in Wadi Hadramut, along with Sayʾun, the capital of the interior, and Tarim which lies to the east.  Due to its architectural composition and stunning setting, Shibam was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List (1982–84). In 2007 it received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which was a great boost for the inhabitants, although neither they nor their city benefited directly from it. Shibam’s fabric and infrastructure had been on a steady course of deterioration for at least two decades: attempts to assist with the city’s urban development – through UNESCO expertise in the 1980s, as well as through the German Technical Development (GTZ) Project between 2000 and 2007 and with some channelled funding from the Social Fund for Development – have miserably failed to make a difference to the quality of life in the city.    Source: Achilleas Zavallis / Guardian / Eyevine  There is no definite date for the original construction of Shibam, although it is locally dated back to at least 300 BCE. Villagers claim that the central Jami mosque was constructed during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786–809AD). A recently restored carved minbar from this mosque was dated to the ninth century AD. Inhabitants believe the older housing to be 200-300 years old, but it is an established fact that these buildings have been repeatedly reconstructed over the centuries, which has sustained the architectural mass and volume of the city.   Different house types occur in the different areas and towns of Hadramut, partly as an expression of socio-economic status, partly out of a need for security. The vertical expansion of the housing was informed by the topography, with horizontal expansion being restricted by proximity to arable land (this is the case in Shibam) or by locations pitched high on the flat plateau of mountains (for example, the village of Hajarayn). Larger towns were walled for defensive purposes, leaving limited space for expansion inside.    Source: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy  The striking village of Haid Al-Jazil in Dawan was built seemingly precariously above a valley to optimise water sources  In terms of interior organisation, the ground floors of Hadrami houses were almost always taken up with grain and staple food storage. In Shibam, the ground and first floors have dark, lofty and narrow depots with few openings for ventilation. Sheep and goats are kept in adjacent rooms and terraces on the first floors at night. The second and third floors were designed as several living rooms (mahadir) used by the men, while the fourth and fifth floors contained living areas used by the women, along with kitchens, washrooms and toilet facilities. The sixth and upper floors were used by the children or reserved for newly wed couples of the extended family. Terraces placed at the upper levels compensated for the absence of open courtyards in the house.   Between 2009 and 2014, further public and private buildings were renovated, three in Wadi Hadramut  – Sah, Aynat and Shibam; and two in Wadi Dawan – Rabat and Qarn Majid. Again, the implementation of the repairs was impeded due to the war. The political unrest in Yemen and the dire economic situation since 2011 made security an issue in the country. The logistics of working in Hadramut became increasingly precarious and difficult. However, the support and modest funding received ensured the restoration and reconstruction of the few distinguished landmarks and buildings that have impacted on the urban fabric and communities there.    The domestic spaces for women – the harem – often had a humble front door placed next to the much more dramatic entrance  In December 2017 a new project in partnership with the Cultural Emergency Response of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands was initiated. Following a bomb detonated near the city gate in 2015, work began in January 2019 to repair the damaged city gateway, adjacent palace and sur (city wall) in collaboration with the General Organization for Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY) Shibam office.  Despite the relative calm in Hadramut province since 2017, the work was delayed with the continuing war in the rest of the country. The precarious security situation resulted in difficult logistics, bringing together the project team from Mukalla and master builder from Tarim, travelling on damaged roads between the cities in Hadramut. Following preparations early in 2019, the first phase of the building, structural reinforcement and restoration was implemented and finalised between March and May 2019. This phase included reinforcing the old walled city’s south gateway, Shibam Palace’s western rampart, and an adjacent house.  The projects were initiated by Dawan Mud Brick Architecture Foundation that was set up in the autumn of 2007 in response to the need to create a base and institutional framework for working on the earth architecture and urban heritage of Wadi Dawan and Hadramut. The projects involved interventions and the implementation of emergency measures to mitigate danger in threatened buildings that had partially collapsed or were severely damaged due to a spate of flash floods that occur in the wadis during the monsoon season.    Source: Salma Samar Damluji & Dawan Architecture Foundation   Source: Salma Samar Damluji & Dawan Architecture Foundation
Source: Salma Samar Damluji & Dawan Architecture Foundation

In December 2017 a new project in partnership with the Cultural Emergency Response of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands was initiated. Following a bomb detonated near the city gate in 2015, work began in January 2019 to repair the damaged city gateway, adjacent palace, and sur (city wall) in collaboration with the General Organization for Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY) Shibam office.

Despite the relative calm in Hadramut province since 2017, the work was delayed with the continuing war in the rest of the country. The precarious security situation resulted in difficult logistics, bringing together the project team from Mukalla and master builder from Tarim, traveling on damaged roads between the cities in Hadramut. Following preparations early in 2019, the first phase of the building, structural reinforcement, and restoration were implemented and finalized between March and May 2019. This phase included reinforcing the old walled city’s south gateway, Shibam Palace’s western rampart, and an adjacent house, cited by Architectural Review.

 Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Reinforcing the structures of damaged earth buildings is a much more sensitive, precarious, and complex job than erecting new constructions – a more straightforward and more predictable process. However, it is also refreshing and very important to renew buildings and reinforce these structures in the established techniques and methods of the region, sustained by the versatility that earth, as an integral and renewable material, provides. It is a way of ensuring that traditional building methods, materials, and skills are passed down the generations, thus generating local work while also reducing environmental impact.

Shibam Hadramawt’s Geography

Photo:  The Adventures of Nicole
Photo: The Adventures of Nicole

The town is located in the central-western area of Hadhramaut Governorate, in the desert of Ramlat al-Sab’atayn. Its main road links Sana’a and other cities of western Yemen to the far eastern territories. The nearest towns are Seiyun, the seat of an airport, and Tarim, both in the east. Another road, departing from the village of Alajlanya, in the west, links Shibam to Mukalla, the governorate’s capital, located by the Indian Ocean.

Shibam is often called “the oldest skyscraper city in the world”. It is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. The city has some of the tallest mud buildings in the world, with some of them over 30 m (98 feet) high, thus being early high-rise apartment buildings. In order to protect the buildings from rain and erosion, the walls must be routinely maintained by applying fresh layers of mud. The city is surrounded by a fortified wall, giving it the name “the walled city of Shibam”.

Charlotte Pho