Middle East

Manhattan of the desert

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The desert floor of a Yemeni valley is not the first place you’d associate with the world’s first skyscrapers. But in Shibam – a city made entirely of mud – they have stood firm for 500 years. 

When British explorer and writer Freya Stark visited Shibam in the 1930s, she must have thought it was a mirage. On a hillock in a giant flash-flood valley, miles away from the nearest city, hundreds of skyscrapers tower above the landscape. Some have eight storeys and are 30 metres tall. What is more, they are all made of mud. No wonder she dubbed it the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’.

While not quite as famous as the New York borough, Shibam – located in the Hadhramaut Governorate of Yemen – is valued highly for its appearance and remarkable construction. For a start, UNESCO, which listed it in 1982, calls it “one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction” and an “outstanding example of human settlement, land use and city planning”.

These extraordinary mud-skyscrapers are several centuries old. The city is based on an earlier settlement partly washed away by floods in 1532, meaning most of its 500 buildings were erected in the 16th century – exceptions being the Rashid Mosque from 904 and the castle from 1220 (in the late 19th century, a second suburb was built opposite of the original city, named al-Sahil). Their formation resembles a rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. This is all crammed inside the city’s square mile surface, as the underlying hillock hinders horizontal expansion. Needles to say, density is high.

If the buildings’ close proximity makes the city resemble a fortress, it’s because it is meant to. At the time of its construction, residents wanted refuge and protection from other families in the region, who rivalled bitterly over political and economic prestige. This was amplified by the city’s function as a key halt for traders of spice and incense on their caravan journeys across the Southern Arabian plateau.

As such, the city’s traditional Hadrami urban architecture carries a theme of defensiveness. The ground floors have no windows. Despite its gridded template, the streets are misaligned and houses disappear behind one another, making it impossible to see through the city. It has a wall surrounding it too, while the hillock lifts it above the desert floor to protect against floods streaming through the valley.

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Just as the city structure, the sundried mud-brick buildings are highly functional. Their thickness increases in size towards the bottom to give better stability. Wooden shutters and ventilation openings air the rooms – albeit towards the higher floors where intruders are less likely to intervene.

Each floor has a specific purpose. The ground level is commonly used for grain storage. The second is dedicated for men to socialise, and often features nicely carved plasterwork and decorated wooden pillars supporting the ceiling. On the third and fourth floors, women gather, while the higher floors are reserved as communal spaces for the whole family.

Often, buildings are spaced so closely that the top floors are linked with bridges – sometimes even doors. This is not only a defensive mechanism – allowing residents to fluctuate from house to house – but it also saves elderly from climbing those endless stairs for visits.

Although Shibam’s architecture corresponds mainly to historical needs, a community of roughly 7,000 people still lives in the city. Many are shopkeepers, farmers or taxi drivers. The farmers thrive on the Wadi Hadramawt river that runs through the valley and moistens the earth, providing fine conditions for agriculture and various uses of mud.

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But there is also a downside to the river. The valley is occasionally victim of giant floods; a potentially disastrous prospect for a city built entirely with mud. And although its architectural features are generally well preserved, such threats coupled with social and economic changes (the city relies on outside help financially) means some have moved to more modern houses nearby despite having deep roots in the city.

Such developments gathered pace after the Yemen cyclone in October 2008 nearly washed away the city. More than 30 hours of relentless rain and flooding left hundreds of houses in the region shattered, dozens dead and thousands homeless. Shibam, lifted up by the hillock, survived that time. But only just.

In the aftermath, residents and conservationists have warned about water diversion channels being blocked by shrub and trees. According to UNESCO, the abandonment of the agricultural flood management system plus inadequate drainage has contributed to decline of the city, although numerous preservation programmes are currently in process.

Still, the rebuilding and maintenance of the mud blocks is expensive and time consuming. As authorities work on clearing the channels, experts have warned that the city may not survive another flood. Those eager to see the desert’s Manhattan may be wise to act soon.

Photos: Javarman, Vladimir Melnik [both via Shutterstock.com].

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