SHIBAM, Yemen – A 16th-century walled city in Yemen remains the World’s oldest metropolis to use vertical construction and is famous for its 600 adobe-built medieval skyscrapers, seven or eight stories high.
Images released on Thursday reveal the tall, sun-dried mud brick tower houses rising out of Wadi Hadramaut’s cliff edge.
Shiban is often described as a “Manhattan” of the desert.
The city was declared a World Cultural Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1982, as an outstanding (but vulnerable) expression of Yemen’s Arab and Muslim traditional culture.
Located at an important caravan stop on the spice and incense route crossing the southern Arabian plateau, Shibam offers a fortified, dense, rectangular grid plan of streets, squares, and contiguous tower houses providing both protection from rival families, and a statement of its economic and political prestige.
The current city superseded an earlier enclave partly destroyed by a massive flood in 1532-33 and its earliest settlements even predate the Islamic period.
Some early landmarks remain as the 9th-10th century Friday mosque or its 13th-century castle.
In the late 19th century, traders returning from Asia, once again, rebuilt the walled city.
Shibam’s legacy also bears witness to the relationship between the city and its surrounding landscape of spate (floodwater) irrigated lands by creating an integrated economic system involving agriculture, mud generation and the use of mud for building construction that no longer exists elsewhere in the region.
This city-oasis relationship remains intact but is also vulnerable to social and economic changes and to specific threats of natural disasters, such as the disastrous October 2008 flash floods.
In 1990, the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY) was established to manage and safeguard Yemen’s historic cities. As a result, GOPHCY-Shibam succeeded in documenting 98% of the traditional housing in Shibam and rehabilitating 60% of its private traditional dwellings.