Surrounded by a fortified wall, the 16th-century city of Shibam in Yemen is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Its impressive tower-like structures rise out of the cliff and have given the city the nickname of ‘the Manhattan of the desert’. Do you know what message this ancient city conveys to the present day city planners?
The tall cluster of sun-dried mud brick tower houses of the 16th century walled city of Shibam rises out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut. Located at an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city of dwellings up to seven storeys high developed on a fortified, rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. It was in this region that people first learned how to live in concentrated environments.
The dense layout of Shibam surrounded by contiguous tower houses within the outer walls expressed an urban response to the need for refuge and protection by rival families, as well as their economic and political prestige. As such the old walled city of Shibam and its setting in Wadi Hadramaut constitute an outstanding example of human settlement, land use and city planning. The domestic architecture of Shibam including its visual impact rising out of the flood plain of the wadi, functional design, materials and construction techniques is an outstanding but extremely vulnerable expression of Arab and Muslim traditional culture.
Abandonment of the old agricultural flood management system in the wadi, the overloading of the traditional sanitary systems by the introduction of modern water supply combined with inadequate drainage, together with changes in the livestock management have all contributed to the decay of the city.
The historic city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on multi-storeyed construction. It represents the most accomplished example of traditional Hadrami urban architecture, both in the grid lay-out of its streets and squares, and in the visual impact of its form rising out of the flood plain of the wadi, due to the height of its mud brick tower houses.
In 2015, Shibam was added to the list of World Heritage sites in Danger when violent civil war erupted in Yemen. Historic buildings were significantly damaged during heavy bombing in Sana’a, and remain at risk from armed conflict.