The city of Shibam, located in the central-western area of Hadhramaut Governorate, Yemen, in the Ramlat al-Sab`atayn desert, is best known for its towering mudbrick skyscrapers. This small town of 7000 is packed with around 500 mud houses standing between 5 and 11 stories tall and reaching 100 feet high, all constructed entirely of mud bricks. The bizarre skyline that the high rise buildings bestow upon the city has earned Shibam the moniker “Manhattan of the Desert.”
Shibam is often called “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” and is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Its plan is trapezoidal, almost rectangular; and it is enclosed by earthen walls within which a block of dwellings, also built from earth, have been laid out on an orthogonal grid. Shibam was founded in the 3rd century AD, but most of the houses you see here dates only to the 16th century, following a devastating flood of which Shibam was the victim in 1532-33. However, some older houses and large buildings still remain from the first centuries of Islam, such as the Friday Mosque, built in 904, and the castle, built in 1220.
In general the windowless lower floors are used for grain storage, with areas for domestic use above and those for family and leisure above that. The main room on the second floor is used by men for socializing. It often has wonderful carved plasterwork and freestanding decorated wooden columns supporting the ceiling, while women’s areas are found higher, usually on the third or fourth floor. The highest rooms are for communal use by the whole family, and on the upper levels there are often bridges and doors connecting the houses. These are a defensive feature, but also a practical one – especially for old people who find it difficult to walk up and down the interminable staircases.
The houses needed to be rebuilt over the centuries. Rain and erosion have been constant threats to the buildings here. To protect their homes, residents must thickly coat the facades and roofs with sealant, and ensure they are maintained and regularly renovated. Those who can afford it limewash their houses to protect them against termites.
Shibam was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1982.