05 June, 2013

The Mud Skyscrapers of Shibam, Hadhramout: on Slate Magazine and Atlas Obscura

Sibam: one of the World's Wonders
I have visited Shibam several times and have written about it here, a few times. In 2007 after visiting it, I wrote: Surrounded by a fortified wall. Five centuries old. Several times, it has been the capital of Hadhramout. It has been, in the past, an important center for trade in the Arabian Peninsula. And since 1982, has been on UNESCO's programme for safeguarding cultural heritages. Often referred to as "the oldest skyscraper-city in the world", or "the Manhattan of the desert". And now: it still is a place very much worth visiting. Still, ancient in many ways. And still, inordinately fascinating. That's Shibam. In Wadi Hadhramout. There is an article on Shibam - that has just been published by Atlas Obscura and in Slate. The article is too brief and leaves several important facts about this spectacular, wonderful city out. Some important facts on Shibam:

  • Although its origins are still not completely understood, it was trading at the time of the Sabaeans around the fourth and fifth centuries BC.
  • Most of Shibam dates back to the 9th or 10th Centuries or even older than that. While Shibam has been in existence for an estimated 1,700 years, most of the city's houses originate from the 16th century.
  • It was an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabia.
  • It became the capital of Hadhramout after the destruction in AD 300 of the earlier capital Shabwa and the earliest written reference to it is found in an inscription dating to this period.
  • All the houses in Shibam are made of baked, mud bricks.
  • The tower houses have been designed this way so that the inhabitants would be protected from Bedouin attacks.
  • Some might assume it to be a mirage. Rising out of the desert in the South Arabian Peninsula, ancient high-rise apartment buildings made of mud meet the eye. Centuries before the modern age of skyscrapers dawned in Chicago and New York, the Middle East had its own skyscraper city – the oldest on earth.
  • It is the city's towering appearance that prompted Freya Stark to describe it as "the Manhattan of the desert".
  • 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 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.
  • The most distressing potential threat facing the city is flood, which might be at any time, detrimental to both the integrity and the authenticity of the old city, as it was during the disastrous flood of October 2008.
  • Shibam bears witness to the cultural identity of the people of Wadi Hadhramout and their former traditional way of life.
  • The old walled city of Shibam and Wadi Hadhramaut constitute an outstanding example of human settlement and land use. The domestic architecture of Shibam is an outstanding characteristic example of houses in the Arab and Muslim world. The rigorous city planning based on the principle of vertical construction is exceptional and an example of a traditional but vulnerable culture.
  • In Shibam there are some mosques (The Jam'ia Mosque in the center, dates largely from the 8th or the 9th or the 10th century AD), two ancient sultan's palaces, a double monumental door and more than 500 buildings which rise 5 to 11 stories high, separated or grouped, but all made uniform by the material of which they are constructed: baked clay.
This article, below, which appear in both Atlas Obscura and in Slate, is too brief and doesn't give much on the extraordinary Shibam:

Like Manhattan, the high-rises of Shibam were built on a rectangular grid of streets and squares. Unlike Manhattan, the skyscrapers are made of mud, date back to the 16th century, and the dusty streets are often overrun with goats.

Shibam, in the desert of central Yemen, is home to about 7,000 people. Located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the small town was once a stopping point for traders traveling along the frankincense and spice routes.

The walled city of “skyscrapers” was built on a hill in the 1530s after a mighty flood destroyed much of the existing settlement. Its five hundred huddled buildings, ranging from five to eleven stories high, are the tallest mud buildings in the world and provided protection against the elements and deterred potential attackers. They continue to shelter the residents of Shibam.

The tower houses, however, are not immune to damage -- fresh layers of mud must be applied to the walls regularly to replace sections eroded by wind and rain. A tropical storm in October 2008 brought disastrous floods, causing some of the buildings to collapse.

+ More on Shibam at UNESCO
+ More on Shibam on Archnet
+ Hadhramaut and its Mud Bricked Houses
+ More photos of Shibam on Flickr
+ More on Shibam in the documentary film: The Architecture of Mud
+ Watch a preview of The Architecture of Mud on YouTube