But this is no illusion, this is Shibam, the oldest skyscraper metropolis in the world, a 16th century wonder that defies the modern conventions of architecture and provides a rare glimpse into how ancient cultures adapted to some of the most unforgiving weather conditions on Earth.
The city backs up to a cliff in a fertile oasis in the heart of the Ramlat al-Sab`atayn desert in central Yemen, a flood-prone area that, after a massive deluge in the 1530s, washed away much of the old Shibam, UNESCO reports.
So Shibam's inhabitants reconstructed the city on a raised plateau, the only area within the oasis at an elevation high enough to stave off another potentially catastrophic flood.
Population at the "new" Shibam would slowly climb as traders and farmers coalesced around the cultural hub, sparking demand for space.
But solving Shibam's capacity problem wasn't so easy: Building off of the plateau would compromise both flood security and arable land. Shibam needed to expand, but with no real viable options to expand out, architects would need to get creative. So they built up.
And sure, at just 11 stories high, Shibam's towers hardly meet the conventions of modern skyscrapers, but consider this: Each of the city's more than 500 buildings are made entirely of mud. They are the tallest mud buildings in the world, Atlas Obscura reports.
For thousands of years Shibam's mud towers have been constructed in the same manner, the BBC reports. Fertile soil from the surrounding oasis is combined with hay and water to form a sticky mud mixture that's shaped into molds and left to bake the sun for days. Over time the desert sun hardens the muck into bricks that are used to repair and replace damaged buildings.
Without constant maintenance Shibam's mud towers would quickly crumble. Wind, rain, and heat team up to chip away at the mud edifices, accelerating erosion. On top of that, the threat of potentially catastrophic floods lingers.
In 2008, a tropical cyclone swept across the area, bringing heavy rains that completely inundated Shibam, turning it into a disaster zone, Al Jazeera reports.Yet, despite the risk, some 7,000 people still call Shibam home, maintaining a way of life that provides a rare glimpse into the architecture of the past.
Source: The Weather Channel