It is in the heart of the Hadramaut region in Yemen. This is where the city of adobe skyscrapers rises. A city of almost 500 years. And an example of man’s ability to adapt to the most extreme environments. It is also called the “Manhattan of the desert”.
Long before New York
It is the walled city of Shibam. It is still the oldest metropolis in the world that is being built vertically. In its day it was an important caravan stop on the spice and incense route that crosses the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1930s, British explorer Freya Stark called it the “Manhattan of the desert”.
All aspects of Shibam design are strategic. It is located on a rocky promontory. It is surrounded by a huge flood wadi (“valley” in Arabic). Its elevated position protects it from rising water. And it stays near its main source for water and agriculture. The city was built in a rectangular pattern behind fortified walls, a method of defense that protected its residents from rival tribes. It gives them a strategic position to spot approaching enemies.
City with tricks
The adobe buildings are up to seven stories high. They were built on the fertile soil that surrounds the city. A mixture of earth, hay and water was made into bricks and left to cook in the sun for days. The windowless floors were used to store livestock and grain. And the upper levels were usually used as communal floors for socializing.
The bridges and gates that connected the buildings were a quick escape route. It’s another formidable defensive feature of the city. The city is threatened by wind, rain and heat erosion. In 2008, a tropical cyclone caused flooding in Shibam and damaged several buildings.
But the city is also threatened by human actions. In 2015 Shibam was put on the list of endangered world heritage along with two other sites in Yemen. A violent civil war had broken out and driven the country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Historic buildings were severely damaged during the heavy bombing of Sana’a. And they remain in danger because of the armed conflict.
Protect the past
These attacks destroy Yemen’s unique cultural heritage. It is an archive of the identity, history and memory of the peoples, as well as an exceptional testimony to the achievements of Islamic civilization. This was stated in a press release from the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.
The City of Adobe Skyscrapers isn’t its first cultural heritage site in danger. In 1954, The Hague adopted the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict following the extensive destruction of cultural property during World War II. It is the first international treaty of its kind. The convention is based on the premise: “Damage to cultural property belonging to people constitutes an impairment of the cultural heritage of all mankind.” Hence, it guarantees its protection by the international community.