Yemen's Old Walled City of Shibam endangered by the elements

UNESCO yemen
7 min read
23 March, 2023
Home to the world's first skyscrapers, the ancient Yemeni city of Shibam has weathered the storm of time for nearly half a millennia. But a combination of climate change and the Yemeni Civil War could now threaten to bring the city to the ground.

Very few found life in the 16th century easy. Disease-ravaged populations. Food supplies could not be guaranteed. States formed, expanded and collapsed continuously with violent conflict common. For the inhabitants of a small but established city, growing in wealth, the dangers were many and varied. Conversely, the opportunities for survival were limited.

However, the Yemeni city of Shibam bears testament to a sharp architectural genius and a truly modern moment of innovation. Eschewing traditional fortifications, the inhabitants of Shibam built upwards, pioneering the skyscraper to defend the city against wandering invaders.

In Brief

Shibam is located at one end of the Wadi Hadramawt, a long and fertile valley at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, a vast expanse of desert known as the Empty Quarter. It is built upon an outcrop ringed by irrigated agriculture with the pastel-coloured buildings almost surreal against their surroundings.

Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the former director-general of UNESCO, imagined that for "the traveller who comes unexpectedly upon it, after crossing a vast and level desert, (s/he) sees a dazzling site: rising from groves of date palms the city seems to soar gracefully towards the sky."

"The Yemeni city of Shibam bears testament to a sharp architectural genius and a truly modern moment of innovation. Eschewing traditional fortifications, the inhabitants of Shibam built upwards, pioneering the skyscraper to defend the city against wandering invaders"

First referenced in the 3rd century AD, the current buildings mostly date to the 16th century with the main mosque an outlier containing features dating to the 9th century.

This is because Shibam is thought to have been built and rebuilt in a constant cycle according to necessity across the years. In fact, it is likely that the raised rock on which the city perches is actually composed of the petrified ruins of previous settlements.

Adapting to the environment

Though strikingly beautiful, the ingenuity of the design of the Shibam tower blocks may not be immediately obvious – they are no mere triumph of style over practicality.

Each tower can contain between five and eleven stories made up of one or two rooms per floor. Built in a trapezoidal structure, the tower walls are around 1m thick at the base, rising to just 30cm thick at the top to reduce the weight of the upper sections and the load put upon the base.

Once constructed, the flat rooves of the building are coated with white lime plaster, giving them the appearance of snow-capped mountains but serving the purpose of protecting the upper structure from rain.

The high-rise architecture at Shibam, Wadi Hadramawt, Jialiang Gao, 1999 (CC license 2.5).
The high-rise architecture at Shibam, Wadi Hadramawt, Jialiang Gao, 1999 (CC license 2.5)

Shibam is also famous for the ornate woodwork that adorns these homes. Internal columns and doorframes are decorated with carved patterns and all of the buildings had their own intricate wooden lock-and-key systems to protect them.

To defend against the elements, rather than intruders, the buildings are arranged in tight blocks with narrow alleys cutting across them. This is designed to funnel cool winds through the lattice-like layout of the streets, whilst the streets themselves run against the angle of the sun to provide as much shade as possible.  

At the core of Shibam’s success is the material from which each tower is made. Barring the wooden supports, the entire building is made up of bricks, mixed from soil, hay and water, and left to bake in the desert sun. These bricks are cheap, effective insulators and largely fire- and water-proof. With the additional application of fresh coats of mud, a tower could be expected to stand for up to 300 years.

These reasons earn Shibam a place as one of the most instructive UNESCO World Heritage sites. Included on the list from 1982 it is at once able to inspire awe as a living relic whilst also serving as a source of ecological inspiration. As awareness builds that the decades to come are likely to require close working with our environment for humanity’s survival, it is telling that Shibam was cited as a source in the work of the architects creating the new energy-saving Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

A central square in Shibam, Aysegul Tastaban, 2004 (CC license 2.0)
A central square in Shibam, Aysegul Tastaban, 2004 (CC license 2.0)

Changing contexts

In the last 300 years, the city’s towers have witnessed considerable change. But then, if they were to speak with the towers that stood before them, and their ancestors’ ancestors many stories could be told about the changing fortunes of Shibam and its environs.

A town was born, and it became a city, a regional capital and a crucial stop on the incense trade route. A king of the Hadramawt was born here, long before it became a seat of Islamic government. In the early tenth century, the city was razed to the ground, in between standing as a base of opposition against the Umayyads and then the Sulaihids. Two events stand apart however, twin floods which tore through Shibam in 1298 and 1532 and preceded the reconstruction of the city as it stands today.

Not all history is ancient history and for Yemen and the region, the recent upheaval has been most abrupt. Shibam is no longer part of the spice trade, but the Hadramawt province in which it lies today holds about 80% of Yemen’s oil reserves.

The city was ill-equipped to serve as an effective obstacle against the expansion of the British Aden Protectorate in the 19th century, but the towers remained standing through the hard-fought struggle for South Yemen’s independence in 1967 and then the formation of the Republic of Yemen in 1990. Recent events, however, have pushed the city to its literal breaking point, prompting its inclusion on the In Danger list from 2015.

Old City in Shibam, 1993 (CC license 2.5)
Old City in Shibam, 1993 (CC license 2.5)

An end to indefinite renewal?

The Yemeni Civil War started in 2014 and is an immensely complicated conflict amalgamating the failure to integrate differing identities within the state, the fallout of 2011’s Arab Spring, and the tensions between regional and international powers. The outcomes are much clearer. Yemen now hosts 4.5 million refugees and internally displaced people, 70% of the population relies on aid for their survival. And although $320,463,271 has been allocated to the 2023 UNHCR budget, it will not be enough.

Shibam has not been directly affected by the war thus far, but the indirect effects have been severe even before one takes into account the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Wadi Hadramawt. Tropical floods partially destroyed the city in 2008 but the flow of tourists meant there was money that could be spent on repairs. When the floods came again in 2019, five years after the war began, the funding was needed elsewhere.

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Now, with cracks appearing in the towers’ facades and those who can afford to move away, the renewable city of Shibam may be living its last existence. UNESCO contributions and European projects have attempted to stave off collapse with Tom Leiermann writing positively of the preservation of 60 buildings in 2022, but as he noted, it is only when "the symbiosis between people and urban structures remains intact, a heritage site can survive."

A consistent source of conservation funding rather than weapons spending must therefore be complemented by the hyper-specific expertise of those who know intuitively how the buildings should be cared for and maintained.

This is only possible when Shibam and Yemen’s inhabitants can envision a future for their city and state and when that vision is supported by positive external engagement.

Otherwise, the prophecy contained in the name of the valley and the province, Hadra Mawt meaning ‘death is present’ in Arabic, may soon come true for Shibam.

Will Spiers is a policy researcher and writer based in London. Will read history as an undergraduate, then completed a Master's in Political Science at the American University of Beirut