Old Walled City of Shibam (1982)
"The Manhattan of the Desert"
Yemen

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UNESCO (Paris) 1990. Shibam.

Surrounded by a fortified wall, the 16th-century city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. 

Its impressive tower-like structures rise out of the cliff and have given the city the nickname of 'the Manhattan of the desert'. 

  • UNESCO (Paris) 1990. Shibam. 

The old walled city of Shibam -- also known as the Manhattan of the Desert -- stands on an elevated mound to the north of the main wadi bed, not far below a point where a number of tributary wadis converge. It is slightly on the west side of the 'middle lands' of Wadi Hadramawt. Its site is the best strategic situation in the whole area, at a point where the wadi narrows, and yet with an extensive hinterland of fertile side valleys. 

The city is unique in its concentration of tall houses upon the elevated mound that rises out in the valley floor; the mound is surrounded by a fortified city wall at its base. The tallest house rises 29.15 m above its entrance on street level and 36.51 m above the wadi bed. This house has eight floors; many others have seven storeys if they are on low-lying ground, but the average number of storeys is five. The highest houses crowd to the edge of the mound, to form more or less solid walls facing roughly east, south, west and north, of which the north and south sides are the longest. Surrounding the town on three sides are date plantations. On the fourth, the south side, lies the wadi bed. 
Yemen, People's Democratic Republic, 1985. UNESCO World Heritage Campaign. Views of Shibam. General view of the city. Yemen, People's Democratic Republic, 1985. UNESCO World Heritage Campaign. Views of Shibam. Close-up of buildings. Yemen, People's Democratic Republic, 1985. UNESCO World Heritage Campaign. Views of Shibam. Windows. Yemen, People's Democratic Republic, 1985. UNESCO World Heritage Campaign. Views of Shibam. Door.

The visual effect of the city has to some extent been marred within the last few years by the erection of a number of fairly high houses outside the walls on the wadi bed. One of the proposals contained in the plan of action of the international campaign for the safeguarding of Wadi Hadramawt is that the most recent of these buildings should be demolished, or at least reduced in height, to single-storeyed or at most double-storeyed buildings, so that they will set off, rather than mar, the extreme height of the buildings within the town.
  • United Nations (Vienna) 1984. View of Shibam. 

The traditional houses of Shibam are built of mud-brick, on stone foundations and with walls which taper on the outside from slightly less than I m thick at the bottom to less than 30 cm at the top. They are plastered externally with mud-plaster mixed with chopped straw, which shines when the sunlight strikes it. The top one or two levels of all the buildings are protected from rain by white lime plaster, which forms a continuous surface over all the roofs, parapets and outer walls, extending downwards in some cases about 5 m from the top. Hence the Arabs say that in the distance Shibam looks as though it is covered with snow.

Sources and links: 

World Cultural Heritage Properties in Yemen (on this web site). The inactive link on the Historic Town of Zabid is not described on postage stamps. For more information about the individual properties, please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Yemen-section.

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Revised 10 jul 2007  
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