Walled City of Shibam

Background:

According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site the walled city of Shibam dates back all the way to the 16th century. Shibam is a fortified structure with massive walls surrounding a tall collection of sun-dried brick towers. Locally renounced as the “Manhattan of the Desert” Shibam is built on the cliff edge of Hadramaut, Yemen. The cities buildings are remarkable and stand over seven-stories high, but because they are so old they are very fragile and especially susceptible to severe weather and conflict in the Middle East. It was also built at a very crucial stopping point on the busiest spice and incense trade route in the South Arabian plateau. Shibam is one of the eldest and finest model or urban construction based on the value of vertical construction. Shibam was superseded by a town in the 10th century, which was completed wiped out by a massive flood in 1952. It wasn’t until the late 19th century when traders on their way back from Asia restored Shibam, and started to develop on its most southern bank of the Wadi. There are a great deal of reasons leading to the decay of the city, including: rejection of the old agriculture flood management system, overexertion of the traditional sanitary systems by the introduction of up-to-date water supply combined with the insufficient drainage, as well as, the changes in livestock management.

Arial Shot of the Walled City of Shibam (2006)

UNESCO World Heritage Photo

Ground image of Shibam (2006)

Ground image of Shibam (2006)

UNESCO World Heritage Photo

Endangering Factors

Primary: Environment

Shibam was added to the list of World Heritage sites in danger on July 2nd 2015. One of the largest factors to protect Shibam is the sizeable threat of flood, which could take place at any time and would ruin the integrity and authenticity of the city. Shibam is located in a flood plain between two mountains on the edge of a flood wall (similar to a dam). Due to lack of infrastructure and the location on a flood plain not only could a heavy rainfall ruin the city with flooding, but the flood wall has been deemed “condemned” and could burst at any time. By preserving Shibam and the flood wall, we would be preserving the last surviving and ample examples of a traditional culture that has conformed to the instable life of a spate agriculture setting.

In order to safeguard the structures from rain and erosion the walls must be routinely maintained by applying additional coatings of mud.

Shibam school (2006)

Shibam school (2006)

UNESCO World Heritage Photo

Secondary: Conflict

A large reason the flood plain is under scrutiny is because of a botched attempt to repair it after an attack on the dam by Al Qaeda in 2009. The attack on the flood wall had detrimental effects to nearly 12% of the city due to flooding, but has been repaired since then. Its location is key for mud production, but the use of mud as a primary building material no longer exists anywhere else in the region. Although no reason or evidence points to another attack on this region, because of its location in the Middle East, conflict is always a possibility, and Shibam has been working on a management plan for the city in case of emergency.

Damaged Flood Wall after Al Qaeda attack (2009)

Damaged Flood Wall after Al Qaeda attack (2009)

 

Insight into Global Issues

Yemen, with its close proximity to the Arabian Sea is at an increased risk for heavy flooding and rain erosion. In November of 2015 a cyclone hit the coast of Yemen in its fifth largest city, Mukalla leaving thousands of civilians homeless. Yemen is an area troubled by poverty on top of fighting a civil war. Yemen, with a population of around 23 million, is currently the poorest country in the Arab region. Many terrorist group and allies are currently blocking off major ports and airfields making it nearly impossible for outreach groups to import food; 13 million people are currently deemed as “food insecure” and 21 million in need of assistance. Current news stations are deeming Yemen as the world’s largest “forgotten emergency”.

The genuineness off Shibam is endangered indirectly through outside disturbances, as well as, the general trend in Yemen to interchange traditional materials and buildings with concrete structures. This is why organizations, such as, General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHYC) with the sole purpose of managing and safeguarding all the historic cities and heritage in Yemen.

Artwork from the village temple (2006)

Artwork from the village temple (2006)

 

Bibliography

Bijl, Arthur, and Jack May. “In Yemen, There’s a City Full of 500 Year Old Skyscrapers Made of Mud.” CityMetric. N.p., 12 Oct. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Black, Ian. “Saudis Strike in Response to Houthi Scud Attack as Forgotten War Rages on.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Old Walled City of Shibam.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Lucarelli, Fosco, and For Reliable Urban Planning Services Choose HPC Urban Design Planning Says. “The Walled City of Shibam, a ‘Manhattan of the Desert’.” SOCKS. N.p., 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

MacLeod, Finn. “The ‘Manhattan of the Desert’: Shibam, Yemen’s Ancient Skyscraper City.” ArchDaily. Arch Daily, 02 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

 

One thought on “Walled City of Shibam

  1. I also have a site in Yemen and the primary threat to my site is war and conflict in the area. Before reading anything about this site I assumed that this area of Yemen would also be affected by the civil war of the country. It is interesting, yet also a little scary, that this city is so vulnerable to flooding at any moment. It seems as though the government or UNESCO should be working on stabilizing the flood wall at a much faster rate than it is now. I believe that archaeologists should be included in the conversation about future plans for the city because they have studied past urban environments of all kinds and have a special type of insight about what works and what doesn’t. I hope this site does not become washed away because it seems to be full of cultural history that is essential to the human identity.

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