January 22nd, 2007

Skyscrapers in the Desert


Shibam is certainly one of the most architecturally outstanding places in the world. This dense walled maze of five hundred mud-brick skyscrapers seems to grow right out of the Yemeni desert. Many of its buildings date back to the 1500s—the city is as impressive from a distance as it is inside the city walls.



Entering through the main city gate


The only tea stall in Shibam



Shibam’s windows are ideal for teething

Shibam was declared a Wold Heritage city in 1982. World Heritage status has transformed Shibam in many ways. 95 percent of the shops in town are geared to tourists. There’s one on every corner. Yemen is a country with little tourist infrastructure and one of the lowest tourist arrival rates in Asia. Shibam is a surprise, the only place in Yemen where I frequently ran across white faces other than mine.


Streetside tourist shop


Incense burners for sale, a classic souvenir of the Arabian “incense route”

Since I come from a World Heritage city that has seen its historic core slowly turn into a theme park, I am a bit wary of certain effects caused by tourism. However, I would say that tourism has been kind to Shibam. UNESCO investments not only led to the restoration of skyscrapers and the preservation of traditional building techniques, but improvements in sewage and fresh water systems, storm drains, electricity and telephone cables, etc.

More importantly, it seems that somebody understood that a well-restored skyscraper is meaningless without its inhabitants. The city still feels real, despite the number of tourist shops. Whereas Quebec City has seen most residential buildings in its historic core turn into hotels, B&B’s, and summer homes for wealthy Americans, Shibam is still inhabited by its residents. There are no hotels within the walled city, perhaps because of a ban instigated by urban planners with enough foresight to understand the effects of tourism.

Then again, Quebec City welcomed more tourists last summer than the whole of Yemen received for the past twenty years combined. If the world finally wakes up to the fact that Yemen is a beautiful, fascinating and safe country, who knows what the future has in store for a place like Shibam?

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  1. Olga Schlyter says:

    Wow, that is an amazing place. How do people who live there make a living? Is it close to some bigger city, or can all the inhabitants make their living inside of the walls?

    January 22nd, 2007 at 5:42 pm

  2. Patrick Donovan says:

    Good question. I’m guessing UNESCO money and tourism accounts for some local jobs. Farming in the surrounding fields probably accounts for a few more. The town of Seiyun, with a population of 30,000, is about 20 km away–apparently, there is some oil extraction going on around there. This part of Yemen is also known for producing some of the best honey in the world, with little jars going for as much as $70. Nevertheless, unemployment hovers around 35% and per capita income is about $450 per year, so many people probably aren’t working much.

    January 24th, 2007 at 12:50 am

  3. Najeeb Musallam says:

    Thanks for the issue and nice photos.
    I am originally from Shibam-Hadhramaut spent all my childhood in that great old town, I would have to say or to correct that shibam knew the electric power service in 1962 and fresh water supply in 1961 such two projects done by a private shareholder co-operative company established in Shibam that time, UNESCO just declared Shibam as a world Heritage may be only in 1986-87. FYI Shibam knew such services before many major cities and town either in South or North Yemen. That time, before Hadhramaut became part of South Yemen and later on part of united Yemen, Shibam people were well educated and they have good connections and strong links with ouside world due the immigration of the Hadhrami people to many other countries like Easr Indies, India and East Africa, and later on to Saudi Arabia and Gulf States.
    also sewage and drain system Shibam was using its own old system until it replqaced with a modern sewage system that was in 1973.
    Najeeb Musallam

    February 4th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

  4. Patrick Donovan says:

    Hi Najeeb,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I based myself on this article, written in 1983, for much of the info.


    On the whole it paints a different portrait of life in South Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s.

    It claims that a tenth of Shibam was in a bad state, with poor drainage that was eating away at the mud walls. $100 million in UNESCO money was needed, with $9 million going to “laying new sewage and fresh water systems, storm drains, electricity and telephone cables.”

    In 1983 I was 8-years-old, in Quebec City, and had never heard of Yemen, so I can’t verify any of this first-hand. :)

    February 12th, 2007 at 9:19 pm

  5. Najeeb Musallam says:

    Dear Patrick,

    I am pleased to send you the link of shibamonline


    by the way, the site belongs to very nice Canadian gentleman, he is originally from Shibam (Shibami-Canadian), the site is giving good information about Shibam’s history, culture, and mud construction.

    Best regards

    May 9th, 2007 at 4:18 am

  6. Web Urbanist » Manhattan of the Desert: The Oldest Surviving Skyscrapers in the World says:

    […] Shibam, Yemen has been continuously occupied for over two millennia. This remote desert city boasts buildings of mud brick that reach up to fourteen stories in height, many dating back hundreds of years (and parts of which date back thousands). […]

    September 1st, 2007 at 4:21 am

  7. CHESSNOID says:

    These are great pictures of an amazing city. I can’t beleive they are that old and that high. Very good pictures.

    September 2nd, 2007 at 1:42 am

  8. monika biallass says:

    Hello, I saw your pics in fotocommunity.
    They are very nice, I like them.
    Take care.

    September 27th, 2007 at 5:23 am

  9. Michelle Langlie says:

    Great to see these pictures, they bring back lovely memories! I lived in Shibam for a month Dec 2006-Jan 2007 with a small group of students from Columbia University. We were documenting the mud brick palaces in Tarim, and spent much time with various Yemeni officials and foreigners involved with preservation, tourism, economic development. Unforgettable trip.

    December 5th, 2007 at 12:31 am

  10. Miguel Martinez says:

    Hi!I was so impress about this wonderful city of Yemen,I wish before I pass away I going over there.
    Muy bonita ciudad impresionante tengo curiosidad es una ciudad santa o religiosa como vive esa gente ahi.

    I just wondering if that city is something like holy city guau,beleive or not I saw that city on many dreams I just to had.


    July 4th, 2008 at 12:42 am

  11. Alice Maung-Mercurio says:

    There is a great sketch of Shibam’s “Urban Ecosystem” in the article by Pietro Laureano, who did work for the United Nations Conv. to Combat Desertification: Proper Uses of natural resources, Environmental architecture and hydraulic technologies for self – sustainable and resource-sparing projects, in Human Evolution, Vol. 13 – N. 1 (29-44), 1998.
    The sketch shows all the fields and trees outside the city walls that, in historical tradition, were managed so well that those relatively small plots of land grew enough food to feed both human and animal residents. That’s the magic of this town – Read other stuff by Pietro Laureano – Inspiring!!

    July 31st, 2008 at 12:20 am

  12. Skyscrapers in the Desert | Ikono Blog says:

    […] URBANPHOTO : “Shibam is certainly one of the most architecturally outstanding places in the world. This dense walled maze of five hundred mud-brick skyscrapers seems to grow right out of the Yemeni desert. Many of its buildings date back to the 1500s—the city is as impressive from a distance as it is inside the city walls. […]

    October 3rd, 2010 at 8:34 am

  13. Villes du monde: Shibam « Curiosités de Titam says:

    […] Source […]

    November 20th, 2012 at 11:28 pm