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.
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?
Tags: Shibam, Urban Design, Yemen