The dry and arid lands of Yemen are interspersed with seasonal river valleys along which towns and villages were built. These river valleys are called “wadis” and many places are built along them for the water. Wadi Hadhramaut and Wadi Daw’an are two such river valleys located in the eastern and central parts of Yemen.
The specialty of the towns and villages along these river valleys is the unique architecture of the buildings. The buildings are all multi-storied apartments constructed entirely of mud bricks and wooden floors.
All the buildings are built close to one another and are densely packed. The towns and villages lie at traditional watering stations along the river valleys. They are mostly built on plateaus and huge rocks. Whenever it rains or there are floods, the buildings weaken and require continuing maintenance.
Shibam is also known as “Manhattan of the Desert” because of its tall buildings and the way they contrast with the surrounding plateau.
The town is laid over an orthogonal grid and is enclosed in an earthen wall. The town is also sometimes called the “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” and is considered one of the best examples of urban planning with efficient use of space through vertical construction. In 1982, Shibam was given UNESCO World Heritage status.
Shibam, Wadi Hadhramaut’s most famous town, has a population of 7,000 with 500 mud houses that are 5 to 11 floors high.
The bottom floors of the buildings are mostly used for storage of grains. The main rooms on the second floors are used by men for socializing while the ones above that are used by women. The top floors are for whole family usage and sometimes are equipped with bridges to go over to other buildings for safety and convenience of old people.
The city was founded in 3rd century. Though most of the original buildings were destroyed during the floods in 16th century some still stand.
The Friday Mosque, for example, was built in 904 AD. Because of rains and erosion the buildings had to be rebuilt several times over the centuries and they have to be coated in thick sealants for protection. It also is a self-sufficient town complete with educational institutions, commercial and administrative buildings, and has as many as seven mosques. The city has been the capital many times over the years until 1940 when an airport was built near Seiyum, another town in Hadhramaut and current capital city, which shifted all the commercial activity from there.
Wadi Dawan, a tributary of Wadi Hadhramaut, claims advanced architecture when compared to Wadi Hadhramaut.
There are several picturesque villages including Al-Mashad, Al-Hajarayn, Al-Khurayba and Khaylla. Al-Mashad houses a 15-century tomb of Hasan Ibn Hasan and is a local pilgrimage site, though the village is almost deserted. The architectural superiority over Hadhramaut is due to the introduction of cement in construction and hence it is far better preserved than the other.
Despite being one of the oldest of places, the mud brick architecture of these villages and towns seeing a decline because of commercial contractors. Other factors that add to it are the changes in agricultural wealth, natural resources and skills which are affecting its economic and future and cultural heritage.