Shibam – Shibam, Yemen - Atlas Obscura


Shibam, Yemen

A city built from mud and known as the "Manhattan of the desert." 


Like Manhattan, the high-rises of Shibam were built on a rectangular grid of streets and squares. Unlike Manhattan, the skyscrapers are made of mud, date back to the 16th century, and the dusty streets are often overrun with goats.

Shibam, in the desert of central Yemen, is home to about 7,000 people. Located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the small town was once a stopping point for traders traveling along the frankincense and spice routes.

The walled city of “skyscrapers” was built on a hill in the 1530s after a mighty flood destroyed much of the existing settlement. Its 500 huddled buildings, ranging from five to 11 stories high, are the tallest mud buildings in the world and provided protection against the elements and deterred potential attackers. They continue to shelter the residents of Shibam.  

The tower houses, however, are not immune to damage — fresh layers of mud must be applied to the walls regularly to replace sections eroded by wind and rain. A tropical storm in October 2008 brought disastrous floods, causing some of the buildings to collapse. An Al Qaeda attack in 2009 brought further damage. 

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