Inside war-torn Yemen's ancient skyscraper city, dubbed the 'Manhattan of the desert,' that's on the brink of ruin

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersView of the historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen.
  • Shibam in Yemen is an ancient, desert city.
  • Originally settled 1,700 years ago, it’s the world’s first city of skyscrapers. Many of the buildings, built from mud bricks, date back to the 16th century.
  • As Yemen struggles with a violent civil war between the government and Houthi rebels, Shibam’s future is uncertain.
  • The war has been going on for five years, resulting in 6,000 deaths and putting 22 million people in a position where they need assistance – for food, water, shelter, or sanitation.
  • For Shibam, things have been tenuous since 2008. Flooding, terrorist attacks, the Arab Spring Revolt, and the civil war have all put pressure on the city.
  • Shibam’s tourism industry has died, and funding for maintaining buildings has been cut. Now cracks are appearing across the buildings.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After surviving wars, floods, and a harsh climate for hundreds of years, Shibam, one of the world’s most remarkable cities, could soon be in ruins.

Shibam is known as the “Manhattan of the desert,” because it’s made up of mud brick skyscrapers that shoot up in the middle of the Arabian peninsula’s longest valley. It was dubbed that in the 1930s by Freya Stark, an English traveller.

In October 2019, The Guardian’s Beth McKernan took a look at the cost Yemen’s civil war is having on its ancient cities. Shibam is no longer getting funding to preserve its mud brick buildings, and faces threats from flooding, and potential airstrikes.

Almost all of the houses in the city have eroded, and cracks can be seen across the buildings, Asia Times reported.

Here’s what the city is like.

From so high up, it might not look like much, but the Yemen city of Shibam has been around for 1,700 years. Positioned on the crossroads between Europe, Africa, and Asia, it was once an important stop for spice and incense traders.

Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket / GettyYemen, Wadi Hadramawt, Aerial View Of Shibam City

Sources: Atlas Obscura/Slate, Business Insider

Shibam is a strategically built city. It sits on the highest point in the green valley of Wadi Hadramaut, the longest fertile valley in the Arabian Peninsula, nestled between two mountains. Shibam is almost completely isolated from other cities.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersAerial view of historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times

Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, former director-general of UNESCO, wrote in favour of Shibam’s defence and upkeep: “The traveller who comes unexpectedly upon it, after crossing a vast and level desert, sees a dazzling sight: rising from groves of date palms in the bottom of a luxuriant valley, the city seems to soar gracefully towards the sky.”

Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket / GettyVeiled Women, ‘Manhattan Of The Desert’.

Source: UNESCO

When English traveller Freya Stark saw it in the 1930s, she deemed it “Manhattan in the desert,” because its mud brick towers are set so closely together inside its city walls.

Khaled Fazaa / AFP / GettyA Yemeni man pulls his donkey cart past the historical city of Shibam in Hadramaut province of eastern Yemen on October 28, 2008.

Sources: Asia Times, The New York Times

Its tallest building is 98 feet high, so it doesn’t measure up to New York or Chicago. But unlike America’s modern concrete jungles, these high rises were built from mud brick in the 16th century.

Jean-Luc PETIT / Gamma-Rapho / GettyShibam, the Manhattan of desert in Yemen

Source: The Guardian

The buildings were built close together to protect owners from clashes with rival families, or thieves, as well as to show off their wealth and power. Since the buildings are so close to each other, residents could even make a quick escape through connecting doors.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersA man looks from his mud house in a street in the historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen March 19, 2009.

Sources: UNESCO, Business Insider

Hundreds of years on, Shibam’s architecture is still relevant. Foster & Partners studied it. The architecture firm built Masdar, a modern energy-saving city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, pictured here.

Karim Sahib / AFP / GettyMasdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Source: The New York Times

Norman Foster, one of the firm’s partners, looked at how Shibam, and other Arabian cities, were made livable in places where temperatures could get up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersLocals walk past a makeshift vegetable shop in the historic Yemeni city of Shibam.

Source: The New York Times

For instance, Shibam’s streets are too narrow for cars, but because of this they operate as wind tunnels, funelling air through the city, keeping it cool.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersAn elderly man sits outside a shop in the historical city of Shibam.

Source: The New York Times

The high buildings looming over the narrow streets also create shade. Foster found many of the streets ran at an angle against the sun’s trajectory, meaning there was even less direct sun.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersPeople sit outside a mosque in the historical Shibam city in southeastern Yemen.

Sources: The Guardian, The New York Times

Like the city, the buildings are strategically divided. Typically, livestock, tools, and grain were stored on the bottom, windowless floor. The middle floors were for the elderly and for socialising. The highest floors were for young families, and newlyweds were on the roof.

Joker / Katharina Eglau / Ullstein Bild / GettyThe old town and master builder Said Islam Ba-Sauwatain.

Sources: National Geographic, The Guardian

The city has 444 buildings, and some towers have 40 family members living together.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersA man looks out from the window of a house in the historical Shibam city in southeastern Yemen February 23, 2010.

Source: The Guardian

About 3,000 people still live in the city, but 28-year-old resident Ali Abdullah told The Guardian lots of young people had left, because it was difficult to rely on any income, unless the city starts being preserved again.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersSchool children run on a street in the historical city of Shibam.

Source: The Guardian

Those who do still live there can visit cafes. Tom Downey, a travel writer for The New York Times, said he encountered a local cafe as soon as he entered the city.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersMen play dominoes at a cafe in the historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen March 19, 2009.

Source: The New York Times

“Village men slammed down dominoes under the dwindling light of the evening sun and sipped glasses of sweet, scalding tea,” Downey wrote.

John Bulmer / Popperfoto / GettyA man serving tea from a samovar in Shibam in 1977.

Source: The New York Times

People can also visit the mosque. While the city was mostly rebuilt after severe flooding in 1532, the city’s main mosque was built in 904.

Source: Business Insider

Outside the city, the land is fertile from regular floods. Farmers harness it for growing crops.

DeAgostini / GettyCultivated fields, Shibam valley, Yemen.

Source: Business Insider

Their yields cater for a lot of the remaining population. Once the harvest is over, the focus turns to soil, which is gathered for repairs.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersRural women work in a farm near the historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen

Source: Business Insider

The towers need regular maintenance. Fresh coats of mud are applied to stop cracking and to maintain the walls’ strength. The mixture is made from soil, hay, and water, and is left to harden in the sun over a number of days.

Katharina Eglau / Ullstein Bild / Gettyreconstruction of the old town with ancient mud brick buildings, worker is preparing mudbrick (

Sources: Slate, National Geographic, Business Insider

Salma Damluji, an expert on Arabia’s traditional architecture, told news site City Metric that the use of mud brick was vital in coping with the harsh climate.

JOKER / Katharina Eglau / Ullstein Bild / Gettyreconstruction of the old town with ancient mud brick buildings, worker is preparing mudbrick (

Source: City Metric

Mud brick has a lot going for it — it’s cheap, it has a relatively low impact on the environment, it has a higher heat capacity than concrete, and the bricks are reusable, she said.

WikimediaMud bricks.

Source: City Metric

Mud bricks, also known as adobe, are also fire-proof, water-resistant, and offer relatively good insulation.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersWorker stands by a traditional oven producing the cementing material of lime, locally called Norah, in the historical Yemeni city of Shibam March 18, 2009.

Sources: City Metric, American Survival Guide

It’s not just the mud bricks that cater to the climate. Wooden windows reflect the sun’s glare, and enable air circulation. Holes in the ceilings also provide ventilation.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersChildren look out from a window of their mud home in the historical city of Shibam in southeastern Yemen

Since 1982, Shibam has been a UNESCO heritage site.

Khaled Abdulllah / ReutersFrench TV cameraman films a view of the historical city of Shibam.

Source: UNESCO

In the years after it was made a UNESCO site, tourism picked up for the city. In 2008, more than 6,500 tourists visited Shibam. This might not sound like much, but with a population of 3,000 people, it’s quite a number.


Daily News Site

In contrast, New York, another skyscraper city, had a record high of 65 million visitors in 2018, while it has nearly 9 million residents. And New York is a lot easier to get to than Shibam.


Sources: The New York Times,The New York Times

But Shibam’s tourism industry had peaked by 2008. The first blow for the city came that October, when Shibam experienced severe flooding from a massive tropical storm.

Abdul Aziz Omar / APOct. 25, 2008 file photo, flood damage is seen from a helicopter following a tropical storm in the Hadramut valley in Yemen.

Sources: Business Insider, Al Jazeera

The flooding caused damage to several buildings and toppled some of its mud brick towers.

Khaled Fazaa / AFP / GettyAn aerial picture shows damaged buildings in the ancient city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sources: Asia Times, National Geographic

One resident, named Ahmed Salem, told The New York Times that his family screamed while their mud brick house disintegrated as the lower floors flooded. He fled, only to return the following day to pick up valuables. He then watched his home topple down in front of him.

Abdul Aziz Omar / APResidents of the historic city of Shibam, Yemen, flee as a two-story mud brick house disintegrates.

Source: The New York Times

In 2009, things got worse for the city when four South Korean tourists, who were taking in a view of Shibam, were killed in an Al Qaeda bomb attack just outside the city.

Khaled Abdullah / ReutersA soldier stands guard at the scene of a suicide bombing attack near the historical city of Shibam

Source: Asia Times, The New York Times

Since the Arab Spring swept Yemen in 2011, tourist numbers have plummeted. At the same time, government funding for preserving the city stopped coming in.

Khaled Adbullah / ReutersA group of Australian tourists are overlooking the the historical city of Shibam.

Source: The Guardian

In 2015, there was another terrorist attack, when a car filled with explosives drove into a military convoy and exploded. The explosion is said to have shaken the fragile city, and is the most damaging attack to date. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Mohammed al-Qadhi / APAn armed Yemeni policeman walks in front of the gate of the historical city of Shibam.

Sources: Asia Times, The New York Times, National Geographic

In March 2015, Yemen’s violent civil war, between the Yemen government and Houthi rebels, began.

REUTERS/Mohamed al-SayaghiNewly recruited Houthi fighters gesture as they ride a car before heading to the frontline to fight against government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen November 16, 2017.

Source: Asia Times

It has led to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 22 million people needing food, water, shelter or sanitation.

ReutersYemen children suffer as the war continues.

Sources: Asia Times, Business Insider

The civil war has not caused outright damage to Shibam. But the threat of the war and airstrikes in the region led UNESCO to add the city to the World Heritage in Danger list in July 2015, alongside the city of Sana’a, which was damaged from the conflict.

Veronique Durruty / Gamma-Rapho / GettyOn the streets in Shibam, Yemen in 2010.

Sources: The Conversation, UNESCO

Residents fear more of Shibam will crumble. Already, two towers have collapsed in recent years, and 15 more could go the same way if they’re not repaired soon.

DeAgostini / GettyRuined buildings in a street of Shibam in 2015.

Source: The Guardian

In February 2019, 13 feet of the city’s surrounding wall collapsed. Without the wall, the city has little protection from flooding. But Arfan Faraj, a local builder, told Asia Times the collapse was good for one thing — it brought attention to the state of the crumbling city. If the wall collapses, he said, the houses will follow.

Hlow / Ullstein Bild / GettyShibam’s wall in 2000.

Sources: Asia Times, Business Insider

Hassan Aydeed, the local head of a group that preserves Yemen’s historic cities, wasn’t so positive. He called on his government or the international community to come to Shibam’s aid. “If the negligence goes on,” he told Asia Times, “we will be forced into leaving the city.”

Sources: Asia Times, Business Insider

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