By Keith Rossi
Called the pearl of the dessert or some might call it the Manhattan of the desert, the ancient architecture of Shibam that that can be seen from miles away. It sticks out in the sun like a snow-capped mountain. As you nearer the fortress, you thus witness the old walled city of Shibam that is located on the west side of the Wadi Hadramaut. It is situated at the best strategic situation near a point by a fertile valley. The city sits on top of a mound that rises out of the valley floor; a fortified city wall surrounds the mound. The highest building in the city stands at eight stories high and the average building stands at five stories. The tallest homes in the city crowd the city wall, which offering added protection to the rest of the city. The walled city has over 500 houses with a population estimated at more than 7,000. There are five functioning mosques within the city and it is known that the population within the city has risen over the last century. There are also two palaces, one that remains from the seventh century, and the newer constructed around 1920. The city also has a school, a hospital, a traditional market and a modern market. The city has two gated entrances, one for pedestrians on the east and one for livestock on the west.
What makes Shibam so unusual is that the buildings are built of mud-brick on stone foundations with walls that taper thinner as they get higher off the ground. Strict rules are in force, which make sure no alterations can be made. The main streets are paved with stones within the city walls. At the higher levels of the homes, some have small bridges that connect each other and were made for easy passage during attacks.
Shibam became the capital of Hadramaut after the destruction of Shabwah. The people of Shabwah fled their town and took refuge in the city of Shibam that was originally called Shibat. During the tenth century the city was considered very large and was the commercial center of the wadi. The Friday Mosque is the earliest know building, which still stands today. The city is believed to have been much larger than it is now, but a series of flash floods particularly in 1298 and 1532 destroyed a large part of it. The oldest house could be 400 or 500 years old although there is no direct evidence of its age. The decoration of this home, which is very fine and extensive, was believed to date stylistically from the late sixteenth century. There are a number of artifacts to show that during the mid-eighteenth century, Shibam experienced a time of prosperity. The original doorframes that still remain on some of the homes date to as early as 1118 and there are some homes that date even earlier than this. Old houses could be seen being carefully restored by their owners up to twenty years ago. During modern times however, the city suffered massive flooding in 2008 and warfare from an Al Qaeda attack in 2009. The city remains unchanged because within the walls the people live a very tight knit and conservative life, which is not open to outsiders.
Because of its location on the banks of the Wadi bed the city of Shibam is badly eroded from the action of flash floods. It has also been exposed to the ravages of man. Islamic monuments, many which are very old, are not receiving the care and maintenance that their antiquity demands. The most severe factor affecting the city is the water in the ground. Piped water has been brought into the city without any adequate way of removing it. There is an undersized sewage system that is damaged and leaking. This slow infusion of water effects the buildings, which stand on soluble clay, subsoil and causes a continuous settlement around the buildings that leads to cracking and collapse. Another problem has developed from the easily accessible water; homeowners have been installing equipment that uses large quantities of water.
Appliances such as showers, water closets, washing machines cause leaking out of the pipes, drains of houses and this has immediate consequences that are causing devastation on the walls, plus the floors of the clay brick tower homes. The existing sewage system that takes the waste from the houses has not been correctly repaired. They have supplemented temporary fixes that once wear away cause just as much damage. During the rainy season there are bad leaks from the roofs that have not been repaired.
The visual character of the buildings and town is also under threat, given the ready supply of electricity. There are unsightly electric and telephone wires draped across the buildings in all directions. Car access is making pedestrian circulation very congested in some areas. Tourism is expected to increase and with it so will visitor parking, and this is expected to interfere with the traditional life of the local people. Serious damage to some Islamic monuments has been caused by ill-advised alterations. Over many years some of the waste diversion banks have broken. In places there are barriers that sit 3-5m above the ground in to stop the flooding.
UNESCO first plans to build a new sewage system complete with new dams and diversion banks to protect this beautiful city. This must be done immediately to stop any further damage along with fencing around all agricultural sites to provide conservation. Safe guarding the water pipes and equipment against leaks and also improving the amenities of the buildings are both necessary. Technical improvement of the materials and methods used to repair buildings are needed, as is action to conserve neglected buildings. Expert guidance is needed here to show how each building can best be protected and conserved.
The second phase will introduce other amenities such as permanently secured water supplies, underground electricity and telephone cables. UNESCO’s plan to save the city is a part of a wider scheme to develop the Wadi that is expected to cost some 100 million dollars. First a 3 million dollar program will be instated to protect the city from further flooding. Before work can begin on the houses, the sources of the leaking water must be fixed by rebuilding the dam and the city wall. The second is a longer-term scheme over three or four years to rebuild. Currently 45 of 500 houses are in a critical state, mostly from flooding, poor drainage and the need to restore the layer of waterproofing on the walls. The UNESCO plan includes a program to contain desertification and curb emigration. A large target the city has is to also reach self-sufficiency in food.
Cofield, Rita. “The City of Shibam: Conservation Beyond.” California Preservation News and Events The City of Shibam Conservation Beyond Preservation Comments. California Preservation Foundation, 03 June 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.