Ancient Skyscrapers: The Mudbrick Towerblocks of Yemen
Skyscrapers are a common sight in today’s cities. These modern structures trace their history to the late 19th century. Nevertheless, skyscrapers have precedents in earlier times, one of which being the mudbrick buildings of Yemen. These structures have been referred to as Yemen’s skyscrapers and are found at three cities in the country: Sana’a, Shibam, and Zabid. Yemen’s skyscrapers have been in use for hundreds of years, and perhaps even longer. All three Yemeni sites are today inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and their ancient mudbrick skyscrapers must have contributed to their inscription on the list.
Of course, Yemen’s skyscrapers, made of mudbricks, are nowhere near as tall as modern skyscrapers like these. (Dabarti / Adobe Stock)
Yemen’s Skyscrapers And Modern Skyscraper Meanings
The term “skyscraper” is used to describe a “very tall multistoried building” and was first coined during the 1880s. This was shortly after the first modern skyscrapers were built in the USA. Originally, skyscrapers referred to buildings with 10 to 20 stories. By the late 20th century, however, this term was used more generally to describe “high-rise buildings of unusual height, generally greater than 40 or 50 stories.”
In the USA, skyscrapers were built as a result of technological and social developments that were happening in the second half of the 19th century. For instance, during this period, the US saw a rise in urban commerce, which increased the need for business space in cities. One possible solution to this was to build upwards. In 1857, the first safe passenger elevator was installed in the Haughwout Department Store, New York City. The addition of elevators made the idea of constructing buildings with more than four or five stories practical.
Moreover, the refinement of the Bessemer process in the 1860s made feasible the mass production of steel. Amongst other things, steel was used to make the frames of buildings. Since this material is lighter and stronger than iron, it made it possible to build higher and higher.
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Whilst the first modern skyscrapers appeared in the USA during the 19th century, the concept of building vertically is not exactly a new one. Indeed, this is an idea that has been entertained by many societies over the ages. These older buildings, however, were certainly not referred to as skyscrapers, though they may be anachronistically referred to as such. Many of these ancient skyscrapers can be seen in Yemen, and they are a least several centuries old. Incredibly, they are still inhabited even today.
Unlike the modern American skyscrapers, these ancient Yemeni structures were not constructed using the latest technology available. Instead, they were built using an ancient invention, i.e., with mudbricks. There are three sites in Yemen that are especially famous for their mudbrick skyscrapers: Sana’a, Shibam, and Zabid.
The most famous of Yemen’s skyscrapers are the ones in the capital city of Sana’a shown here. (dinosmichail / Adobe Stock)
The Mudbrick Skyscrapers of Yemen’s Capital Sana’a
Sana’a is Yemen’s capital, and the country’s largest city. The city is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains and has been inhabited for over 2500 years. Due to its position on a key inland trade route, Sana’a became a significant settlement by the 1st century AD. Later, during the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Sana’a rose to prominence as a major center for the spread of Islam.
The city’s mudbrick skyscrapers, along with those at Shibam and Zabid, were built during 8th and 9th centuries AD, or perhaps even earlier. It has been pointed out, however, that it is almost impossible to date such mudbrick structures precisely. This is due to the fact that mudbrick structures are susceptible to the effects of harsh environments. Therefore, the structures need to be restored and patched up constantly to prevent them from falling apart.
The mudbrick skyscrapers in Sana’a range from five to nine stories. Unlike their early modern American counterparts, these buildings do not have elevators, which means that climbing to the top floor requires some physical effort. This is made even more challenging by the fact that Sana’a is situated 2000 meters (7218 feet) above sea level.
The façade windows of Sana’a’s skyscrapers are beautifully decorated with a special plaster called qadad. These windows are found on the higher stories, as the lower ones usually only have simple, small windows. This is supposed to prevent outsiders from having a view into the building, thereby giving the inhabitants some privacy. The top floor of the buildings is a communal space, where guests are received.
In 2020, it was reported that heavy rains caused some of the mudbrick skyscrapers in Sana’a to collapse. It may be mentioned that the rains, which began in July, and lasted for months, are only the latest trouble faced by these ancient structures. The city’s mudbrick skyscrapers have also endured years of disrepair, and occasional damage from airstrikes in the ongoing Yemeni civil war. The local authorities have provided figures that show the amount of damage caused by the heavy rains to the city’s mudbrick buildings. To date, the roofs of over 100 homes have partially collapsed, more than 2000 have leaks, and two abandoned buildings have collapsed.
In response to the destruction caused by the heavy rains, UNESCO launched a large-scale project to repair and save Sana’a’s mudbrick skyscrapers. In addition, the project was a way to provide jobs for the city’s young people. In 2020, it was reported that the project was already employing 2500 youths, and the aim was to increase the number to 4000. The youths employed by the project are charged with restoring and maintaining the buildings, as well as ensuring that the families living there are not displaced and can continue to live in these remarkable mudbrick skyscrapers. The creation of these jobs for the youths of Sana’a provides a glimmer of hope in the war-torn country, where job opportunities are limited.
Shibam's ancient mudbrick towers, in central Yemen, are impressive and old. (Don Whitebread / Adobe Stock)
The Skyscrapers of Shibam, Yemen Are Also Impressive
Mudbrick skyscrapers are not unique to Sana’a. Another Yemeni city that has these structures is Shibam, which lies about 600 kilometers (373 miles) east of Sana’a. Like Sana’a, Shibam also profited from the spice and incense trade routes, which made it wealthy. Shibam was built on a rocky spur and is surrounded by a huge flood wadi. This means that the city’s high elevation protects it from floods, whilst its location in a wadi provides it with a source of water for agriculture.
Around 300 AD, Shabwa, an earlier capital of Hadhramaut, was destroyed. This city was located in the same wadi as Shibam, but further to the west. Consequently, the capital was shifted to Shibam. In 1532/3 AD, a massive flood partially destroyed the earlier settlement at Shibam. Therefore, the city was mostly rebuilt during the 16th century. Nevertheless, some buildings from the time of the earlier settlement have survived till this day. These include a mosque dating to the 9th / 10th century AD, and the castle, which dates to the 13th century.
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Shibam, however, is best-known for its mudbrick skyscrapers. These buildings made Shibam so famous that the city became popularly known as the “Manhattan of the Desert.” Incidentally, the former was coined by the British explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s. Indeed, Shibam is regarded as the “oldest metropolis in the world to use vertical construction.”
The city of Shibam is surrounded by a circuit of outer walls, which, in ancient times, provided protection to the people living within it. Additionally, the walls provided a vantage point, from which approaching enemies could be spotted. The walls, along with the city’s dense mudbrick skyscrapers, have been interpreted as an expression of an “urban response to the need for refuge and protection by rival families, as well as their economic and political prestige.” Moreover, the city has been hailed as an “outstanding example of human settlement, land use and city planning.”
The mudbrick skyscrapers of Shibam, some of which rise to a height of seven stories, were constructed using materials sourced from the surrounding area. The mudbricks are produced by mixing soil, hay, and water, shaping the mixture into bricks, and leaving them to dry in the sun for several days. In addition, the maintenance of the buildings typically takes place after the harvest. Once the crops are gathered, the soil is collected to either make new mudbricks, or to give the skyscrapers new coats of mud. Thus, there is a sort of harmony between Shibam’s urban development and the land that surrounds the city.
Like their counterparts in Sana’a the mudbrick skyscrapers of Shibam also have windowless lower floors. The ground floors of these buildings are used for keeping livestock, and for the storage of grain. Likewise, the upper stories of the buildings are used for socializing, and as a communal area. Additionally, the buildings have bridges and doors that connect them to each other. These were supposed to provide a quick means of escape in the past and are regarded as another of the defensive features that were incorporated into Shibam’s urban landscape.
A section of the old city of Zabid, one of the oldest cities in Yemen. (Ahmet / Adobe Stock)
The Mudbrick Skyscrapers of Zabid
The third Yemeni city (or rather, town) with mudbrick skyscrapers is Zabid, which is located about 300 km (186 mi) to the southwest of Sana’a. The town is situated on the banks of the Wadi Zabid River, after which it is named, and at the eastern edge of the Tihamah coastal plain. The town is said to be an ancient town, and was already flourishing when Islam was established in the area during the 7th century AD. The town played an important role in the spread of Islam when the faith was newly established. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the archaeological remains found in the Alash’ar Mosque. This mosque is associated with Al-Alash’ari, one of the Prophet Muhammad's companions, and considered to be the fifth mosque in the history of Islam.
In 820 AD, Muhammad ibn Ziyad, an emissary of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, was sent to quell a rebellion in the area. Subsequently, Zabid was re-established, and became the capital of the Ziyadi dynasty, which ibn Ziyad established. At its height of power, the Ziyadi dynasty ruled over a large portion of southwestern Arabia. During the 12th century, the Ayyubids, led by Turan Shah, the brother of Saladin, conquered Yemen. Consequently, Zabid lost its status as a capital to Ta’izz. By the late 15th century, Zabid was under the rule of the Tahirid dynasty, and prospered once again.
Compared to the mudbrick skyscrapers of Sana’a and Shibam, those at Zabid are much lower, usually not exceeding three storeys. Nevertheless, these traditional structures are made also of the same construction material, i.e., mudbricks. One of the highlights of the mudbrick buildings of Zabid are its façades, many of which are decorated with intricate stuccoed patterns. These decorative motifs draw inspiration from Arabic, African, and Indian traditions, a reflection of the town’s status as a cultural hub in the past. The patterns decorating the façades of these buildings include floral and faunal motifs, calligraphy, and geometric and abstract designs.
The mudbrick buildings of Zabid are also under threat, though for a slightly different reason than those in Sana’a and Shibam. Following the Gulf War, the town experienced a small population boom. In order to accommodate this increase in population, the old buildings were either renovated or replaced by newer, concrete ones. The latter are considered as a threat to the traditional mudbrick buildings. As for the surviving mudbrick structures, many of them have not been maintained as a result of poverty. It is estimated that up to 40% of Zabid’s traditional structures are under threat from new developments, resulting in the town being placed on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger.”
The colorful mudbrick skyscrapers of the village of Kaylah in Yemen are typical of the architecture found in the Hadramawt region. (Helen / Adobe Stock)
Yemen’s Mudbrick Skyscrapers Given UNESCO Status
To conclude, the mudbrick skyscrapers of Yemen are a unique group of buildings that pre-date the construction of the first modern skyscrapers.
The use of mudbricks, a material that has an even longer history, stretching back millennia, to construct these soaring structures is a testament to human ingenuity. It is perhaps little wonder that the mudbrick skyscrapers contributed to the inscription of Sana’a, Shibam, and Zabid on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
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These ancient structures, however, have been threatened by the harsh environmental conditions, floods in particular, damage from the ongoing civil war, and the encroachment of new development. Yet, these buildings have survived for centuries, a sign of their resilience. It is hoped that they will continue to do so for many more centuries to come.
Top image: A view of Shibam’s mudbrick skyscrapers for which Yemen’s ancient mudbrick structures have earned the moniker “the Manhattans of the Desert.” Source: Jialiang Gao / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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