The Walled City of Shibam, a ‘Manhattan of the desert’

Some times ago we wrote about the walled city of Kowloon, a spontaneous, unregulated urban development near Hong Kong.
Whereas that one was a relatively recent phenomenon (1950’s to 1990’s), the walled city of Shibam, located in the Ramlat al-Sab`atayn desert, in the central-western area of Hadhramaut Governorate (Yemen) is considered one of the oldest ‘high rise’ urban planning, and one of the most accomplished “traditional examples of Hadrami urban architecture, both in the grid lay-out of its streets and squares, and in the visual impact of its form rising out of the flood plain of the wadi, due to the height of its mud brick tower houses” (#). Isolated from other settlements, the city relied (and it still does) on agriculture, mud generation and reuse of mud in construction, through a system of spate irrigated lands.

Despite being built with sun-dried mud bricks, the fortified city from the the 16th-century is in fact based on the principle of vertical construction, with almost no fenestration on the ground level, rising up to the height of eight storey. Its plan is trapezoidal, with tower houses built within the outer walls for defense from rival families and political prestige.

Located in a caravan route of spice and incense across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city was built on a rocky spur, above an earlier settlement destroyed by a flood in 1532-3. The decay of the city followed the abandonment of the old agricultural flood management system, the overloading of the traditional sanitary systems by the introduction of modern water supply combined with inadequate drainage, together with changes in the livestock management.

Further reading:
on Environmental Graffiti
on Amusing Planet
on Mappe Online
on Yemen Tourism
The Old Walled City of Shibam, on the site of the Unesco

Watch another video here.

Considered one of the finest examples of Arab and Muslim construction techniques, the city included a very advanced sewage disposal system.
The following maps and descriptions are from Mappeonline’s page: “The Water Systems of Petra, Shibam and Thula” (from the “Inventory Of Traditional Knowledge To Combat Desertification“)

Urban plan of Shibam (Yemen). The harmonious distribution of squares, streets and blind alleys is the result of the sewage collection used as fertilizer. Each house has a waste disposal system provided with external outlets (marked in black). The latter overlook narrow back streets, blind alleys or perimeter paths (drawn in brown)

Shibam (Yemen). The sewage disposal system: a) organisation of a blind alley (in yellow on the urban plan, fig. 346) to discharge the solid and liquid waste dropping from the houses; b) the two-outlet toilet which allows the separation of liquid and solid excrement; c) the façade of a building equipped with sewage shafts and excrement collection baskets.

Photos credits:
Khaled Nasher, Peter Peers, Wikipedia, Twiga Swala, Ydeeyu, Loose Grip 99.



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