Most people think of skyscrapers as inventions of the post-industrial world, characteristic of tightly-packed urban environments. Density in cities is, of course, nothing new. Surprisingly, neither is the art of constructing tall buildings, as evidenced by the city of Shibam.
City of Shibam lies deep in Yemen’s most remote valley. Surrounded by palm groves, and flanked by the steep cliffs leading up to the Yemeni highland on both sides, the city of 7,000 inhabitants hardly seems impressive. Just a handful of high-rise residential buildings, not so different from the Soviet-style blocks found across the Arab world.
Yet these buildings don’t date from the 20th century, or even the late 19th century. They were built almost five centuries ago, and have remained largely unchanged since. Shibam is known as the first city on earth with a vertical masterplan. A protected UNESCO World Heritage since 1982, the city is home to densely packed buildings ranging from four to eight storeys, beginning in 300 AD but now mostly built after 1532 .
The city is often called ‘Chicago of the desert’ or the ‘Manhattan of the desert’. Credited as the home of the first highrise apartment buildings, Shibam has become a symbol for the rise and resilience of middle eastern culture in the desolation of the surrounding desert.
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