The world's first skyscrapers were made from clay over 500 years ago. Many of these long standing ancient relics are under fire.


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Categories: Homes / Dwellings

These are the eight storey, 500-1200 year old, adobe (clay brick) homes of Shibam in Yemen. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site. Because the homes are so tall and tightly packed, Shibam is known as the 'Manhattan of the Desert'.  

The city sits above the floodplain of the nearby river. The geographic constraints of the site and of the city's exterior mud walls have limited outward urban expansion, so Shibam developed vertically forming a dense urban fabric of about 500 homes. The adobe brick walls, made from the river's clay mud, get thinner towards the top of the building to reduce the pressure on the lower walls. The earthen walls need to be re-plastered after erosion over time from wind and rain (below right). Even though the town stands on high ground, Shibam is at risk of damage from floods due to heavy seasonal rains. Residents whitewash the rooftops and the exterior facades of the buildings with a protective covering of crushed limestone to prevent water damage.

With many of Shibam's 20th century residents leaving the walled city a large number of the buildings began to deteriorate. An important part of Yemen's culture was at risk of being lost to erosion. But in the past 20 years governments, agencies and individuals have cooperated to restore Shibam, not as a tourist centre but as a living city.

I admit at the moment I'm posting this, that I had to go to the map to see where Yemen was.  I never gave it much attention.  So I looked it up.  For others in my shoes, notice that it's below Saudi Arabia: 

We are so proud of our concrete, our insulated airtight structures.  But to zoom fast forward 500 to 2000 years, and see how much of what we have built is still standing.... that will be the test of time.  In the western hemisphere, we usually see these types of structures only after an earthquake when they're all on the ground, and then we whine about how poorly they stand an earthquake.  Let's see how our modern skyscrapers fare an earthquake 500 years from now.  :)


The Old City of Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, before and after airstrikes in the current conflict, that has killed thousands of citizens and driven foreigners away Photo: AP/Mohammed Huweis/AFP/Getty

“When I went to see the damage the next morning, I found a hundred people watching and you could tell from their eyes that they were sad.”

Ahmed Baider is a 22-year-old Yemeni tourist guide from Sana’a, who woke up last Friday morning to find the Old City’s rammed earth and burnt brick towers, laced in white, destroyed by bombs.

“When I heard about how they bombed the old city I cried. When I used to guide tourists there I was very proud of what my grandfathers did. The old city means a lot to every Yemeni.”

The Old City of Sana'a on Friday morning after suffering aerial bombardment (Photo: Mohammed Huweis/AFP/Getty)


“I think the damage in Yemen is as horrible as the damage in Syria and Iraq”, he added, but he remained defiant that his country’s history “would not be deleted”.

Mr Baider’s account is backed up by Mohammed Al-Qalisi, who has lived in the Al-Qasimi district for more than 22 years. Unesco calls the area, a world heritage site since 1986, a “magnificent complex”.

“There is only rubble”, Mohammed told Telegraph Travel from Sana’a, Yemen's capital city. “It can't be restored. It's old heritage and can't be rebuilt in the same architectural style.”

The bombing on Friday morning was the result of airstrikes, destroying at least five of the historic buildings, which have edged the skyline here since the 11th century.

11th-century buildings of Sana'a's Old City, a Unesco World Heritage Site (Photo: Mohammed Huweis/AFP/Getty)

Residents said that the bombing was carried out by Saudi Arabia, although Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri denied carrying out an airstrike in the Old City. 

Heritage sites thousands of years old have come into the cross fire across Yemen, whose Roman

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