Old Walled City of Shibam

Hadramaut Governorate, in the Wadi Hadramaut, Seiyun District
N15 55 36.984 E48 37 36.012
Date of Inscription: 1982
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Ref: 192
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Surrounded by a fortified wall, the 16th-century city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Its impressive tower-like structures rise out of the cliff and have given the city the nickname of ‘the Manhattan of the desert’.

The tall cluster of sun-dried mud brick tower houses of the 16th century walled city of Shibam, which rises out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut has been described as a ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Chicago’ of the desert. Located at an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city of dwellings up to seven storeys high developed on a fortified, rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. The city is built on a rocky spur several hundred metres above the wadi bed, and superseded an earlier settlement that was partly destroyed by a massive flood in 1532-3. The Friday mosque dates largely from the 9th -10th century and the castle from the 13th century, but the earliest settlement originated in the pre-Islamic period. It became the capital of Hadramaut after the destruction in AD 300 of the earlier capital Shabwa, which was located further to the west along the wadi. In the late 19th century, traders returning from Asia regenerated the walled city and since then development has expanded to the southern bank of the wadi forming a new suburb, al-Sahil. Abandonment of the old agricultural flood management system in the wadi, 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 have all contributed to the decay of the city.

The dense layout of Shibam surrounded by contiguous tower houses within the outer walls expressed an urban response to the need for refuge and protection by rival families, as well as their economic and political prestige. As such the old walled city of Shibam and its setting in Wadi Hadramaut constitute an outstanding example of human settlement, land use and city planning. The domestic architecture of Shibam including its visual impact rising out of the flood plain of the wadi, functional design, materials and construction techniques is an outstanding but extremely vulnerable expression of Arab and Muslim traditional culture.

The surrounding landscape of spate irrigated land which has been, and still is in agricultural use, constitutes an integrated economic system involving spate agriculture, mud generation and the use of mud for building construction that no longer exists elsewhere in the region.

Criterion (iii): The defensive character of Shibam with its dense conglomeration of many-storeyed buildings with almost no fenestration at ground level is an exceptional testimony to the strong competition that existed between rival families over this region. While the highly homogenous society traces its roots to Shibam over centuries, the traditional way of life exemplified by the city and its tower houses is threatened by social and economic change.

Criterion (iv):  Surrounded by a fortified wall, the historic city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on multi-storeyed construction. It represents the most accomplished example of traditional 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. These illustrate the key period of Hadrami history from the 16th to the 19th centuries, when local traders developed economic and political prestige through travel and trade abroad.

Criterion (v): Located between two mountains on the edge of a giant flood wadi and almost completely isolated from any other urban settlement, Shibam and its setting preserve the last surviving and comprehensive evidence of a traditional society that has adapted to the precarious life of a spate agriculture environment. It is vulnerable to social and economic change and the constant threat of annual flood incursions.

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Say’un — (also transliterated as Saywun, Sayoun or Seiyun) — is a city in the region and Governorate of Hadhramaut in Yemen. It is located in the middle of the Hadhramaut Valley, about 360 km (220 mi) from Mukalla, the capital of Mukalla District and the largest city in the area, via western route. It is also 12 km (7.5 mi) away from Shibam and 35 km (22 mi) away from Tarim, other large cities in the valley. It is said that the origin of the city was a resting point for travellers. There was a cafe with a woman named Seiyun there, and the area was named after her in her honor. Since then, the city has become the largest area of Hadhramaut valley. The most prominent villages surrounding the city include Madurah, Mérida, Burr, Hazkir, and Houta Sultana. It is served by Seiyun Airport. It is also well known for the Seiyun Palace of the Sultan of Kathiri built in 1920s with mud and stones [read more].

Tarim is a historic town situated in Wadi Hadhramaut (Valley of Hadhramaut) of South Yemen, in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Tarim is widely acknowledged as the theological, juridical, and academic center of the Hadhramaut Valley. An important focus of Islamic learning, it is estimated to contain the highest concentration of descendants of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (sayyids) anywhere in the world. The city is distinguished for producing numerous Islamic scholars, including Imam al-Haddad. Additionally, Tarim is also home to Dar al-Mustafa, a well-known educational institute for the study of traditional Islamic Sciences. The Hadhramaut Valley is a large region in southern Yemen spanning approximately 90,000 square kilometres (35,000 square miles). It consists of a narrow, arid coastal plain bounded by the steep escarpment of a broad plateau averaging around 1,400 m (0.87 mi) of altitude, with a sparse network of deeply sunk wadis (seasonal watercourses). Although the southern edge of Hadhramaut borders the Arabian Sea, Tarim is located around 180 km (110 mi) inland from the coast and 35 kilometres (22 miles) north-east of Seiyun [read more].

Al Mukalla is in the Yemeni Highlands and eastern Yemen’s biggest city, the gateway to the historical Hadhramaut region. A bustling port, it is well developed by Yemeni standards, with good roads and a reasonably smart waterfront. Riyan Mukalla International Airport (RIY IATA) (is about 30km from the city). Was served by Felix Airways, Yemenia and others. But since 2015 all flights suspended. See Old city; Al-Ghwayzi fort. Sleep: Ramada Al Mukalla (Holiday Inn). Arguably the best hotel in the area. It is not in the city centre but is a few km away. It has its own private beach, swimming pool and intermittent internet. All rooms have a sea view. It used to be a Holiday Inn, but has changed to the Ramada brand. Be careful on the beach as it is rocky with sharp objects/sea urchins at low tide; Hadhramaut Hotel. Has swimming pool. On the eastern side of the city [read more].

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