With its  500 narrow houses bunched close together, built like a fortress in the midst of Wadi Hadramaut, Shibam is architecturally unique. Its six-storey houses, built of mud with stone foundations, look like skyscrapers. The nickname “Manhattan of the desert” is an apt one.

Twice destroyed in the 13th and 16th centuries, Shibam has scarcely altered since it was last rebuilt after 1553. The main reason is that customary law going back to that time dictates that any rebuilding must follow the exact pattern of the original. The owner may not rebuild on a new ground plan or to a different heigth. Even windows and doors have to be in the same position.

After several centuries of prosperity as a city on the spice and incense trade routes from south Arabia, Shibam went into a slow decline and was almost forgotten until two English travellers, Mabel and Theodore Bent, visited it at the end of the 19th century and brought it to the attention of the West.

Many of Shibam’s inhabitants emigrated; according to tradition, it was Hadramis who took Islam to the East Indies. Those who stayed behind depended on remittances from  the far-flung migrants. The Second World War caused a crisis in the Hadramaut, cutting off the flow of funds which the emigrants had sent to their families from Java and Singapore.

Aerial view of Shibam

Even when people emigrated they remembered that their roots belonged to Shibam.  Learn more here on this.  Where ever they went though they were influenced by the culture and language of the host country, they kept their own traditions alive.  They always stayed connected with people who continued to live in Shibam.  However, the situation changed again very soon.

The revolution and independence of South yemen (1967) hastened the Hadramaut’s decline. The sultans of the wadi fled to Saudi Arabia along with members of the wealthy Hadrami families who had built their fortunes in the East Indies. The socialist government in Aden distrusted the people of the wadi and their social structure, unchanged for centuries.

But since President Ali Nasser Mohammed became president in 1980 things have changed. He realises he cannot afford to neglect a population of some 100.000 people living in such a strategic area — at the gateway to saudi Arabia.

In an effort to preserve the cultural heritage of the area, the government has asked Unesco to put the site of Shibam and the Wadi Hadramaut on the World Heritage list. Unesco has now drawn up a plan to save the old city as part of a wider scheme to develop the wadi, expected to cost some $100 million.

One of the Unesco experts working on the plan, Jacques Heyman, stresses the urgency of this campaign. “Today almost nothing has been done to stop the ruin of this city, which is accelerating. If Shibalm is not restored immediately there won’t be much left to restore in 10 years’ time”.

The crisis was compounded by severe floods which hit the city in March 1982, when part of the Muza dam, four miles from Shibam, was swept away.

The roofs of Shibam

The Unesco plan is in two stages. First, an emergency programme costing $3 million is to protect the city from further flooding. It includes temporary repairs to the Muza dam, strengthening the city walls and immediate restoration of the most decrepit houses. The second is a longer-term scheme over three or four years which could cost up to $100 million.

The preliminary study shows that some 45 of Shibam’s 500 houses are in a critical state, mainly because of damp because of flooding, poor drainage and the need to restore the layer of ramad (lime and ashes) used to waterproof the walls.

Before work can begin on the houses, the sources of damp need to be tackled — by rebuilding the dam ($5 million) and the city wall ($5 million) and laying new sewage and fresh water systems, storm drains, electricity and telephone cables ($9 million).

Since Shibam is not a dead archeological site, but a living city inhabited by families which have lived there for generations, the government has asked Unesco to take socio-cultural factors into account.

Costly rehabilitation of buildings will be useless if new life is not injected into the valley. The Unesco plan includes a programme to contain desertification and curb emigration.

The most ambitious target is to reach self-sufficiency in food — which would be quite an achievement in a region which has long relied on emigration to survive economically. There are also plans to develop trade and local crafts and to build a museum in Seyun, a library for the old manuscripts of Tarim and a cultural centre for the whole Hadramaut. Finally, the major archeological and Islamic sites of the wadi are to be protected and developped.

“It is not enough to preserve the external appearance of the monuments, it is necessary to instil new life into the area”, say the experts in their report to Unesco’s director-general, in preparation for the launching of an international campaign to fund the programme.

What they do not say, but imply, is that the restoration of Wadi Hadramaut’s glories may also bring pressure on the South Yemen government to open its doors to tourism.

(The Middle East magazine, August 1983; 24 Heures, 11 Mai 1983)