Yemen is scattered with similar soaring constructions, from those in smaller villages to bigger towns, such as the famous Shibam, dubbed in the 1930s “The Manhattan of the Desert” by Anglo-Italian explorer Dame Freya Stark; or the exquisitely decorated Dar-al-Hajar, the Imam’s Palace of the Rock.
The Yemeni skyscraper style of architecture is so unique that the cities of Zabid, Shibam and the Old City of Sana’a have been recognised as Unesco World Heritage sites, with the tradition dating at least to the 8th and 9th Centuries, according to Trevor Marchand, professor of social anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and author of Architectural Heritage of Yemen – Buildings That Fill My Eye. Exact dating is next to impossible, as these mud brick or adobe buildings need to be constantly patched up and restored to keep them from succumbing to the harsh elements, but “medieval sources tell us that the Ghumdam Palace in Sana’a, allegedly built in the 3rd Century BC and the seat of Yemen’s ancient Sabaean rulers, was 20 storeys high and elaborately decorated,” Marchand said.
What makes the Yemeni skyscrapers so unique is that they are still in use, just as they were hundreds of years ago. In the Old Town of Sana’a, for example, while a few have been converted into hotels and cafes, the majority are still used as private residences. “As children, we would play soccer in the tight alleyways and as teens we would sip coffee under the bright stained glass,” said Arwa Mokdad, peace advocate for Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation.
As I travelled around the country, marvelling at these skyscaper cities, I could not help but wonder why the Yemenis built these high-rises, considering the vast desert expanses of their country. Salma Samar Damluji, architect and author of The Architecture of Yemen and its Reconstruction told me that construction was, in fact, traditionally restricted to small sites, meaning buildings needed to be vertical. “Towns and cities had an outer wall, called Sur, and a further boundary from the desert,” she said, explaining that not only were the wall and the surrounding desert a barrier to any urban development, but any agriculturally viable space was deemed too valuable to build on, so that building upwards, in tightly formed clusters, was the preferred option.
It was also the need for protection that made Yemen’s settlements huddle together rather than sprawl across the land. Living in an inhospitable desert, security and the ability to look out across the land for approaching enemies, together with the ability to lock the cities’ gates at night, had to be considered in any town planning.