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Volume 37, Number 3May/June 1986

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Manhattan in the Hadramaut

Written and photographed by Jean-François Breton

At the end of December 1984, UNESCO - the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization - issued a plea to the world to save another national treasure from disintegration: the mud-brick "skyscrapers" in historic Hadramaut's Shibam in South Yemen. Two years earlier, an UNESCO-sponsored committee of experts had completed a study of the skyscrapers and added them and the Wadi Hadramaut to UNESCO's World Heritage list and early this year UNESCO, fearful for the future, was trying to raise an estimated $100 million to save this unique complex of very old houses, walls, gates and tombs as well as mud-brick buildings in Tarim, 48 kilometers to the east (30 miles).

As a member of the committee that hopes to safeguard Shibam and the Hadramaut, and as an archeologist - I have been director of the French Archeological Mission in South Yemen since 1978 - I can only endorse UNESCO's efforts. I have seen those regions at first hand and recently, to see what time and neglect have done to these treasures, I flew over the area again. The memory is with me still.

From Aden, the Hadramaut is about an hour's flight over vast tablelands of reddish brown limestone where flat-topped mountains stretch out like long wings, where the wadis cut deep horizontal lines into the earth and where narrow camel paths wind through unruffled, unchanging expanses. You're expecting to see the valley, of course, yet the precipitous canyon, appearing suddenly, still comes as a surprise: on both sides, its walls drop from altitudes of 1,000 meters to 730 meters (3,280 feet to 2,395 feet). Between green patches formed by the fields of dhura, maize and lucerne, lie the dark-green stripes of dategroves.

Then, almost at once, we arrive at Sayun, capital of the valley, with its new mud-brick airport, the ceilings decorated with green and pink stuccoes. Sayun lies at the foot of the mountain wall in the midst of palm trees and on the highest point stands the former sultan's palace, one of the best examples of Hadrami palace architecture.

Recently renovated, the palace now serves as an archeological museum in which are displayed inscribed slabs and figurines, bronze statuettes and pieces of pottery from such recently excavated sites as Raybun and Ba Qutfa. Since 1976, the Yemeni Center for Culture and Archeological Research has been making a laudable effort to preserve the antiquities of the valley and this is the first result.

Though the palace dominates the new commercial center of the town, several white minarets also rise above the clusters of houses in the city - a reminder that Sayun was once famous as a center of religion and learning - and surrounding the whole is a wide border of palmgroves dotted with white residences.

After Sayun, we fly over Ghurfah, Qaraw and al-Hazm and there, a white-topped gray mass suddenly rising out of the palmgroves, is Shibam, the so-called "New York" of the Hadramaut standing dramatically on a rocky spur that surges out of the bed of the wadi 725 meters below (2,378 feet). From the air it's a vast fortified trapezium running some 250 meters north to south (820 feet) and 380 meters east to west (1,245 feet), with the tall facades of contiguous houses forming a wall 20 to 25 meters high (65 to 82 feet). The only city of the Hadramaut with no gardens, Shibam is a city composed of a simple alignment of houses.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, travelers were struck by the height of these houses: five to six stories high. They wondered why and concluded - correctly - that since the city is situated along a border between two Sultanates, Ku'aiti and Kathiri, Shibam dwellers built their skyscrapers to be forts as well as homes; they sought refuge and protection in the height of the structures.

Rising towards the sky, these houses are also striking symbols of economic and political prestige. Since the 17th century a quarter of the population from this area has traveled abroad and Yemeni families once settled in parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa. In Singapore, Surabaya and Batavia, for example, a family named al-Tuwey owned enough land to accommodate 30 houses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, back in Shibam, these traders built the skyscrapers - partly to display their wealth, but also to save on the cost of land within the walls. According to W.H. Ingrams, Political Officer in the Hadramaut in 1936, a plot of land 25 meters long by 17 meters wide (82 feet by 56 feet) then cost more than $10,000 and a 30-meter high building (98 feet) cost more than $20,000, a staggering amount in today's dollars.

The origins of Shibam certainly go back to pre-Islamic times: ancient texts from Marib in North Yemen say that the city was destroyed by the Himyarites in the fourth century and nothing survives from this early period, though the Friday mosque and the castle date from the reign of Harun al-Rashid.

Floods often caused great damage to Shibam. In 1524, for example, a flood killed 15,000 people and reduced the city to half its former size and the city as it now stands dates back to that time, though the building boom between 1880 and 1930 - as traders returned from Asia - restored the size of the city somewhat. It now counts some 8,000 inhabitants in the walled city and more than 10,000 in the new suburb, al-Sahil, on the southern bank of the wadi.

Inside Shibam, the city is a strange labyrinth, the streets forming dark narrow tunnels between high, brown houses, with masonry drains in the street, and livestock running free amid a warren of hidden passageways and such odd juxtapositions as a white mosque squeezed in between two high houses. In the west are the wealthy districts of the city, where the doors and windows are of magnificent carved wood and the shops carry the latest in Western toys: television and push-button telephone sets, videos and tape recorders.

And yet the houses are still built in the same old way. Builders dig deep into the ground to find firm soil and, at the bottom of the trench, place a layer of animal droppings covered by a layer of salt. On this course they place timbers parallel to the walls, with stones packed in the interstices. In this manner, the builders construct a masonry wall of stone and lime up to street level. Then they pile sun-dried mud bricks up to the sixth floor, reducing the thickness of the walls as the building rises so that the internal dimensions seem to be constant and the external profile tapers slightly from ground to roof.

The houses are topped by flat roofs surrounded by parapets to form terraces. These terraces are waterproofed with an application of ramad - a plaster of lime, wood ashes and sand. "Two layers of ramad are supposed to last 50 years," says one of the oldest builders, "but it costs about 180 Yemeni dinars ($568) per three-by-five meter unit (10 by 16 feet). Of course, you can also coat the terraces with earth-and-straw plaster painted with lime - it only costs 80 dinars ($252) per unit - but that only lasts 15 years."

After visiting the Madrasa al-Hara, west of the city, I was invited by a man named Muhammad Ba Rashid to visit his five-floor house - called a husn (fortress). On the first floor are storerooms filled with bags of wheat, tools, car tires and, sometimes, livestock; on the second floor are the women's quarters; and on the third is the owner's majlis or mafraj where, over tea, he told me that the house was built about 100 years ago by his grandfather, a trader in Zanzibar and Mombasa.

The most pleasant rooms are on the fourth floor. One room has two wooden pillars, a wardrobe with fine carved doors and a mashrabiya (a handsome wooden screen) at the window. There is also a hidden staircase that leads to three upper terraces from which you can see all the surrounding villages. The closest is al-Qabusah where a big bronze lion's head was found in the 1940's. It is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

As we inspected the Hadramaut, en route to Tarim some 48 kilometers (30 miles) east, we traveled through wheat fields, through groves of date palms - with some 700,000 trees - and through tracts of land that, in accommodating camels, goats and sheep, typify the agricultural and pastoral traditions of this valley. En route we also saw the still startling combination of yesterday's world with today's world: black-dressed women with high straw hats working in the alfalfa fields while new McCormick machines roar in the distance.

Another sign of today's world is a complex of water pumps; as rainfall is little more than 60 millimeters a year (2.36 inches) more than 2,500 pumps reach down to get water from depths varying from 100 meters to 150 meters (328 to 492 feet).

Tarim is hidden behind a mud-wall with gatehouses and turrets enclosing the town, its gardens and cemeteries and climbing up the mountain behind. Inside, small boys offer to guide visitors to the palaces and mosques of the city, but you soon learn that there are supposed to be up to 360 of them, one, the Sirjis mosque, dating back to the seventh century.

In Tarim too there is a soaring mosque with a minaret built from mud: this is the al-Muhdar mosque, crowned by a 46-meter-high mud minaret (150 feet), the highest in Yemen. All the great houses of Tarim are massive square buildings with regular rows of tall windows, the biggest belonging to the al-Qaf family, and the signs of the earlier international trade are obvious: doors from Singapore and Indian pinnacles. Tarim also boasts the great Aw-qaf Library where the city's founders have stored their memories: between 300 to 400 manuscripts believed to be unique in the Islamic world, according to the scholar Abd al-Qader Sabban.

Tarim was once famous for its musicians, and its builders, but since the prosperous days when Hadramis built hundreds of houses, palaces, mosques and madrasas, the economics of the Hadramaut have greatly changed. With the income from Southeast Asia and East Africa sharply reduced and the world economic slump affecting even the Hadramis, builders and farmers are unable to make much of a living anymore. The results are attested everywhere, particularly in the lovely Shibam skyscrapers; because owners have been unable to maintain them, 30-odd houses out of 500 are now virtual ruins and long stretches of the city-wall have collapsed.

The wall has been placed under further stress because of the poor system of drainage outwards through the wall; in 1976 and 1982 a breach in the Muza dam some three miles west of Shibam let flood waters flow down into the city, and extensive damage was done to some of the outer houses.

In Tarim, as in Shibam, many houses have not been repaired during the past decade because of the inability of their owners to cope with the extraordinarily rapid increase in building costs. The average daily wage is now 10 Yemeni Dinars ($31) for a worker and 16 Dinars ($50) for a builder. Up close, as a result, you can see that although the Manhattan of the Hadramaut is almost as striking as from the air, the disintegration is more shocking. Unique and lovely, it must be saved.

Jean-Francois Breton, director of the French Archeological Mission in Yemen since 1975, is a member of the International Committee for the Rescue of Shibam.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the May/June 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1986 images.