This rectangular walled city dates to back the 16th Century, one of the oldest and most impressive examples of vertical urban planning. Found on the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, this town with sun-dried mud brick tower houses, some reaching eight storeys high, has its history entwined with travelling caravans seeking frankincense and spices along the Silk Road.
The high walls and narrows streets provided safety for the citizens from the unforgiving desert elements and potential invaders. The earliest settlement being pre-Islamic, yet gradual and consistent additions were made through time, with the Friday Masjid founded between the 9th and 10th Century, and the Castle in the 13th Century. The fragility of mud-brick means the structures are in need regular maintenance, with fresh applications of mud and limestone, renewing and protecting the walls from elemental damage and pests.
However, UNESCO’s planned introduction of permanently secured water supplies, underground electricity, telephone cables, dams and diversion banks which support a modern sewerage system, ensuring the preservation Shibam’s unique historical value for future resident’s and society has been hindered by the current violence the country is enduring. The ongoing military destruction has resulted in the city being added to UNECO’s World Heritage in Danger list, with two other sites in 2015. Whilst the population suffer, as do these unique historical buildings, the Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova states, ‘In addition to causing terrible human suffering, these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people’s identity, history and memory and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic Civilization.’ This current precarious instability means planned efforts to modernise the amenities and secure the structural integrity of the sites is under suspension.
Fortunately, Shibam has largely escaped the destruction caused by the ongoing conflict, although years of neglect and insecurity are having a detrimental effect. According to the Legal Centre for Rights and Development in Sana’a, there is an estimated 712 masjid’s and 206 archeological sites damaged throughout the country since the beginning of the war, in 2015. However, residents with the limited means available to them during precarious political and economic times, are making a continuous endeavour to sustain the safety and heritage of their homes and city.
Sama’a al-Hamdani, director of the Yemen Cultural Institute for Heritage and the Arts stated, ‘We are nervous about the politicisation of heritage and the militarisation of archaeology during the conflict…We need to make sure that the narratives told on the destruction of heritage are factual and accurate [and] we need to keep Yemeni heritage protected from the parties participating in the destruction – you can’t be the destroyer and the saviour at the same time.’ Within a conflict zone, awareness of the detrimental consequence war has on the population is paramount, and the politicisation of such situations often hinder humanitarian help, along with preservation of heritage sites, as such there is urgent need for a resolution to the current conflict, and support for the ongoing safeguarding of the city and its population can be once again initiated, meanwhile the resilient residents are making every effort they can to protect their historic homes.
Foer, F. Thuras, D. & Morton, E. (2016) Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders. Workman Publishing: New York