Skyscrapers in History - The Town of Shibam

Skyscrapers in History - The Town of Shibam

20th February 2015

We tend to think of skyscrapers as a modern building invention – something that just wasn’t possible until we had the tools and machinery to erect these structures safely.  One of our recent blog posts was written to raise awareness of the importance of scaffold training for those who work at height.  We came across a great photo of the Eiffel Tower in Paris being painted back in 1932 and, shockingly there seemed to be no safety equipment in sight, not even a safety helmet.  The Eiffel Tower was completed way back in 1889 and enjoyed the title of the “world’s tallest structure” for the next four decades.  This has inspired us to look around for other tall structures in history and we came across the fascinating tale of the City of Shibam in Yemen.


Shibam is a UNESCO world heritage site and has been dubbed the “Manhattan of the Desert” due to its tightly packed tall buildings that jostle for space in the hot sunshine.  Shibam is actually a town rather than a city and is home to around 7,000 inhabitants.  The homes are all constructed from mud bricks and some 500 of these buildings are actually tower blocks which rise from 5 to 11 stories high, up to 100 ft in some cases.  While the town itself has been in existence for about 1,700 years and the first known inscriptions mentioning the place date back to the third century AD, most of the town’s current homes were built in the sixteenth century. 

With some of the tallest mud buildings in the world, Shibam is also called “the oldest skyscraper city in the world”.  The buildings are made from mud bricks and need regular maintenance in order to protect them from the ravages of the rain and erosion.  The walls a routinely maintained by applying fresh layers of mud. 

The town was badly affected by flooding in 2008 and many of the buildings’ foundations were damaged by the floodwaters which eventually led to their collapse.  Adding insult to injury, the town was attacked by Al Qaeda in 2009 when two explosions targeted tourists, killing four Korean tourists and their Yemeni guide and injuring three more tourists.  A second attack targeted a convoy of South Korean investigators and relatives of the victims of the first attack but only the suicide bomber involved was killed.

Shibam was once the capital of the Hadrami region of Yemen and was an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route, enjoying a prestige and fame that spread throughout the region.  The name “Shibam” is the word for “height” in the pre-Islamic Humyar language of the region. 

Today, Shibam attracts tourists from across the globe, flocking to admire the ancient mud brick buildings that were constructed before we became so aware of health and safety issues in the building trade.  The town also represents a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the construction and repair technology used in days gone by.