The Architectural Wonders of Millennial Desert Manhattan

Passing through the Bab-al-Yaman, the huge gate that allows access to the ancient walled city of Sanaa in Yemen, is like going through a portal into another world.

You see lots of tall, slender buildings huddled in narrow alleys that connect lush fruit and vegetable gardens to the old souk (market) where donkeys are still sold.

I saw locksmiths mending huge metal keys that open imposing wooden doors; a vendor offering tunas with a cart, and the local baker who pulls fresh bread out of a burning hole on the floor.

In one tiny room, a camel was walking in circles driving a millstone that crushed sesame seeds.

But despite all that visual stimulus, it was undoubtedly the architecture it what dominaba the scene.

Sanaa is full of buildings that are different from what you can find anywhere else in the world.

On the street, where the monotony of adobe walls is interrupted only by large wooden doors, there was often not much to see.

But looking up, I realized that these slender buildings, some with only one or two rooms per floor, soar into the sky.

While the lower floors, at street level, were windowless due to their use as animal shelter or work spaces, the ornate windows higher up were covered by stained glass or delicate mashrabiya screens protecting the privacy of women in inside.

Buildings dating back more than 300 years

The window frames and friezes between the floors were marked with an intricate white lime to contrast the mud-colored background, creating an effect of gingerbread house.

Street in Yemen.

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At street level, buildings are often windowless as they are used as animal shelters or work spaces.

Many had rooftop terraces, used as entertaining spaces, as well as outdoor bedrooms for warm evenings.

The magnificence of the buildings, coupled with their simple practicality, creates an inspiring architectural panorama.

From the alleys it was practically impossible to appreciate the true height of these buildings, but when I got to the souk, I could see that some had up to seven floors Tall.

I went up to a rooftop on the seventh floor that had been converted into a cafe; the old town was down, but the buildings around it were mostly as tall as the one I was in, evoking the strange feeling of being surrounded by skyscrapers.

I could almost have felt in Dubai or New York, only these constructions were between 300 and 500 years old and made of mud.

Some of Yemen skyscrapers they can reach up to 30 meters in height. The first modern skyscrapers to be built in Chicago were only a couple of meters taller than these.

“The Manhattan of the desert”

Yemen is full of towering buildings similar to these. They are found in both the smallest and largest towns, such as the famous town of Shibam, which was nicknamed “the Manhattan of the desert” in the 1930s by Anglo-Italian explorer Dame Freya Stark.

Another example is the exquisitely decorated Dar-al-Hajar palace, the “Palacio de Roca”.

The architectural style of Yemeni skyscrapers is so unique that the cities of Zabid, Shibam and the old city of Sanaa have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The monumental palace of Dar-al-Hajar.

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The monumental palace of Dar-al-Hajar.

The tradition dates back to at least the 8th and 9th centuries, according to Trevor Marchand, professor of social anthropology at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and author of Architectural Heritage of Yemen – Buildings That Fill My Eye.

The exact dating of the structures is almost impossible to know, as these adobe buildings constantly need to be repaired or restored to prevent them from succumbing.

But Marchand explains that some medieval sources tell us that the Ghumdam Palace in Sana’a was built in the 3rd century BC, was the seat of the ancient Sabaean rulers of Yemen, was 20 stories high and was elaborately decorated.

Still in use

What makes Yemeni skyscrapers so unique is that they are still in use, just as they were hundreds of years ago.

In the old town of Sanaa, for example, although some have been converted into hotels and cafes, most are still used as private residences.

“As children, we played soccer in the narrow alleys and as teenagers we drank coffee behind the shiny windows,” says Arwa Mokdad, a peace advocate with the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation.

As I traveled the country, marveling at its skyscraper-filled cities, I couldn’t help but wonder why Yemenis built like this, considering that the country has vast expanses of desert.

Salma Samar Damluji, an architect and author of a book on Yemeni architecture and its reconstruction, explained to me that building construction was traditionally restricted to small sites, which forced to build vertically.

“The towns and cities had an outer wall, called the South, and another boundary in the desert.”

The architect also told me that the wall and the surrounding desert not only represented a barrier to any urban development, but any agriculturally viable space was also considered highly valuable to fill with buildings.


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Known as “the Manhattan of the desert,” the walled city of Shibam was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982.

So building upwards, in tight clusters, was the preferred option.

To protect yourself from invading forces

There was also the need to protect themselves, which caused Yemen’s settlements to be concentrated in certain places rather than spread out across the entire territory.

Urban planners considered that, living in an inhospitable desert, it was good to have the ability to look across the lands to identify enemies when they approached and to be able to close the gates of the cities in the night.

“An important factor contributing to the development of ‘tower houses’ in Yemen was the need to be safe from invading forces, as well as in times of local tribal disputes or civil war,” Marchand details.

Built with natural materials, Yemeni skyscrapers are sustainable and they are perfectly adapted to the hot and dry climate of the Arab desert.

Rooftop terraces function as open-air bedrooms, while screens on the windows invite even the briefest of breeze into the house, while allowing light to enter but not too much heat.

“Adobe is an exceptional thermal mass,” adds Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and a specialist in buildings made of mud.

Rael, who lives in his great-grandfather’s adobe house in southern Colorado, United States, explains that this material “absorbs and releases heat slowly“.

“During the day, when the sun hits the wall, the heat from the sun is slowly absorbed by the wall. As night falls, that heat is slowly released (helping) the earthen buildings to maintain a comfortable temperature, ”he continues.

This simple natural effect has made adobe construction still popular today and justifies that mud structures in Yemen still endure.

A way of building almost extinct

Unbelievably, builders generally didn’t use scaffolding.

The master builders began with a stone base, often about 2 meters deep, on top of which they laid mud bricks in a continuous bond.

Then they slowly built upward, placing wooden beams to add strength and adding wood floors and palm materials as they went up.

The scaffolding only began to be used later, once the house was finished and needed a restoration.

However, according to Damluji, these forms of construction are on the verge of extinction.

“We want structures that can last up to 300 years and more. Six- and seven-story buildings constructed of sun-dried mud bricks is a way of construction that no contemporary architect can use today in day“.

To prevent this knowledge from being lost, Damluji works closely with the Dawan foundation, which strives to preserve these building methods, encouraging the use of traditional materials and methods over modern ones.

The existence of these historic buildings is also threatened by constant wind erosion, war and economic struggles that prevent families from taking proper care of their fragile homes.

In 2020, Unesco examined around 8,000 of these architectural marvels and restored 78 who were on the brink of collapse.

Unesco is doing what it can to save as many buildings as possible, but it is difficult under the current circumstances.

“It is a heartbreaking experience to witness history turn to rubble,” laments Mokdad.

“This destruction is a loss for all humanity.”

“In any other place, these buildings would be museum pieces, but in Yemen they are still homes. I cannot describe the pride of living in a home preserved by generations of ancestors. They are our connection with the past ”, he concludes.

You can read the versionoriginal in English in BBC Travel.

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