Yemen’s ancient ‘Manhattan of the Desert’ risks collapse

Dubbed the “Manhattan of the desert” for its centuries-old skyscrapers, Yemen’s ancient city of Shibam escaped damage in the civil war — but faces collapse from disrepair amid rains and floods. Against a backdrop of cliffs looking like America’s Grand Canyon, the UNESCO-listed World Heritage site is strategically built on a rocky spur high above the river valley of Wadi Hadramawt, in the arid centre of Yemen.

The UN describes the city, once an oasis stop for the camel caravans on the spice and incense routes across southern Arabia, as “one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction.” But Shibam is struggling. The mud-brick constructions need constant repair, but Yemen’s economy has collapsed in the brutal civil war raging since 2014, creating what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Those irreplaceable ancient sites, representing Yemen’s unique historical heritage, are also under threat. Some 20 kilometres east of Shibam is one of the world’s largest mud-brick towers, the Seiyun Palace, which is at risk of collapse as heavy rains and years of neglect take their toll. The third is the city of Tarim, about 40 kilometres east from the city, and known for its 365 mosques — together with Al-Mehdar, that has the tallest tower in Yemen.