Believe me I tried to think of another way of describing Shibam but I really can't do any better than whoever it was who dubbed it the 'Manhattan of the desert'*. Rising out of the undulating sands of the wadi floor, Shibam with its 500 or so, six to eight storey ancient tower houses is every bit as awe-inspiring as the Manhattan skyline. But I also think that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Shibam is old and, surprise surprise, like many other old sites in Yemen, nobody can agree about just how old. The problem is that the thinner brick walls of the upper storeys have been repeatedly rebuilt and repaired and so are much more recent than the lower storeys and foundations. This makes it difficult to date the original settlement and estimates range from BC400 to AD300 with some of the upper storeys being no more than 300 years old. That’s still old compared to Manhattan I reckon but it’s more than that - the town looks old. I know it sounds a bit cliché but it really is like you’ve stepped back in time when you wander through the narrow alleyways past finely carved wooden doors and look up at the rows of equally beautiful latticed window screens. If you have the time and the energy, it is well worth taking the path up the cliff above the village of Sihayl on the south side of the wadi particularly in the late afternoon when Shibam positively glows below you in the light of the setting sun.
With the exception of Sihayl, which is separated from Shibam by the road and a wide stretch of open ground, there are no suburbs. Shibam has covered the same area of half a square kilometre for hundreds of years and it’s the underlying geology that’s the reason, not only for the almost regular rectangular shape of the town but also for the extraordinary height of the houses. Shibam is built on a rectangular shaped outcrop of solid rock protruding through a sea of sand so limiting any expansion of its boundaries. And historically, a very fortuitously positioned dod of rock it was too - situated at the crossing point of major trading points. As the towns importance grew to capital city status in AD300, so too did the population and the only way to go in building terms was up. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other town or city that has retained its original shape and not spread outwards over time. Great shai stall in the Palace Square, carpets on the ground, shisha pipes, old guys hanging out - very relaxed and friendly. Shibam is just pure dead brill!
*attributed to the English adventurer Freya Stark by my guide book but as this publication also has the Queen of Sheba converting to Islam 1600 years before the Prophet Mohammed was born, this may be suspect information!