Old Walled City of Shibam
Caravan city and administration.
Location and site
Located at the southern edge of the Rub’al-Khali Desert, Shibam was on the caravan route of the incense trade. Erected on a hillock of the Hadramaout Valley, it is at the confluence of several wadis and on the site where the main wadi, the Hadramaout, narrows. Shibam is surrounded on three sides by a palm grove.
Inside the earthen ramparts of Shibam is a disconcerting orthogonal grid that borrows from the principles of the Muslim city. The misalignment of the streets from one neighbourhood to the next and from block to block destroys the possibility of perspective views through the city, despite its short (1 km.) length. The play of angles and serpentine streets multiplies the obstacles to views, and houses disappear one behind the other.
The high buildings are tightly grouped on the hillock to provide better protection against floods. Rising out of the desert, 500 houses of earthern architecture, are crowned in white to protect themselves from the sky. They widen at the base, which is also covered in an impermeable white render. Mashrabiyas and doors in wood, sometimes as old as the 12th century, decorate the narrow, closed facades of five to nine storeys. This fascinating architectural ensemble dates, for the most part, to the 16th century. It houses 7,000 inhabitants who share five mosques, one of which was constructed in the 8th century.
Criteria III, IV, V and I (subsidiary criteria) are cited without details.
- In the 3rd century, Shabwa, the capital of the Hadramaout at the time of the incense trade, was replaced by Shibam.
- Shibam played an increasingly important role at the beginning of the Hegira, when it became the capital of the Islamic government of western Hadramaout.
- In 746, it became a centre for the Hadramout’s opposition to the Omayyad Dynasty. Later, it became the seat of Ibadite power for the Kharijite sect, a status it maintained until the 11th century.
- In the 10th century, Shibam became the major trade centre, especially for dates and textiles, in the Hadramaout Valley. This commercial role continued for centuries.
- After it was conquered by the Ayubides of Yemen in 1219, Shimam became their seat of authority for western Hadramaout. In 1520, the role of capital city was taken over by Tarim.
- In 1298 and 1532, Shibam was the victim of disastrous floods.
- In the 18th century – thanks to the remittance of its emigrants from eastern Africa, India and especially Southeast Asia – Shibam enjoyed a period of prosperity.