In Yemen, there's a city full of 500 year old skyscrapers made of mud

Shibam, Yemen's "mudbrick Manhattan". Image: Jialiang Gao/peace-on-earth.org/Wikimedia Commons.

Deep in Yemen’s most remote valley lies the city of Shibam. Surrounded by palm groves, and flanked by the steep cliffs leading up to the Yemeni highland on both sides, the city of 2,000 inhabitants hardly seems impressive. Just a handful of high-rise residential buildings, not so different from the Soviet-style blocks found across the Arab world.

Yet  these buildings don’t date from the 20th century, or even the late 19th century. They were built almost five centuries ago, and have remained largely unchanged since.


On a dustless day, the white finish of its walls can be seen from miles away. The city, one of the few to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety, appears to rise from the plains. Its 500 houses reach an astounding 100 feet in height, almost as high as Chicago’s  first skyscrapers. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that the city was built using nothing but mud.

From a historical point of view, this is an incredible piece of engineering. But does the city also hold the key to a more sustainable architecture? Salma Damluji, the world’s foremost expert on Arabia’s traditional architecture, thinks the city’s use of mudbrick – bricks that have been dried in the sun rather than fired – is a key technique developed to cope with challenges posed by the harsh climate.

A close up of the "skyscrapers". Image: Aiman Titi/Wikimedia Commons.

Mudbrick has a higher heat capacity and lower conductivity than concrete, which means it slows the rate at which the temperature within the building changes. It’s also cheap to produce - labour costs are the only real costs involved - and it’s eco-friendly. Not only does the production of sun-dried bricks involve no polluting emissions, the bricks are also reusable.

And, unlike fired bricks, the physical structure of dried bricks does not change during the drying process. Without its white protective layer, a wet brick simply becomes mud.

In Shibam, climatic considerations manifest themselves in more than just the building material. Wooden windows provide privacy, refract glare and promote air circulation with their low placement, and small ventilation holes near the ceiling. Narrow streets and open plazas further enhance this air circulation on a city level. Thus, the architecture of Shibam reveals a complete approach to urban planning, fine-tuned to the city’s climate and social structure.


Although Shibam’s skyline probably forms its pinnacle, mudbrick architecture is widespread in the Middle East. One of its greatest champions was the Egyptian architect and intellectual Hassan Fathy (1900 – 1989), whose architectural philosophy took great inspiration from the socialist politics of Egypt’s anti-colonial hero: Gamal Abdel Nasser.

James Steele, in his biography of the architect, writes that, “On the one hand, Fathy respected and admired European traditions, while on the other hand he resented them as part of a colonial legacy that had threatened Egypt’s identity.”

Spurred on by discomfort with European models of architecture and urban planning, Fathy researched a wide range of architectural traditions native to Egypt. Though he was greatly impressed by both Pharaonic and Islamic monumental architecture, he was more directly influenced by the vernacular architecture of rural Nubia, an area covering the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan.

It was in Nubia where he first encountered mudbrick. “Once convinced of the long history, durability and cultural applicability of mudbrick, as well as its low cost and environmental advantages,” Steele writes, “Fathy saw no reason why it should not be used on a wider scale.”

Towards the end of his life, he was widely recognised for his development of an architectural philosophy that integrated modern technology with the demands of local culture and nature, winning the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980.

And yet it appears that his work failed to make a lasting impact on architecture in the Middle East. No large scale projects involving traditional building methods exist, and even Shibam is under threat.

While decades of political instability and the current war between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces have largely passed by the remote valley, Shibam’s architecture has been in decline since the nationalisation of many of its buildings. Although the buildings are rented out to their original owners, a lack of ownership has made their inhabitants reluctant to invest in the considerable maintenance costs. Without regular maintenance, crucial experience with traditional building methods risks being lost forever.

In close up. Image: Jialiang Gao/peace-on-earth.org/Wikimedia Commons.

And local tradition is crucial. When Oxfordshire organic farmers Lutfi and Ruby Radwan, inspired by the mud brick architecture of Saudi Arabia and Senegal, built Willowbrook Farm, they decided to use similarly eco-friendly methods. However, Britain’s climate is, unsurprisingly, not quite dry enough for sundried bricks.

“Instead, we built using the traditional British method of mixing the cob and building up directly in a continuous lump,” Lutfi says. “We admire Hassan Fathy’s work, but it didn’t influence us greatly. More importantly I had visited a number of mud buildings in Britain to see how local issues were dealt with.”

“Mudbrick architecture is more sustainable and cheaper if one factors in the environmental costs,” he continues. “Materials and labour can usually be sourced locally, so it benefits a local economy rather than relying on inputs from outside, which also affects energy costs involved in transportation.

"Plus, its environmental impact is minimal. These traditional methods are certainly a viable alternative to less environmentally sustainable modern methods.”

Sustainable, local architecture. With a shortage of 3.5m affordable homes reported in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps an affordable, durable and eco-friendly solution lies in the traditions of a forgotten Yemeni valley.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.