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.

 
 
 
 

Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.


The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.