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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.