Further reading

Chilton, John. 2000. Heinz Isler. London: Thomas Telford.

Faber, Colin. 1963. Candela, the Shell Builder. New York: Reinhold.

Fernández Ordóñez, José A. 1999. Eduardo Torroja: Engineer. Madrid: Ediciones Pronaos.



Surrounded by a 23-foot-high (7-meter) mud-brick wall, the Yemeni city of Shibam lies at the southern edge of the Rub’al-Khali Desert at the junction of several wadis and the Hadramawt Valley. Popularly known as the “Manhattan of the Desert,” this city of about 7,000 inhabitants has more than 500 earthen high-rise houses, up to twelve stories high—the world’s oldest skyscrapers—neatly contained in a quarter-square-mile (half a square kilometer) rectangle. The city has been there for at least 1,800 years, but most of these remarkable dwellings date from the sixteenth century. Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1982, Shibam was described as “one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction.”

Shibam was on the caravan route of the incense trade and replaced Shabwa as the capital of the Hadramawt in the third century a.d. Since then, it has enjoyed several periods of religious, political, and especially commercial power. Because it stands on a hillock barely 100 feet (30 meters) above the floor of the deep Hadramawt wadi, Shibam has been victim to floods, and it was partly destroyed by water in 1532. Thus flood protection is among the reasons given for the traditional form of its unique high-rise houses; others include the need to conserve agricultural land (the city is surrounded by groves of date palms), the desire to gather patriarchal families under one roof, and, more pragmatically, at least in earlier times, to accept the protection afforded by the perimeter wall.


The city of Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen. Aerial view; some parts of the “skyscrapers” date from ca. 1200.

Many of the towers of sun-dried, straw-reinforced mud brick taper upward, perhaps to ensure greater