stability. The external walls, up to 130 feet (40 meters) high, are partly load bearing. They are set on stone foundations, supported by a framework of timber posts and beams and a large internal stairway built of stone. At ground-floor level the walls are from 4 to 6 feet (1.3 to 2 meters) thick. Interior surfaces are finished with a skim coat of lime plaster to which egg whites are added, producing a highly polished surface. The exteriors are stuccoed with a mixture of clay and chopped straw. High above the narrow lanes that separate the buildings, the living quarters on the upper floors are joined by networks of covered flyovers, so that neighbors can meet without needing to climb up and down stairs. The uppermost floors are usually covered with a thick layer of impermeable white stucco that not only protects from the rain but also reflects much of the solar radiation.

Ventilation is an important constraint upon the design in the relentless desert heat. The crowding of the tall buildings within such a small urban area produces some degree of self-shading. The walls are pierced by regular rows of narrow windows, rooms often having upper and lower sets that from outside create an illusion of more stories than there really are. Openings are closed with wooden mashrabiyas and doors, some as much as 800 years old, elaborately carved with open geometric patterns to encourage natural ventilation. The highest row of openings allows hot air to flow from the interior of the building in the summer.

Some inhabitants of Shibam have been forsaking these traditional houses for modern dwellings that line the highway to Suyan, about 30 miles (19 kilometers) away, producing a version of urban sprawl. Without maintenance, the skyscrapers in this “Manhattan of the Desert” are deteriorating; many are cracking and showing symptoms of collapse. Indeed, over the last decade, more than thirty have succumbed to the elements. Despite UNESCO’s listing and the self-conscious effort of the local people—rigorously applied building codes insist upon traditional designs, materials, and techniques—to conserve its character, the unique architectural landscape of Shibam is in imminent danger of disappearing.

Further reading

Lewcock, Ronald. 1986. Wadi Hadramawl and the Walled City of Shibam. Paris: UNESCO.

Stark, Freya. 1983. The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon, Myanmar

The most spectacular building in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a great bell-shaped, solid brick stupa covered with an estimated 55 tons (50 tonnes) of gold. It rises 368 feet (112 meters) on Theinguttara Hill, above the city. The sixteenth-century English adventurer Ralph Fitch wrote that “it is of a wonderful bigness, and all gilded from the foot to the top…. It is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in all the world; it stands very high….” The base of the pagoda, nearly 1,500 feet (460 meters) in perimeter, is surrounded by over seventy sculpture-enriched smaller shrines. It may be approached from four directions, and in the sixteenth century the gates to its three tiered terraces opened from long avenues lined with fruit trees. Although the tourist literature justifiably claims it to be the highest pagoda and the largest golden monument in the world, it is an architectural feat if for no reason other than its size and economic value. It is a thing of great glowing beauty, and a high point in the development of Buddhist architecture in Southeast Asia.

The Shwedagon Pagoda’s origins are immersed in myth. Tradition asserts that it has stood on its hill for 2,500 years, although archeologists believe it to be about 1,000 years younger. But Theinguttara Hill had long been sacred because of the relics of three earlier Buddhas buried there: the staff of Kakuthan, the filter of Gawnagon, and the waistcloth of Kassapa. The legend describes how two brothers met Guatama Buddha, who entrusted them with strands of his hair to be enshrined in Shwedagon. With divine help, they and King Okkalapa discovered the holy hill. To guard all four relics, consecutive pagodas of silver, tin, copper, lead, marble, iron, and gold were built one upon the other. The pagoda was damaged by earthquakes on at least eight occasions between 1564 and 1919, but rebuilding and enhancement by successive kings