Think skyscrapers and you’ll no doubt imagine shimmering towers of glass and steel, reaching ever closer to the heavens, whilst slowly turning most cities into a homogenised equaliser of stickle-bricks. But it’s always been this way, hasn’t it? At least, it has been for the residents of Shibam, a Yemeni town of about 7,000 people rising out of the arid Arabian desert.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking Shibam was some Brooklyn suburb, but look closer and you’ll find cracks, paintjobs and plasterwork that mark its mud-brick buildings out as the oldest of their type in the world. The city itself is thought to date from the 2nd century AD, but most of its high-risers shot up in the 16th century. Its closely-wedged toybox appearance owes more to its enemies than efficient planning: the tortoise-shell design prevented attacks from Bedouin tribes. The closest the ancient world gets to modern cityscapes are arguably the great Roman cities, like Rome itself, Constantinople and Leptis Magna. The pyramids of Giza are as close as Egypt ever got.
Over 500 of the city’s buildings reach between five and 11 stories, top 100ft (30m) in height, and are so tightly packed that no traffic can pass through: thus strangely the world’s first skyscraper city is also one of its cleanest. However it does suffer more pitfalls than your average urban sprawl. Floods and rain ravage its infrastructure on a weekly basis, with the city’s inhabitants well-versed in efficient running repairs. The most recent deluge came in 2008, when foundations were swept away and buildings fell apart.
A more sinister threat engulfed the city earlier this year, when it was the focus for a deadly al-Quaeda attack which left four South Korean tourists dead and many more injured. Add to that the constant threat of abandonment as residents seek easier lives elsewhere, and it’s a wonder Shibam is still standing. But it is. And with a spot on the UNESCO world heritage list, here’s hoping Shibam can continue breaking boundaries, long after today’s bloody tribes have bitten the dust.