It could be said that Yemen is a country where transcending the restrictions of height is an intrinsic part of the culture. Countless stone villages perch precariously atop vertiginous mountain ranges. Ancient tower houses hustle shoulder to shoulder around market squares as they compete for views across the city. Peaked, straw ‘witches hats’ totter gaily atop the heads of Hadramout farm girls. And every day, after lunch, 80% of the country starts chewing the Qat, the mildly narcotic leaf that takes them up, up and away from the lowly troubles of the daily routine.
A wonderful example of this lofty phenomena is the unique town of Shibam located in the massive, dry expanse of the Wadi Hadramout.
The development of the town has been curtailed by high city walls (created centuries ago as a protection from Bedouin tribes), and any building has since taken place within a strictly defined area. The result over the centuries, as with any modern metropolis, is the tendency to build higher and higher, so high in fact, that Shibam has been dubbed ‘Manhattan of the desert’. But these are not towers of concrete and steel; these 13 and 14 storey buildings are built and re-built over hundreds of years using nothing more than sun-dried mud bricks. Equally remarkable is that the architectural language of regular openings and smooth vertical walls is eerily reminiscent of the vocabulary of western modernism and yet pre-dates this by two or three hundred years. The sight of this combined edifice that rises majestically out of the desert is absolutely breathtaking and quite rightly listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Our visit there took place in March 2008 and we held an exhibition of our photographs several months later. Images from the exhibition can be seen here:
Philppe Jankech is a travel photographer having travelled extensively throughout the world.
Steven Atkinson runs the architectural visualisation company, Atkinson+CO;
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