The ancient city of Shibam, dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’ for its towering skyline, is in critical need of repair after years of neglect during Yemen’s devastating conflict.
Down the narrow city streets, a look inside the house of Faisal Mohammed Batheb shows the urgency of the problem. Cracks have spread from the floor to the ceiling and beyond. The upper floors are no longer fit for habitation.
The six-storey home is among 470 houses that make up the fabulous walled city of Shibam, a 16th-century settlement built entirely of mud and located in a long valley in the southeastern province of Hadramout.
“Shibam houses are strong even with cracks,” the 60-year-old retired teacher insists as he points to the cracks inside his house.
Despite Batheb’s timid assurance that the house is not at risk of collapse, the damage to the upper two floors of the structure proves the opposite. Heavy rains seeped into the house, creating a hole in the roof and eroding the walls. Cracks also expanded in the bathrooms and along the wooden roof.
“I am not the only person who lives in a decaying house. There are many other people who live in houses worse than this,” the father of five children said. Dozens of other homes in Shibam are cracking because of a lack of upkeep.
Shabam, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is comprised of nearly 500 towering dwellings encircled by a fortified wall.
The population of this mini-Manhattan numbers only about 3,000 people, according to the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY). Its inhabitants are struggling to make a living as farmers or government employees or by doing laborious manual jobs such as construction.
Historic cities in Yemen like Shibam have been left to struggle for survival since late 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthis seized control of the capital, prompting neighboring Saudi Arabia to lead a military coalition in March 2015 to restore the internationally-recognized government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to power.
Yemeni and foreign workers who lived in Shibam decamped to the capital Sanaa or fled the country due to the ensuing insecurity as vital funds that kept regular maintenance operations running dried up. The negligence has had a visible impact on the city’s houses and residents.
The outer layers of clay on almost all houses have become eroded and visible cracks have spread across the structures.
Two engineers from the GOPHCY who inspected Batheb’s house during our interview said that in only four days their team had documented 15 houses out of 50 that need urgent upkeep or face collapse, posing a threat to residents and other standing houses.
In early February, almost four meters of the wall of the city collapsed, intensifying concerns about the risks facing the ancient settlement after years without maintenance.
For residents, the incident was a blessing in disguise. Local government officials and journalists trickled into the city to inspect the crumbled wall. Local journalists spoke on television about the risks facing the city.
Standing near the wall, Arfan Faraj, a 61-year- old builder, told Asia Times he was among the many local draftsmen who replaced the city’s wall in 1985. He warned that the wall is at risk of collapse, as are the city’s houses.
“The wall has not only protected the city from predators but propped up the houses. If the wall collapses, the houses will follow,” he said.
For decades, regular upkeep has been funded by the Yemeni and German governments and carried out by local builders such as Arfan Faraj. When the flow of money came to a halt, builders lost an important source of income and a big opportunity for them to pass down their skills to their offspring.
Terrorism vs tourism
The city of Shibam has largely remained unaffected by the current bloody fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government as state forces managed to stave off Houthi advances outside the central province of Maib, hundreds of kilometers away.
But local Al Qaeda and ISIS militants exploited the army’s loss in Wadi Hadramout by launching deadly attacks against army checkpoints and official convoys on the main road between Shibam and Seiyun. The attack that did the most damage to the city’s buildings was in November 2015. Residents said a car laden with explosives rammed into a military convoy outside the city’s wall, setting off a thunderous explosion that rocked the city and caused deep rifts in houses. Residents who heard the explosion said it shook the foundations of the city and tremors were felt everywhere.
Hassan Aydeed, the director of Shibam’s GOPHCY office, told Asia Times that 10 houses were immediately evacuated and repaired by local authorities.
“Repeated explosions and armed clashes have negatively impacted Shibam’s buildings,” he said, adding that natural occurrences such as heavy rains and flooding also continue to pose a threat to the city.
“We appeal to the Yemeni government to take responsibility for this world heritage city before it collapses. Our second message is to international organizations to quickly intervene in the restoration of the city’s buildings,” Aydeed said.
The number of tourists has begun to dwindle since 2009 when Al Qaida killed several Korean tourists outside the city. Now, the city’s narrow streets, which used to alive with hundreds of tourists every day, are almost deserted except for a few children playing football or roaming sheep.
“If the negligence goes on, we will be forced into leaving the city,” Batheb said, his voice choking.