The tall cluster of sun-dried mud brick tower houses of the 16th century walled city of Shibam, which rises out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut has been described as a 'Manhattan' or 'Chicago' of the desert. Located at an important caravan halt on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, the city of dwellings up to seven storeys high developed on a fortified, rectangular grid plan of streets and squares. The city is built on a rocky spur several hundred metres above the wadi bed, and superseded an earlier settlement that was partly destroyed by a massive flood in 1532-3. The Friday mosque dates largely from the 9th -10th century and the castle from the 13th century, but the earliest settlement originated in the pre-Islamic period. It became the capital of Hadramaut after the destruction in AD 300 of the earlier capital Shabwa, which was located further to the west along the wadi. In the late 19th century, traders returning from Asia regenerated the walled city and since then development has expanded to the southern bank of the wadi forming a new suburb, al-Sahil. Abandonment of the old agricultural flood management system in the wadi, the overloading of the traditional sanitary systems by the introduction of modern water supply combined with inadequate drainage, together with changes in the livestock management have all contributed to the decay of the city.
The dense layout of Shibam surrounded by contiguous tower houses within the outer walls expressed an urban response to the need for refuge and protection by rival families, as well as their economic and political prestige. As such the old walled city of Shibam and its setting in Wadi Hadramaut constitute an outstanding example of human settlement, land use and city planning. The domestic architecture of Shibam including its visual impact rising out of the flood plain of the wadi, functional design, materials and construction techniques is an outstanding but extremely vulnerable expression of Arab and Muslim traditional culture.
The surrounding landscape of spate irrigated land which has been, and still is in agricultural use, constitutes an integrated economic system involving spate agriculture, mud generation and the use of mud for building construction that no longer exists elsewhere in the region. Read more about this site on the UNESCO World Heritage website.