Shibam, Yemen – Original Manhattan (01.08.16)

As the suitability or otherwise of travel destinations around the world changes on an almost weekly basis these days, I am feeling reflective and posting a blog on one of my all time favourite destinations – the Old Walled City of Shibam in Yemen – regardless of its suitability.


Indeed, needless to say, Yemen is currently about as off limits as it gets. Today’s FCO Travel Advice is ‘If you are in Yemen, you should leave immediately’.

I hope that one day it will again become accessible to foreign visitors. Shibam sits in a protective time warp, pretty much unvisited by the outside world, as it has done throughout history since its origins as the Hadramaut capital in AD300.

Hidden away deep in the Hadramaut Valley, this most extraordinary of World Heritage Cities appears on the edge of the mystical Empty Quarter desert region, sandwiched up to the wadi mountainside like a scene straight out of Aladdin. Built from sun-dried mud bricks, it has changed little in design since the 16th Century, when it became an essential caravan post for merchants trading in spices and incense across the lucrative Southern Arabian plateau.


For my part, after several days’ travel over the flat desert of the Empty Quarter, the first sight of such an extraordinary collection of rectangular skyscrapers, incongruously rising from the valley floor, was magical. So surreal, in the context of where we were, that I equate it with the first time I saw super tankers navigating the Suez Canal, again, from the viewpoint of a desert – the dry, flat Sinai Desert. Enormous, regal and spellbinding.

Shibam is regarded as one of the world’s oldest and most exciting examples of urban planning, the skyscraper-like structures earning it the title, ‘the original Manhattan’.


Without the aid of cement, steel or modern hydraulics, the Old Walled City’s ten storey high structures are glued together by mud and straw and collectively cover an area not unlike a large modern city block. The difference is that without electrically powered lifts, horizontal passageways are used to connect buildings high in the sky, several floors up.

I loved it. Life abounds everywhere among the never-ending mazy streets, alleys and biblical structures. The nearby riverbed turns from a dry roadway between city blocks to an enormous children’s play area after a downpour causes flash flooding. The ambiance of the town is fun and functional, despite being as remote today as it has been at any stage in its history.


Perhaps as circumstances contrive to keep an otherwise changing world away, the local traditions, proud history and unique Hadramaut way of life will continue unaltered.

As highlighted in a previous blog on the country’s capital Sana’a, I first visited Yemen just under twenty years ago, at a time when Nomadic Thoughts was embracing travel throughout the country, offering trips through mountains, across deserts and amid little known rural tribal communities. Discovering an exciting, remote and hugely under-visited destination was thrilling, if a tad hairy. At that stage random killings were rising as tribal communities staked their claim over boundaries, politics and potential oil wealth. It was a practice that ultimately forced us to decide that we could no longer offer trips to Yemen.


Twenty years ago there were reputed to be more guns per person in Yemen than anywhere else in the world.  Pistols appeared for sale next to cigarettes. Car drivers crossing different tribal regions elected for an arsenal ranging from sock-sleeved pistols to mounted machine-guns.

In our case our abiding memory is not of danger, malice or fear. On the contrary both my wife and I fondly remember visiting hugely welcoming people only too keen to share their culture with any visitor interested enough to venture in.

Long may it last.shibam-dry-river-copyright-