Castles in the Sand

Skirting the edge of the Empty Quarter, sheer cliffs of sandstone and limestone rise 1,000 feet above the valley floor of Yemen’s Wadi Hadhramaut, flanking a series of settlements that lie along an ancient road. Three of these cities—Shibam, Seyoun, and Tarim—are renown throughout the Arab world for their exotic and sophisticated architecture, executed entirely of mudbrick. In antiquity, the Hadhramaut Valley, 100 miles inland from the Indian Ocean, served as an important thoroughfare for the spice route, which stretched from Arabia to Europe.

To this day, land in the valley floor is used for cultivation; settlements are constructed high on the escarp - ments. In addition to providing a modicum of defense—until recently, tribal warfare was prevalent in the valley—the structures are protected from flash floods, which race through the valley during the fall monsoon season. Built atop an ancient tell, the walled city of Shibam has been called the “Manhattan of the desert” because of its densely packed mudbrick tower houses, some ten stories high. Though Shibam is rich in history, the town we see today dates primarily to the early sixteenth century. A UNESCO World Heritage City, Shibam is the best known of the mudbrick cities. The city of Seyoun, the regional capital of the Valley, is dominated by the Kathiri sultan’s palace, an enormous, seven-story edifice, quite The Mudbrick Marvels of Wadi Hadhramaut Castles in the Sand pamela jerome possibly the largest mudbrick building in the world. The palace, which now houses the Museum of the Hadhramaut and the offices of the Department of Antiquities, is one of the few in Seyoun to have survived in its original form. Although older neighborhoods in the city are still intact, Seyoun is the most compromised in terms of the introduction of concrete structures, with nearly 1,000 such buildings constructed in the valley since 1992. Among the city’s newer buildings, however, are some interesting examples of contemporary architecture such as the regional airport, built in the 1960s using hybrid technology. Here, concrete beams and columns were infilled with traditional mudbrick construction and decoration.

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