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The walled city of Shibam

Character of the city

Shibam. The west side of the old city seen from a distance.
The old walled city of Shibam stands on an elevated mound to the north of the main wadi bed, not far below a point where a number of tributary wadis converge. It is slightly on the west side of the 'middle lands' of Wadi Hadramawt. Its site is the best strategic situation in the whole area, at a point where the wadi narrows, and yet with an extensive hinterland of fertile side valleys.

Shibam. Characteristic tower houses on the northern side of the city, with the city wall in the foreground.
The city is unique in its concentration of tall houses upon the elevated mound that rises out in the valley floor; the mound is surrounded by a fortified city wall at its base. The tallest house rises 29.15 m above its entrance on street level and 36.51 m above the wadi bed. This house has eight floors; many others have seven storeys if they are on low-lying ground, but the average number of storeys is five. The highest houses crowd to the edge of the mound, to form more or less solid walls facing roughly east, south, west and north, of which the north and south sides are the longest. Surrounding the town on three sides are date plantations. On the fourth, the south side, lies the wadi bed.

The visual effect of the city has to some extent been marred within the last few years by the erection of a number of fairly high houses outside the walls on the wadi bed. One of the proposals contained in the plan of action of the international campaign for the safeguarding of Wadi Hadramawt is that the most recent of these buildings should be demolished, or at least reduced in height, to single-storeyed or at most double-storeyed buildings, so that they will set off, rather than mar, the extreme height of the buildings within the town.

Across the wadi lies the suburb city of Sihail, which was earlier a garden suburb, but has become concentrated into an urban area in the last twenty years. It is not intended that this garden suburb should be included in the conservation area.

The walled city has slightly over 500 houses, and a population estimated today at more than 7,000. It is believed that this population is higher than that of a century ago, due to the subdivision of some of the houses into multi-family dwellings. There are at present five functioning mosques within the city walls, and one in ruins (which it is intended to restore). A further historic mosque, that of Sheikh Ma'ruf, situated in the date groves west of the city, will be included in the conservation zone.

Shibam. The staircase court of the house.
In addition to the tower houses and mosques, the old city has within it two palaces, one believed to be very old and to date in its present form back to its original construction in the thirteenth (seventh) century. The other is of more recent date, constructed around 1920 (1339). The city also has a school, a hospital, a traditional market and a modern market. The traditional market has been dismantled to some extent; it is hoped to reconstruct it in its original form, so that the modern market near the single gate of the city may no longer be necessary.

The traditional houses of Shibam are built of mud-brick,
Shibam. Roof terraces of the house illustrated in Plates 32-4, and its neighbours. Showing the manner in which the floors set back in the top two or three floors to create terraces on each level, screened by high walls.
on stone foundations and with walls which taper on the outside from slightly less than I m thick at the bottom to less than 30 cm at the top. They are plastered externally with mud-plaster mixed with chopped straw, which shines when the sunlight strikes it. The top one or two levels of all the buildings are protected from rain by white lime plaster, which forms a continuous surface over all the roofs, parapets and outer walls, extending downwards in some cases about 5 m from the top. Hence the Arabs say that in the distance Shibam looks as though it is covered with snow.

Shibam. Looking up at the face of a recent house, built forty years ago.
No other town in Hadramawt is built so compactly or of such high houses as Shibam. A clue to the reason for this may be seen in the town plan, where streets which are more or less parallel cross each other at right angles. This kind of plan is likely to be the result of careful designing, probably at the time when the remaining available land of the city had to be reallocated after the disastrous flooding of the years 1298 (698) or 1532 (939). We know that in both cases the destruction of houses was widespread, and the present form of the city probably represents a consolidation of all the habitations on to the highest ground. Thenceforth the only possible expansion was upwards.

Strict rules remained in force until recently in an attempt to control building within the area of the walls. No alterations could be made which did not conform closely to what was there before. Even the previous positions of doors and windows had to be exactly reproduced. This is one reason for thinking that, at least in form and basic disposition, the Shibam houses are likely to be Close to an ancient type. But we may be certain that if owners
Shibam. The base of the staircase court in Plate 32, showing the stone mills for grinding rock salt or grain.
were persistent enough in persuading their fellow townsmen, some changes must eventually have been allowed, and these probably included extension upwards. Nevertheless, a view across the rooftops shows how remarkably uniform the building level is throughout the town. There is hardly any overlooking. Although the upper floors set back gradually as they near the top to allow the creation of terraces outside the family rooms, their privacy is more or less ensured by surrounding them with screen walls to above standing height.

In the sides or backs of the houses run sewerage chutes. These begin below the bathrooms as vertical ducts behind the outer wall; but some distance above the ground each begins to appear on the outside face, often as a series of rectangular openings of increasing size, or as a tall recessed niche in the wall of the building. Each ends at Street level, above waist height, in a horizontal plastered platform where the waste matter collects. Traditionally, the solid waste was covered with ash night and morning by workers whose responsibility this was, and at periodic intervals it was cleared away to be used as fertilizer in the fields outside the town. In modern times the bottom of the chute was closed up with wire fly-screening.

Shibam. The roof terrace of a fine recent house. Opening off the main majlis, which is to the left.
Liquid wastes were discharged at bathroom level, away from the face of the building, by the use of long wooden waterspouts, often made of split date-palm trunks. Where water was discharged in this manner at the sides or behind the houses, sloping plaster collecting platforms were constructed on the ground below the spouts, and the liquid was led away through open drains to pass outside the city walls, or into cesspits. But in cases where bathrooms overlooked city streets, as may have happened through a lessening of strict controls at the end of the last century, foul water was sometimes allowed to fall unexpectedly on the heads of people below, and there were no proper means provided for draining it away.

Shibam. An old decorated lime/ramad plinth on one of the houses, commonly used to protect the lower wall surfaces against damage from rain splash and animals.
Shibam. A typical city street. Note the splayed waterproof plaster dados, and the presence of some old overhanging storeys.
The main streets, at least, were paved with stones. But as these became uneven through neglect, they were either removed or covered with earth. The paved streets were laid so that all water drained away from the bases of the houses and towards the centre-an important provision in the event of heavy rains, when water soaking into the earth-mortared foundations and the clayey ground below them might cause major cracking and collapse.

As further protection for the bases of the houses, it was the custom to face the lowest 1.5 or 2 m of the wall with a whitewashed dado of waterproofed plaster, made of lime and wood ashes, called ramd. At the base, the dado was taken out horizontally for a metre or so to complete the protection of the foundation. The dados were frequently given ornamental mouldings along the top edges and on the corners.

Shibam. A typical drainage situation in the old city, with waste water pouring from a wooden spout onto a splash-surface on the left, and the lower levels of a 'long drop' chute for solid soil on the right.
All the doors of the houses were closed on the inside by rough locks of wood or,
Shibam. The drainage system at the bottom of a house, with a chute for solid waste in the right. (Drawing by J.Seigne).
very exceptionally, of iron. The heavy main door was closed by means of a large wooden latch which could be drawn back by a cord passing through all the storeys above, thus avoiding the necessity of the women going downstairs to open it. (Projecting masonry or wooden water-cooling boxes high up in the buildings sometimes allowed the women to look down on the person at the street door without being observed. Otherwise they had to lean out of a latticed window opening or rely on a coded knock.) In the outside wall next to the street door was a small circular wooden framed opening, just large enough for the insertion of a person's arm. This allowed the wooden lock to be unlocked from inside with the traditional wooden pronged key, looking somewhat like a very large toothbrush; then the heavy bolt could be pushed back and the door opened. The decoration of the panel containing this circular opening, and its cover, Provided an excuse for some of the most original and artistic Wood carving in the city.

The disposition of accommodation in the Shibam houses was very similar to that described above. The ground floor was used for animal stalls and food stores, the first floor above for stalls for small animals (sheep, goats and rabbits), and for firewood, grain and vegetable stores. The second floor was reserved for business and for the entertaining of strangers by the men. The private part of the house began above that, the women and children usually having priority of use of the third and fourth floors above ground, and the men sharing with them the entertaining and relaxing rooms and terraces on the topmost two or three floors.

Shibam. A reception-room in Bayt Salah Bazuhayr. Note the decoration, including a niche to indelicate the direction of prayer. In the foreground, a tray prepared to entertain visitors to tea or coffee.
The majlis, or reception-room, was characterized in the older houses by the presence of a coffee hearth in one corner. This little plastered dais on the floor served as a platform for the charcoal or wood fire which heated the coffee pots, and here the host or hostess squatted to grind the coffee beans or husks in a mortar and to serve the guests. Behind, in the corner of the walls, were niches specially shaped to take the pestle and mortar, the charcoal box and the cups, and one niche had a lockable door so that the precious ingredients could be kept safely. The function of the coffee hearth was subsequently replaced by a large brass or silver tray kept prepared with cups, urns and samovars.

The rooms were lit by pottery or stone lamps containing wicks and burning sesame oil. The walls of the rooms had niches and wooden hooks on which the men might hang their coats, shawls and turbans, and weapons if they were carrying them.

The staircases and corridors of the house were covered with white or cream-washed plaster; it was made with egg-whites and burnished with flint so that it shone like marble. The same colour and material spread across the ceilings and floors, so that the visitor was cocooned in a single, dazzling colour. These spaces were frequently repainted, and kept spotless, for the housewives prided themselves on the cleanliness of the floors and steps, a laborious daily task in such high buildings.

At high levels in many of the houses small doors allowed access through to neighbouring houses, so that the women could visit each other without the inconvenience of veiling and descending into the Street.

In two of the houses of Shibam, belonging to the family of the imams, there were large rooms used for gatherings of devout citizens for religious instruction and discussion. One of these, in a large house on the southern wall, was a fine room with six columns supporting the roof, known as umm al-sitte; at the western end it had a qibla containing a mihrab, decorated in plaster. It was used by the men of the city. In a house on the western wall was a similar room, slightly smaller in size, used by the women.

There were schools within, or in one case above, many of the mosques. They have mostly been replaced in recent years by centralized government schools. The double-storeyed mosque- madrasah, that of Harah, in the north-west corner, was neglected and has collapsed.

The encircling city wall was, on the rampart side, originally higher than a human being; it was Subsequently reduced in height until it exists now only at waist height.

The city wall had a double-storeyed guard post, a kut, in each of its four corners. These kuts have not been used for some years and have fallen into ruin; two, at the southern corners, have disappeared. Here, until quite recently, it was still possible to hear the sound of the watchmen's conch-shell trumpets.

The original gate of the city was a small whitewashed building overlooking the sa'il, the bed of the main wadi.
Shibam. The east end of the old city seen form the southern escarpment. The gate of the city is seen right of center, with al-Khokha mosque behind it , and further right the two buildings which were once Sultans' Palaces. The houses in the foreground, on the near side of the wad, are those of Sihail.
The gatehouse had two openings, a large one to the east for camels, horses and other animals and a small doorway to the west for pedestrians. There were rooms above for the guard and a customs post between the two gateways, for every camel-load of goods entering the city was taxed. In front of the gatehouse a stepped ramp led down to the wadi bed, where women collected water in goatskins from wells for use in the town.

Within the gate to the east, the palaces of the two sultans (for in the mid-twentieth (late fourteenth) century control of the city was shared) were of brown mud-plaster, decorated with wide white bands at the level of the windows like the palace at Sai'un. Opposite the gate was the whitewashed mosque of al-Khokha with its ancient square minaret surmounted by a later cylindrical one. The mosque and its minaret were rebuilt in the 1940s (1380s), as was the gateway to the city. The latter now has a much grander design, with a large arched outer gate, flanked by square towers, one containing the pedestrian doorway, and an inner gateway of the same design. Between the two lies a square court, flanked by arcaded shops, no longer tenanted.

In the wadi bed indigo dyers once plied their craft, using dried powdered indigo leaves soaked in water from the wells. The camel trains stopped in the open sandy grounds, where their characteristic black tents were pitched. On the western side of the city, beyond the date-palm groves and the beautiful outlying mosque of Sheikh Ma'ruf, were the dusty wastes of the cemetery, each grave marked with a modest pile of stones. Even today, when buildings have begun to sprout outside the walls on the south and the drawers of water and the dyers are gone, there remains a pervading sense of immutability and timelessness about this ancient, soaring, proud city.

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2nd Edetion Feb, 2002 - English Version
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