Yemen Tuesdays: Mud Skyscrapers and Palaces of Wadi Hadhramaut

Yemen ’s Hadhramaut Valley or Wadi Hadhramaut, is situated in the southeastern part of Yemen and characterised by mountains, valleys, and deserts. It is known to have been inhabited...

Yemen ’s Hadhramaut Valley or Wadi Hadhramaut, is situated in the southeastern part of Yemen and characterised by mountains, valleys, and deserts. It is known to have been inhabited since the Stone Age. The Hadhramaut Valley is mentioned in the Quran, the Islamic holy book, as the place where prophets lived and preached and is credited with the spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula to South Asia and East Africa. In the Bible, Hadhramaut is referred to as Hazarmaveth. Apart from its religious influence, Wadi Hadhramaut has the oldest known skyscrapers in the world and some of the most intricate palaces all built from traditional mud-brick construction.

Long before the debut of concrete and glass skyscrapers of Chicago and New York, residents of Shibam built mud skyscrapers in the 16th century. This walled town has around 500 buildings built side by side and solely constructed from mud bricks, which are made by hand and sun baked to dry. Each house can range from five to ten stories and can measure up to 130 feet high. Shibam is surrounded by a large fortified wall built around five hundred years ago to protect its residents from attacks. The walled city has seven mosques including the Friday Mosque built in 904 and two palaces for the sultans that ruled over the city. Shibam is appropriately coined the Manhattan of the Desert because of its traditional urban architecture and skyline. It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982.

Located further east of Shibam is the town of Tarim, world renowned for its elaborate mud-brick structures, mosques and palaces. Tarim is known as the city of 365 mosques as it has the most mosques per capita in the world and is a theological and academic center in the Arabian Peninsula. One of its most intricate structures is the mud brick minaret of the Al-Mihdhar mosque that measures around 175 feet high; the tallest minaret in the Arabian Peninsula.

Tarim also has thirty palaces that were built by merchant families between the 1870s and 1930s. These palaces were developed using mud brick construction, but their styles are anything but traditional. The styles range from Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, Mogul and Early Modernism. All these styles are a testament of the role of Tarim as the crossroads of trade between east and west and a tribute to Yemeni families who made their wealth in South East Asia only to return and contribute to the cultural development of their city.

The regional capital of Wadi Hadhramaut , Sayyun, is located between Shibam and Tarim. Its most important cultural structure is the Sultan Kathiri’s Palace built in 1873. The seven-storey palace may be the largest mud brick building in the world. Today, the Palace is cultural center, and home to the Museum of Hadhramaut, which houses handcrafts and costumes. The Palace also houses Yemen’s Department of Antiquities, which includes artifacts from Raybun, an ancient Yemeni site that was only discovered in 1983. Archeologists found ruins believed to be parts of the temple dedicated to Syn, an ancient god of Hadhramawt.

From Yemen’s northern city of Sana’a to the southern towns of the Hadhramawt Valley are centuries’ old walled cities, tower houses, mosques, and palaces that paint a distinct portrait of Yemen that is rarely recognized by the outside world. Yemen is by far one of the most beautiful countries in the Middle East with a vastly rich history. Its architecture, which is solely based on mud brick construction, adds to its already flourishing heritage some of the most astonishing structures in the world.

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Yemen is Beautiful
Nadya Khalife

Nadya Khalife is a researcher, writer, and advocate for women’s rights with extensive expertise in the Middle East and North Africa region. She has undertaken field research in numerous countries on violence against women and harmful traditional practices. She holds a Masters of Arts degree in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.

3 Comments on this post.
  • Janessa
    9 February 2016 at 8:07 am
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    Kudos to you! I hadn’t thughot of that!

  • Eithne Nightingale
    13 March 2016 at 2:57 pm
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    Hi Nadya
    I am working with migrants in East London, UK capturing their stories. One young woman is from Hadraumat. Is there any way we could use the first image in the website – she talks about the dress the women wear and the landscape?. You can see some of my work on the website http://www.childmigrants.stories.com
    and also the introductory film.
    The works is funded by Public Engagement of Queen Mary University of London.
    You can reach me on [email protected]
    Very best
    Eithne Nightingale

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