Dubbed “Manhattan of the Desert” for its centuries-old skyscrapers, Yemen’s ancient city of Shibam escaped damage in the civil war – but now faces collapse from disrepair amid rains and floods.
Against a stunning backdrop of cliffs, the UNESCO World Heritage Site sits on a rocky spur high above the river valley of Wadi Hadramout in the arid centre of Yemen.
Some of the hundreds of fantastical sun-dried mud-brick towers, many dating back to the 16th century, soar seven stories high, nestled within a traditional fortified wall built for protection.
The UN describes the city, once an oasis stop for camel caravans on the spice and incense routes across southern Arabia, as “one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction”.
But Shibam is struggling because the crumbling mud-brick constructions need constant repair.
Yemen’s economy has collapsed in the brutal civil war raging since 2014, creating what the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“The city looks like it was hit by a disaster – without precedent,” said Abdulwahab Jaber, a local official in the town, 480km (300 miles) east of the capital Sanaa.
Jaber said at least four of the town’s towers have been destroyed and 15 others damaged in recent floods, which have killed tens of people across Yemen.
Hassan Aidid, head of the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen, said the roofs and exteriors of the mud towers had sustained the most damage.
“Residents of the city have been unable to restore them because of the war and the difficult situation in which they live,” Aidid told AFP news agency.
Aidid said an emergency response plan in cooperation with UNESCO is under way, with approximately 40 buildings being restored at a cost of $194,000.
But while restoration plans are going ahead, helped by funding from the European Union, they are not going fast enough, said Barak Baswitine, head of the mud-brick architecture association in Shibam.
“There have been some difficulties,” he said. “The work is slow due to lack of local skilled manpower that meets the standards.”
Yemen is in the grips of a war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels – who control the capital – and a beleaguered government supported by a Saudi-led military coalition.
Shibam is controlled by the internationally-recognised government, but while it has largely been spared direct conflict, it has not escaped the effects of the war.