It is the first skyscraper in the world and at the 3rd century AD it became the capital of Hadhramout region. The houses were built to protect the people from the high tide of the torrent that used to cover the whole valley, so people would escape to the higher floors till the water went down. The city had existed for several centuries before its promotion, and it had been besieged in previous years before the Himyarite Kingdom finally proved superior to that of Hadhramout.
Most tourists come to Shibam to see the city itself. In the early 1930s, Freya Stark and Hans Helfritz made separate journeys to Shibam, the former coining the town the “Manhattan of the Desert” and the latter the “Chicago of the Desert”.
The city is a marvel of mud-brick skyscrapers, densely packed together on a small mound, and which extend upward some five to eight storeys. Since 1982, te city has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The architectural style and design of the city on the whole is unlike anything else in Yemen. The most popular theory to account for this is that residents fleeing from the destroyed city of Shabwa rebuilt Shibam, their new home, based on the design and structure of Shaqir, the great palace of Shabwa. The theory makes sense – the inhabitants would no doubt long for a piece of their old home with them.
The image of these monolithic buildings jutting heavenward in the isolation of the surrounding countryside is truly spectacular, and viewing the panoramic image at sunset, when the sky and buildings become playful with colours, makes your camera finger itch to take a snapshot like little else can.
The best place to relieve that itch is on the mountain of Jabal Khidba, where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the city by climbing only a short distance up the path.
From the old fortification or from the top of the mountain, you will be able to see the entire city, including the town gate, the walled fortification that surrounds Shibam, and the large Maruf ba Jamal Mosque to the left of the town.
There is another mosque of the same name within the city wakks, Vitg were founded by the 16th – century scholar who lent them his name.
Walking through the streets of Shibam, you can view the large houses in more intimate detail. From this perspective, one of the most interesting things about the buildings is their elaborately carved wooden doors, doorframes, and locks. Some of the doorframes, in particular, are quite old- the one from Bayt Abdullah bin Fakik is said to date back to 1609, and that of Bayt Ali ibn Hayasa to 1717.
(Source: Bradt Guidebook – Yemen)