The oldest skyscrapers in the world: the clay city of Shibam

The Yemeni city of Shibam seems an island of orderliness in the midst of a free fantasy of nature. It stands at the bottom of a deep canyon with erosion-ridged sides, and the valley between them bears the name of Wadi Hadramaut. “Wadi” is a special Arabic word for a valley created by once water currents, or a river bed, which, depending on the season, sometimes flows, then dries up. A symbol of orderliness the city of Shibam (more precisely its central historical part) is made by a low wall forming a regular quadrangle. What’s inside the wall is what journalists usually call “Arabian Manhattan.” Of course, in this poorest part of the Arab world, you will not find anything like the Empire State Building or the towers of the former WTC, but the layout is the most famous in the world, a cluster of skyscrapers - it is all made up of buildings standing close to each other, the height of which far exceeds the width of the streets running between them. Yes, local buildings are inferior to the New York giants - their height is not more than 30 m, but the oldest of them were built before the discovery of America. But the most amazing thing is that all this multi-story exotic is made of unburnt clay based on pre-industrial technologies.

The plan prepared as part of the German-Yemeni city development project shows the location of buildings in the walled central part of Shibam (the newer areas of the city are located outside the wall). Buildings marked with different colors were partially destroyed, but restored as part of the project. Among the objects to be restored were not only multi-storey residential buildings, but also public buildings, mosques and other monuments. The oldest buildings are confidently dated to the 16th century, but perhaps there are structures two centuries older. Over the past centuries, houses have been rebuilt regularly.

Up from the Bedouins

In the rainy season, Wadi Hadramaut is partially flooded, covering the surroundings of Shibam with alluvial clays. Here it is, the improvised building material of local architects, which they have used for thousands of years. But the question is - why in the spacious valley it took so much to “squeeze” and solve the engineering problems of multi-story construction even half a millennium ago? There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the ancient Shibam stands on a small elevation in area - according to some sources, it has a natural origin, according to others it was formed from the remains of an ancient city. And elevation is flood protection. The second reason is that high-rise buildings had a fortification meaning. Centuries ago, this part of South Arabia, which ancient geographers knew as Arabia Felix ("Happy Arabia"), was a thriving region of the world. There was a trade route connecting India with Europe and Western Asia. Caravans brought spices and especially valuable goods - incense.

The wealth from abundant transit became the basis of the rise of Shibam, at times it became the capital of the kingdom: monarchs, noble nobles and merchants lived in it. And somewhere in the vicinity wandered the nomadic Bedouin tribes, who, attracted by the sheen of Shibam, staged predatory raids on the city. Therefore, local residents decided that it was easier to protect the compact territory, and it was better to hide from the Bedouins somewhere higher, where you would not call on a camel. So the buildings of Shibam began to grow up.

Goats, sheep, people

Of course, we must understand that, no matter how far the seven-eleven-story Shibam buildings look like the “towers” ​​of our residential quarters, they are something completely different than apartment buildings. The whole building is intended for one family. The first two floors are non-residential. Here, behind the blank walls, there are a variety of pantries for food supplies and stalls for cattle - mainly sheep and goats. So it was originally conceived: on the eve of the Bedouin raid, grazing cattle was driven into the city walls and hid in houses. On the third and fourth floors are living rooms for men. The next two floors are the “female half”. In addition to living rooms, kitchens, washing facilities and toilets are arranged here. The sixth and seventh floors were given to children and young couples if the family expanded. Walking terraces were arranged at the very top - they compensated for the narrowness of the streets and the lack of courtyards. It is interesting that between some neighboring buildings transitions were made from roof to roof in the form of bridges with sides. On them during the raid, you could easily move around the city without going down, and observe the actions of the enemy from a bird's flight.

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Original and cheap

While some are fighting to preserve clay “skyscrapers” of centuries ago, others are trying to convince contemporaries that structures made of clay mixtures or even just earth are practical and environmentally friendly. Unlike concrete and other modern building materials, building materials, literally dug in place, do not require large amounts of energy, when demolishing or destroying a building, they dissolve without a trace in nature and better maintain the microclimate in the building. Nowadays, constructions made of clay-dried soil dried in the sun with additives (the term “adobe” is used in Russian and adobe in English) are widely used in Western Europe and the USA. One of the original methods of using unprocessed soil in construction was called Superadobe. Its essence is that walls, arches, and even domes are constructed from plastic bags filled with ordinary earth, and barbed wire is used for fastening.

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Shibam's “skyscrapers” are built of unbaked bricks made using the most primitive technology. Clay was mixed with water, straw was added to it, and then this whole mass was poured into an open wooden mold. Then the finished products dried for several days in the hot sun. The walls were laid in one brick, but only the width of these bricks was different - for the lower floors, the bricks are wider, which means the walls are thicker, for the upper - narrower. As a result, in a vertical section, each of the Shibama high-rise buildings has a trapezoid shape. The walls were plastered with the same clay, and on top - for water resistance - two layers of lime were applied. As overlappings and additional supports for them, a beam of local hardwood was used. The interior interiors make it clear that, despite the multi-story building, we have before us a traditional oriental dwelling. Carved frames are inserted into the window openings - without glasses, of course. The walls are roughly plastered and not aligned. The doors between the rooms - wooden, carved, doorways do not completely block, leaving space above and below. Even in the most unbearable Yemeni heat, clay walls keep cool indoors.

The largest clay building in the world is the Great Jenna Mosque in the West African state of Mali. This is not a very ancient building - it is only a hundred years old. The wooden parts protruding from the walls serve both for decoration and as scaffolding for repairs.

Breathe life into the clay

Today, there are about 400 such high-rise buildings in “Arabian Manhattan” (there are also palaces and mosques), and according to various estimates, from 3, 500 to 7, 000 people live in them. In 1982, UNESCO declared Shibam (a part of it surrounded by a wall) a World Heritage Site. And immediately the question arose about the safety of the clay city. The high-rise buildings of Shibam stood for centuries only because the city lived an active life and was regularly repaired. Even in the hot climate of Yemen, structures made of unfired clay require constant care, otherwise they will crumble to dust, which has already happened with some buildings. But from a certain moment, people began to leave the clay city in search of homes that are easier and cheaper to maintain. Part of the houses fell into disrepair.

Clay, sand, water, manure, straw, sun - that's all that is needed for the construction of housing for centuries. Taos Pueblo is an adobe village with houses on several floors, erected in the town of Taos (state of New Mexico) between 1000 and 1450 years of our era. It was built, of course, by the indigenous people of America. Even today, Taos Pueblo has a population of about 150 people.

In 1984, UNESCO sounded the alarm and allocated funds to explore the possibilities of rebuilding the city. Since it was not a separate building or monument, but the whole city, it was concluded that the only way to save Shibam was to convince people to continue living and working among the ancient clay walls. In 2000, the Shibam City Development Project was launched, which is being handled by the Yemeni government in cooperation with the German aid agency for poor countries GTZ. Yemen is on the list of the least developed countries in the world, and life in Shibam, with all its picturesqueness, is a monstrous poverty, lack of work and basic modern infrastructure. To make the city more attractive for life, the project carried out the laying of the power grid, sewer, cleaning up the streets, and creating training courses for crafts, including for women. As for the clay houses themselves, for those of them that needed redecoration, local residents worked to cover the cracks (with the same good old clay) - the local "industrial climbers", armed with buckets of mortar, went down on ropes with roofs and patched walls.

The buildings, which are in the most deplorable state, were reinforced with wooden piles that support the lower floors, helping them withstand the pressure of the upper ones. Wooden cracks were placed on dangerous vertical cracks. The most difficult situation was with buildings that had already completely or partially collapsed. One of the problems was to accurately restore the number of floors. The fact is that the number of storeys depended not only on the personal preferences of the owner, but also on the height of the base, and on the location of neighboring houses. Walking yards on the roofs of neighboring buildings should not be on the same level - to comply with a kind of privacy. It is also worth noting that the largest subsidies for repairs under the project had to be paid to the owners of those houses in which the upper floors were destroyed. They did not want to restore them. Contrary to the precepts of the ancestors, the modern inhabitants of Shibam are not very eager to live "on the top" and would prefer a two-three floor house.

The article “More Clay — Closer to the Sky” was published in the magazine Popular Mechanics (No. 7, July 2011). I wonder how a nuclear reactor works and can robots build a house?

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