The genius of vernacular Yemeni architecture

Tuesday 20 Nov 2007

The Shibam Urban Development Project is a joint Yemeni-German venture

The Shibam Urban Development Project (SUDP) was launched in 2000. GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) represented the German side, while the GOPHCY (General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen), under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, was to implement the project on the Yemeni side. Due to its composition and stunning setting, Shibam was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List (1982-1984). Mud-brick high-rise buildings cluster in a walled mass that exudes the genius of Yemeni architecture.

The Rehabilitation of the city of Shibam has won a 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which focuses on the preservation of this unique place as a living community with architectural restoration integrated into the creation of new economic and social structures. More than half the buildings have been upgraded and/or restored so far. The program also integrates urban conservation into economic development, working with local NGO's to build skills and create job opportunities. The housing program has already quadrupled the demand for traditional construction work in the city and contributed to the local economy and the literacy programs have already educated 20% of the illiterate women in the district. Solid waste management was improved through establishing special urban management function in the district. The masterbuilders of the city were associated to form a guild that promotes the trade and insures that government contracts in the city are done with local labor and in accordance with the citys historic conditions.

The work is carried out by local master builders and their crews. For the historic housing programme the owner is free to choose any professional they wish.

There is no definite date for the construction of this city, but its name is mentioned in early texts and in pre-Islamic poety. One of its mosques was supposedly constructed during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid (786-809). Within the city walls there are 437 private houses (of which 398 are inhabitable and 39 in ruin). There are six mosques , two madrasas and one private zawiya. The city has four public squares as well as smaller plazas between the housing clusters. There are four buildings housing charitaable associations; two public palaces, the city gate, two primary schools (one private and one public), a health clinic and an administrative complex by the southern gateway consisting of four buildings. There are 134 shops (mostly on the ground floor of residential buildings).

Photography: , copyright GTZ & Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj (Email: and © Anne de Henning/Aga Khan Award for Architecture

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