Shibam – Wadi Hadhramawt, Yemen

Manhattan of the Desert

Yemen’s ancient Incense Route ran through Wadi Hadhramawt, a remote but spectacular oasis of fertile fields and orchards framed by arid, stony desert plateaus. It is the largest wadi (oasis) in the Arabian Peninsula.

The region prospered throughout the ages as caravans laden with frankincense – the most valuable currency of its time, more valuable than gold – and myrrh gave rise to wealthy cities that flourished along their routes. In its heyday Shibam was the most celebrated Arabic Islamic city in Yemen. Like giant sand castles, nearly 500 clay-tower buildings of up to eight stories are crammed into less than a third of a square mile.

Most date from the 16th century, but many are hundreds of years older. They are only marginally distinguish­able to the outsider from those that were built only 50 to 100 years ago, thanks to strictly enforced codes that dictate the use of tradi­tional materials.

Shibam is encircled by town walls made from the same baked-clay bricks. It has been the capital of Wadi Hadhramawt since the 3rd century A.D., and is believed to look today much as it did in the 1500s. Women veiled in black and wearing tall witchlike caps of straw slip along the shaded back alleyways.

Accom­modations in Shibam are limited to the small, simple, and lovely Shibam Guest House. Most visitors head down the road to Say’un, the valley’s largest town, worth seeing in its own right, with some of the most beautiful mosques and minarets in all Yemen.

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