THE MANHATTAN OF THE DESERT
With robust trade along the Silk Road, the entire Arabian Peninsula started growing into a vast network for the exchange of goods like spices, frankincense, myrrh, gold, ivory, pearls, precious stones and textiles. It arrived at the ports along the coast of south Arabia from Africa and Asia. One of the first southern cities to become wealthy from the regional boom was the ancient capital of Yemen, Sana’a. Although not a coastal hub, its snug location was key for the control of the trade by Arab merchants. Perched between rugged mountains at 2,300 feet above sea level most of the caravans carrying precious goods had to pass through it on their way up north. The city was a crucial hub along the Red Sea gateway. Signs of how prosperous Sana’a grew from its trade, could be seen inside the gates of the medieval walled metropolis. The heart of the city is dwarfed by a morass of multi-storey tower houses, mushrooming from the ground, with elaborate exterior ornamentation that resembles the intricate patterns of latticework. Hundreds of mosques, hammams, gardens and ancient palaces, dating back to the tenth century and beyond, give an idea of the volume of trade the megalopolis was churning at one point in time. The origin of the unique architectural style of the tower houses draws inspirations from the ancient Roman insula, which were multi-storey buildings used to house the masses of people moving in and out of ancient market centres. In Sana’a, the lush fertility of the land and the role farming played in sustaining the prosperity of the local framers, made demand for scarce farmland very high. Wealthy merchants were clever in using whatever land is available in a more efficient way. One way was to build their houses upwards in a congested urban centre, where new arrivals pushed the city into chaotic and unplanned growth. The rich tradesmen of Yemen built the first desert skyscrapers, suspended high above the hustle and bustle of the commercial centre. This protected their properties from invading barbaric tribes.
The city of Shibam in southern Yemen is an example of a distinctive skyscraper city built from mud, dating back to the 16th century. The densely packed agglomeration of 500 high-rise buildings, are each between five to eleven storeys high. It is a medieval metropolis exemplifying the best and oldest urban planning technique, based on the sustainable and efficient use of land. And because of its visibly vertical pose, it has often been labelled the Manhattan of the Desert. From above, the towers are interlinked by sky bridges, which allow people to move between rooftops, escaping from one end of the city to the other in case of a barbaric invasion. And below, the towers housed stables for cattle, storage areas and shop fronts owned by wealthy businessmen. While in ancient Rome, the wealthy noblemen used to live in a domus. This is a large single-family residence with a ground-level tabernae, and a wide living space upstairs. The rooms in a domus were arranged around a central atrium with a pool. A skylight was opened so the dwelling received a generous flood of sunlight and rainwater. The house had a reception room, a bathroom with a tub and running water and a self-contained kitchen with a larder. But in the more densely populated commercial areas of the city, insula was constructed to house the large influx of crowds. Its design resembled the layout of a modern apartment building. Hence, this insula had a tabernae with storage in the basement, running businesses on the ground floor, and living spaces on several upper levels. Tabernae contributed dramatically to the advancement of Roman economy, because they were the first purpose-built retail outlets within a commercial hub. This allowed the persistent growth and expansion of trade. The first-floor apartments were the grandest, and so were the most expensive. But further up, the flats become less in demand and cheaper, because of fire concerns and the sheer number of stairs to ascend.