Image of city in desert setting with mountains in background.
Shibam, Wadi Hadhramaut, Yemen. ‘Shibam – the so-called Manhattan of the desert’ Source: Flickr © Jialiang Gao
The image of a skyline dotted with towers reaching into the sky, appearing to vie with one another for the position of tallest and most impressive, immediately calls to mind the great cities of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Such an image seems typical of the results of the industrial and technological innovations of the last 100 years, and characteristic of cities such as New York, Shanghai and Dubai. In the Middle Ages, however, hundreds of years before the industrial revolution and the subsequent advent of materials and technologies that made the construction of today’s skyscrapers possible, this skyline was to be found in towns dotted around the globe. The cities of Bologna and San Gimignano in Italy from the 13th century, and Shibam in Yemen from the 16th century, are examples of vertical cities that are still standing, to different extents, today.

In the Middle Ages, Italy contained a number of small city-states, ruled by elite aristocratic families. The cities of Bologna and San Gimignano both gained their independence in the early medieval period. The construction of towers soon began throughout both cities, as the merchant elites sought to display their wealth and power within the confines of already built-up city centres. These towers are also believed to have had defensive purposes, serving as vantage points or hide-outs during times of strife. The construction of these towers was generally rather haphazard – rather than following any kind of plan, towers rose according to the whims of the respective families.

The Old Walled City of Shibam in Yemen sits on a long-occupied site, with the earliest settlement originating in the pre-Islamic period, becoming the capital of Hadramaut in 300 CE. The settlement was destroyed by floods in the 1530s, with the new city, dominated by towers, rising over the following decades. The towers that emerged were constructed of mudbrick, up to seven storeys high, earning the town the modern nickname of ‘the Manhattan of the Desert’. The town itself is based on a fortified, rectangular grid plan. As identified by UNESCO, Shibam represents one of the earliest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Similar to the earlier Italian skyscrapers, the impetus for the construction of such towers was based on both the need for easily defended properties and a desire to display one’s economic and political prestige. The defensive purposes of the towers can be seen in the lack of fenestration on the ground level, discouraging attempts at entry by unwelcome parties.

All three of the towns mentioned have retained at least some of their medieval towers. San Gimignano has conserved 14 of the original 72 towers, while Bologna retains a handful of the purported 80 to 100 towers that once dominated the town’s skyline. Two of these towers are easily recognisable as icons of the town, situated at the intersection of the city’s five main roads – the Torre degli Asinelli rising to 97 metres, and its companion, the leaning Torre della Garisenda, to 48 metres. Both are believed to have been built in the period between 1109 and 1119, and have enjoyed a number of purposes over their nine centuries, with the Torre degli Asinelli in particular functioning as a defensive stronghold, a prison, the site of scientific experiments, and a sight post during World War II. Today visitors can climb to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli and enjoy uninterrupted views of Bologna and the landscape beyond. Climbing the tower is a rite of passage for students graduating from the University of Bologna – local superstition posits that to do so prior to graduation is a surefire way not to graduate at all.   

Shibam, on the other hand, has retained a remarkable amount of its medieval fabric. The towers continue to be maintained using traditional techniques, and the town physically appears much as it would have done 500 years ago. The site was, however, inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger in 2015, as a result of armed conflict in the area, and of the floods that are prone to devastating the area.

These cities, remarkable in their time for their uniqueness, remain remarkable today for their astounding longevity. The concept of recognising our cities in five or nine hundred years’ time seems incredible. In today’s skyscraper cities, as existing buildings are constantly being replaced by newer, taller towers, it even seems possible that these towers of mud and brick could outlive their modern counterparts of glass, steel and concrete.The image of a skyline dotted with towers reaching into the sky, appearing to vie with one another for the position of tallest and most impressive, immediately calls to mind the great cities of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Such an image seems typical of the results of the industrial and technological innovations of the last 100 years, and characteristic of cities such as New York, Shanghai and Dubai. In the Middle Ages, however, hundreds of years before the industrial revolution and the subsequent advent of materials and technologies that made the construction of today’s skyscrapers possible, this skyline was to be found in towns dotted around the globe. The cities of Bologna and San Gimignano in Italy from the 13th century, and Shibam in Yemen from the 16th century, are examples of vertical cities that are still standing, to different extents, today.

In the Middle Ages, Italy contained a number of small city-states, ruled by elite aristocratic families. The cities of Bologna and San Gimignano both gained their independence in the early medieval period. The construction of towers soon began throughout both cities, as the merchant elites sought to display their wealth and power within the confines of already built-up city centres. These towers are also believed to have had defensive purposes, serving as vantage points or hide-outs during times of strife. The construction of these towers was generally rather haphazard – rather than following any kind of plan, towers rose according to the whims of the respective families.

The Old Walled City of Shibam in Yemen sits on a long-occupied site, with the earliest settlement originating in the pre-Islamic period, becoming the capital of Hadramaut in 300 CE. The settlement was destroyed by floods in the 1530s, with the new city, dominated by towers, rising over the following decades. The towers that emerged were constructed of mudbrick, up to seven storeys high, earning the town the modern nickname of ‘the Manhattan of the Desert’. The town itself is based on a fortified, rectangular grid plan. As identified by UNESCO, Shibam represents one of the earliest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Similar to the earlier Italian skyscrapers, the impetus for the construction of such towers was based on both the need for easily defended properties and a desire to display one’s economic and political prestige. The defensive purposes of the towers can be seen in the lack of fenestration on the ground level, discouraging attempts at entry by unwelcome parties.

All three of the towns mentioned have retained at least some of their medieval towers. San Gimignano has conserved 14 of the original 72 towers, while Bologna retains a handful of the purported 80 to 100 towers that once dominated the town’s skyline. Two of these towers are easily recognisable as icons of the town, situated at the intersection of the city’s five main roads – the Torre degli Asinelli rising to 97 metres, and its companion, the leaning Torre della Garisenda, to 48 metres. Both are believed to have been built in the period between 1109 and 1119, and have enjoyed a number of purposes over their nine centuries, with the Torre degli Asinelli in particular functioning as a defensive stronghold, a prison, the site of scientific experiments, and a sight post during World War II. Today visitors can climb to the top of the Torre degli Asinelli and enjoy uninterrupted views of Bologna and the landscape beyond. Climbing the tower is a rite of passage for students graduating from the University of Bologna – local superstition posits that to do so prior to graduation is a surefire way not to graduate at all.   

Shibam, on the other hand, has retained a remarkable amount of its medieval fabric. The towers continue to be maintained using traditional techniques, and the town physically appears much as it would have done 500 years ago. The site was, however, inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger in 2015, as a result of armed conflict in the area, and of the floods that are prone to devastating the area.

These cities, remarkable in their time for their uniqueness, remain remarkable today for their astounding longevity. The concept of recognising our cities in five or nine hundred years’ time seems incredible. In today’s skyscraper cities, as existing buildings are constantly being replaced by newer, taller towers, it even seems possible that these towers of mud and brick could outlive their modern counterparts of glass, steel and concrete.

About the author

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Hayley Edmonds

Hayley Edmonds was a project volunteer at Sydney Living Museums.