The oldest skyscrapers in the world

If you've a penchant for craning your neck all the way up to revel at gigantic manmade wonders from an unnatural angle, visiting Manhattan is probably on at the top of your travel itinerary. It's amazing what rebar has done for the modern city. Modern, we think, that's buildings that scrape the heavens, that's density on an unprecedented scale, that's mankind sticking his thumb at earthquakes and floods and gravity and building all kinds of wonky structures made of glass and steel and cheese grater siding.

Giant cooking implements as buildings aside, it may surprise you to learn that Yemen has Manhattan beat on the skyscraper front by about, eh, several hundred years at least.

The 16th century mud walled structures of Shibam raise up to eleven stories throughout the Yemeni city. Made with dried mud bricks, constantly maintained and repaired by hand, these earthen spires are surprisingly resilient and structurally sound. The ground floors are for storage, upper floors are for social life, living, etc. The material and density of the buildings keeps the desert city cool.

At the edge of a desolate expanse of desert known as the Empty Quarter, the 16th-century Walled City of Shibam remains the oldest metropolis in the world to use vertical construction. Once a significant caravan stop on the spice and incense route across the southern Arabian plateau, British explorer Freya Stark dubbed the mud city "the Manhattan of the desert" in the 1930s.

Every aspect of Shibam's design is strategic. Perched upon on a rocky spur and surrounded by a giant flood wadi, its elevated position shields it from flooding while maintaining proximity to its primary source of water and agriculture. The city was built on a rectangular grid behind a fortified wall—a defensive arrangement that protected its inhabitants from rival tribes and offered a high vantage point from which enemies would be seen approaching.

Gulnaz Khan, National Geographic

Visiting the site itself will likely put you on some nifty government watch list, as Shibam sits in a country in civil war. So if you're interested in continuing to pass through TSA without a pat down, maybe just look at these really cool photos instead.

Aiman titi (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Previously: An American in Yemen: unlikely and wonderful tourism