Think you’ve got it rough living in a modern apartment complex? Take a look at some apartments from ancient times that helped shape the future of apartment living. Compared to these tenements, you’ve got it easy!
Egypt at the Turn of the First Millennia
In Fustat, which was the capital of Egypt in the year 1000, many city-dwellers, pressed for space as city-dwellers often are, crowded into multi-story apartment buildings near the center of the capital. While these seven or eight story buildings may have offered easy access to the best of Fustat markets, bath houses and entertainment, the units were crowded, the construction flimsy and the indoor plumbing, well, hadn’t been invented yet. 200 or more people could cram into the upper stories of these early apartments, which were often accessed by a single central staircase. In order to reach the sky-scraping heights of 75 feet or more, Fustat apartments needed to be constructed out of light-weight materials, which likely made the risk of fire or collapse severe.
Shibam, 500 Years Ago
Shibam, the capital of the Hadramawt Kingdom, which is currently in Yemen, is sometimes called the “Manhattan of the Desert.” This city is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Word Heritage Site because it is home to multiple high-rise buildings that were first constructed more than 500 years ago. Some of these multi-story tenements reach upwards of 100 feet high. These buildings previously housed this ancient capital’s lower-class residents. Of course, over-crowding and poor sanitation were the norm, as were flights and flights of stairs to climb to get up to those upper floors, but what really made these buildings incredible, and a pain to live in, was that they were made of mud. The mud kept the buildings cool in hot weather and warm in cold, but it also washed away in heavy rains, which meant that the Shibam apartments required frequent repair. In order to layer fresh mud-brick on the outside of the buildings, workers would have to climb to the tops of the 100 foot tall towers and pack fresh mud on the outside of the building—not the world’s safest job. In-between repairs, leaks weren’t uncommon, which residents would just have to suffer through. Flooding could also compromise the foundations of the apartments, which could cause these enormous and heavily populated buildings to collapse.
New York in the 1800’s
Immigrants flooding into New York City in the 1800’s often arrived with nothing more than what they could carry. The promise of a better life in America continued to lure new arrivals to the country, even as the reality of this brave new world failed to measure up to the hopeful dreams of the immigrants. The first apartment building in New York was built in 1839 and featured crowded conditions, poor sanitation and unreasonable pricing. In the 19th century, minimum standards for sanitation and safety had not been delegated by the government and people who occupied these early apartment buildings often had no choice but to put up with whatever squalid conditions they found themselves in.
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