A brief history of border walls – from 2,000 BC to Trump’s Mexico wall

As US president Donald Trump presses on with his plans to build a multi-billion-dollar wall along the border with Mexico, historian David Frye explores the history of border walls – which, he argues, were directly responsible for the rise of civilisations…

Towards the end of the third century BC, the First Emperor of China sought to make his new state immortal by shielding it with what would be the earliest predecessor to the Great Wall. (Photo by Jean-Luc PETIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

More than 10,000 years ago, the city of Jericho – then hardly more than a small collection of mud brick houses – surrounded itself with a formidable stone wall. At the time, it may have been the only walled city on earth. Jericho rose and fell many times over the millennia, each rise occasioning the building of a new rampart. During the Early Bronze Age (3300–2100 BC), when Jericho rebuilt its walls as many as 17 times, the world around the city evolved. It came to be populated by other walled cities, soon to be followed by walled kingdoms, and finally walled empires.

Advertisement

For most of history, a city was, like Jericho, a thing with walls, and for much of history, an empire was a walled thing, too. As protective walls arose around the world, they affected how people lived, worked, and fought. Thousands of miles of ruins attest to their former importance, even where they have failed to inspire historians. Walls dominated warfare, although sieges never captured the imaginations of historians quite so much as battles of manoeuvre fought in open fields. And more than any other single factor, walls were directly responsible for the rise of civilisation. But we are only now beginning to recognise their importance.

The stretch of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, China

A quest for security

Ancient walls were rooted in a quest for security that was both timeless and universal. The earliest strategy for achieving security, long predating cities or walls, required profound sacrifices from the men of a tribe or clan. Around the world, primitive communities trained their men to serve as defenders. From an early age, boys endured painful desensitisation exercises designed to inure them to the sort of stimuli which make men afraid. They were pushed into bees’ nests, beaten with sticks, poked at with spears. The lad who has endured pubertal circumcision has little to fear from a punch in the nose – or so the reasoning went.

Walls in the ancient city of Jericho, during the early 20th-century excavations of Tell es-Sultan and Tulul Abu el-'Alayiq. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Walls in the ancient city of Jericho, during the early 20th-century excavations of Tell es-Sultan and Tulul Abu el-‘Alayiq. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Boys were sent out in the night so that they would not fear dark and made to wrestle naked so that they would never crave armour. Worst of all were the rites of manhood, such as the horrific O-Kee-Pa ritual once practised by the Mandan tribe of North America: young men had their skin gouged with serrated knives and then were hung from sticks inserted in the wounds.

Religion seemed to support the training of warriors. If the fear of death is the root and source of all fears, then men had to be taught that death was not the end. Warriors were taught that their souls would not die, that they would be reincarnated, or that they would ascend to Valhalla or some other paradise for the valiant. In some cultures, cowards were executed. Other cultures allowed them to live, but not happily. Young women played a key role, humiliating and rejecting males whose nerve had failed in battle.

Appia Antica (The Appian Way), Rome, Lazio, Italy, Europe. (Getty)

The emergence of walled cities established an alternative strategy for achieving security – and redefined the role of men. Secure behind their fortifications, the city dwellers learned to live without desensitisation exercises. They stopped tormenting their boys. Men achieved respect without ever having scored a first kill. Women took husbands who had never fought in battle. Boys became men without enduring painful rites of manhood. Men became workers rather than warriors.

The decision to build walls transformed communities. Strategy was destiny, not because one provided security and the other did not, but because the two ways of securing lives and property created entirely different expectations for men.

The then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump taking part in the final presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, 19 October 2016. Trump repeatedly claimed that the election was “rigged” against him. (Photo by Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty Images)

Spartans at war

In ancient Greece, the Spartans repudiated walls. They insisted, like other warrior societies, that they be defended by “walls of men.” Marching past a walled city, the Spartans would point and jeer. “What sort of women live there?” they would ask, referring to the sort of men who put their trust in walls rather than their own courage. But the choice to live in an open and insecure world hindered Sparta’s potential to create anything but war. The Spartans formed a society of soldiers, living in a homogenous militaristic culture that was deliberately devoid of all art or science – references supporting Spartan austerity are found throughout ancient sources.

Accounts of the Trojan War ascribed to Homer were the most revered chronicles in the Ancient Greek historical canon – but, Paul Cartledge suggests, they may be entirely fictional. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The great rivals of the Spartans, the Athenians, adopted the alternative strategy. The Athenians built walls – even if it meant enduring the taunts of the Spartans – and consequently freed their men from the belief that their only value came from fighting. Liberated, they produced art, theatre, science, mathematics, history, and philosophy. Even when the city was under siege, Athenian playwrights freely satirised their political leaders. There was no freedom like that in the unwalled world, but such liberty was a direct outgrowth of the revolution brought about by the development of walled cities.

The world’s first border wall

As walled cities spread from their original homelands, they occasionally combined into larger states which constructed larger walls. When the king of Ur [an ancient state located in modern-day Iraq] declared, in around 2000 BC, that his newly constructed border wall – likely the world’s first – would allow his people to dwell peacefully in green meadows, he was creating a template which would unknowingly be followed by centuries of kings and emperors.

The construction of the Long Wall marks the beginning of an age of great walls that lasted more than 1,000 years from the third century BC to the 11th century AD

Nebuchadnezzar II (c630–561 BC) sought to completely encircle his Babylonian state wherever he could not rely on rivers for defence. Towards the end of the third century BC, the First Emperor of China, obsessed with his own mortality, sought to make his new state immortal by shielding it with what would be the earliest predecessor to the Great Wall. His construction of the Long Wall marks the beginning of an age of great walls that lasted more than 1,000 years from the third century BC to the 11th century AD, and encompassed all the great states of Eurasia.

The construction of the Long Wall in China marked the beginning of an age of great walls that lasted more than 1,000 years from the third century BC to the 11th century AD. (Photo by Jean-Luc PETIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
The construction of the Long Wall in China marked the beginning of an age of great walls that lasted more than 1,000 years from the third century BC to the 11th century AD. (Photo by Jean-Luc PETIT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

 

Hadrian’s wall

Rome joined the great age of walls in the second century AD, when the emperor Hadrian implemented a vast programme to fortify Rome’s borders on three continents. Hadrian’s most famous work, his stone wall in Northern England, is echoed in other walls built by Hadrian in earth and timber, as well as stone. The Persians became prolific builders of border walls during the Sasanid era (224–651). In Ukraine, the great Kievan state followed a few centuries later, when Vladimir I (980–1015) had his kingdom “enclosed on all sides with the longest and most solid of fences because of the roving enemy”.

Hadrian's Wall, built by Roman emperor Hadrian in northern England. (Photo By DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Hadrian’s Wall, built by Roman emperor Hadrian in northern England. (Photo By DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images)

The great imperial walls accelerated the transformation of culture that had begun inside the early city walls. A generation after Hadrian, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides delivered an account of the empire in the mid-second century. In Aristide’s mind, the walls had worked. They had accomplished what monarchs had been promising since at least the third millennium BC: they had brought peace for all. The Romans, Aristides said, enjoyed complete security. They blithely spent their days in theatres, gymnasiums, temples, and schools. They indulged in every sort of luxury, because, for them, war had become a thing of the past. No one bothered to carry weapons. Walls – “unbreakable and indissoluble” – had made this prosperity possible.

The Spartans, of course, would have groaned at such a sentiment, and their side of the argument was made by the growing dependence of civilian Rome on warriors from the unwalled barbarian world, now hired in large numbers to patrol Rome’s borders. Not too many years after Aristides delivered his address before the emperor Antoninus Pius, plague arrived from Asia, severely depleting the ranks of the soldiers defending the borders. Masses of barbarians – Marcommani, Quadi, Costoboci (even the Romans had trouble keeping the names straight) – overwhelmed the weakened defences. Innumerable Roman civilians – the same who had, according to Aristides, come to believe that war was the stuff of fairytales – were reminded that war was real and painful.

Gold medallion of Constantius I, from the mint of Trier. It depicts Constantius celebrating his victory over Alectus in AD 296. Constantius is shown on a horse at the gates of London, welcomed by Britannia. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Local walls

A century later, Rome was still constructing a few final great walls, mostlyin southeast Europe. But across the empire, a drastic change transformed daily life. The once-open cities, previously secure behind the walls of empires, now built local walls in a flurry. The drive to refortify the cities happened too quickly for the builders to wait on materials from quarries. Theatres, circuses, baths, and town homes were torn down to provide stone for the new walls. From Greece to Spain, cities shrank down, shed all those institutions once celebrated by Aristides, and sought security behind high ramparts. In the blink of an eye, the world of Aristides was gone. Having experienced war, the empire’s civilians had no stomach for risk; they sacrificed all the amenities of classical culture for security.

The greatest of the late Roman town walls were unquestionably those of Constantinople. Built in the early fifth century, Constantinople’s walls command a special place in history for having protected the Byzantine capital against numerous assaults for more than 1,000 years. When Turkish cannons battered holes in the wall in 1453, it marked the end, not just of a fading empire, but of an age of walls that dated back to prehistory.

An engraving depicts 13th-century Constantinople; its walls command a special place in history for having protected the Byzantine capital against numerous assaults for more than 1,000 years. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
An engraving depicts 13th-century Constantinople; its walls command a special place in history for having protected the Byzantine capital against numerous assaults for more than 1,000 years. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Cities and states continued to build walls after the invention of gunpowder – in fact, China’s Great Wall was constructed entirely after the fall of Constantinople – but militarily the attackers had gained the upper hand over the defenders. The Great Wall last saw action in 1933 with China’s heroically futile defence against an invading Japanese army equipped with artillery and aircraft.

Portrait of Selim I (1512_1520), 9th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi Sarayi Museum Library, Istanbul, Turkey (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Today’s ruins

Today, the Great Wall and all its lesser-known siblings lie dormant, no longer defended, no longer marking the borders of empires long past. A younger set of ruins – those of the old Iron Curtain barriers – have been transformed into greenways. Yet the dust had hardly settled from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 before new walls arose, beginning in the United States, where Bill Clinton’s work on the Mexico border was extended by both George Bush and Barack Obama.

Israel soon followed suit, along with India, Saudi Arabia, and dozens of other nations. In short order, a new set of ‘walls’ – most of them more akin architecturally to fences – have arisen in countries all around the world. And inside them, still more walls, in the form of hundreds of thousands of micro-walls, guard the homes and neighbourhoods of those that can afford them, mute reminders of who we are and where we came from.

Advertisement

David Frye is the author of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (Scribner 2018).