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The Life Cycles of Walls

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Barriers, Real and Symbolic, Also Invite Interaction

Since ancient times, rulers have built walls to define borders, keep some people in, to keep other people out, control immigration and smuggling and provide opportunities for taxation.  Border walls are also sites of complex interaction.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall across what was then called Britania, in the 120s AD, to separate the Roman-ruled population from the rebellious Picts and Scots who lived in the northern part of Britain. Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 AD, was a stone fortification that ran about 73 miles from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. 

In a Scientific American article Krystal D’Costa tells how the life cycle of Hadrian’s Wall illustrates the way walls built as barriers function over time as monuments and places of exchange that generate experiences of identity and place. Local Britons supplied six years of labor building Hadrian’s Wall, which also featured garrisons and smaller military stations. It remained intact and functional as a boundary and means of levying taxation until the Fifth Century.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the wall fell into disrepair, and its polished white stones were looted for other construction. Much of the wall survives today, and is a tourist attraction. But it has served many ideological as well as physical purposes. D’Costa writes that Hadrian’s Wall was viewed as a symbolic reminder of Britain’s Roman heritage, which became important in the Eighteenth Century as the British Empire expanded. She cites the belief that linkage to the Roman wall lent authority to the British presence by suggesting the British Empire had inherited Roman imperialist rights.   Those north of the wall, however, didn’t celebrate the Roman history.  In the Scottish view, D’Costa writes, the wall was a “symbol of valor for the ancient Scots who resisted and opposed the imperial aims” of Rome. 

Even as the wall separated some people, however, it brought others together.  Roman legions recruited soldiers from distant regions, and records indicate many who joined the troops came from Germany, Spain and other places. As they settled along the wall, they married local residents, creating population of mixed culture who, D’Costo writes, were “uniquely rooted in this space.”

Construction on parts of the Great Wall of China, the most famous of the ancient physical boundaries, was sporadic from the eighth through fifth centuries BC. Work on a long barrier protection wall was revived under the Ming Dynasty in the Fourteenth Century to hold back invading Mongols. The wall also allowed taxation on merchants who traveled the Silk Road, a network of trading routes that arose in ancient times and continued for centuries fostering cultural and economic exchange. The Great Wall included troop garrisons, watch towers and military outposts and its path served as a transportation corridor. Invading Manchus breached the wall in 1644, ending the Ming Dynasty.  

Ancient cities were often surrounded by walls. The famous walls around the city of Jericho, now in the West Bank, built around the tenth century BC, may be the oldest known.  The Biblical story says the walls crumbled after Joshua’s army blew their trumpets. Other walls have failed less dramatically. The ancient  Sumerian king Shulgi built a free-standing boundary wall along the 155 miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to keep out Amorite invaders. But eventually, invaders just walked around the wall and the Sumerian city of Ur, in what is modern day Iraq, fell around 2000 BC. Read Krystal D’Costa’s piece on walls here.

For other thoughts, here is Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, which begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”


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