It is election time and the debate over the building of a wall on our southern border is again a main point of contention when it comes to immigration. Over 70% of the worlds countries have either some type of border system in place or are preparing to construct one. In the later part of my post on the history of walls, I will share my personal experience of one wall…but we will get to that later. For now I want to separate the issues of walls and immigration so that a contextual and historical perspective can be understood.
Beginning approximately 6000 years ago, humanity moved from a nomadic lifestyle to a more sedentary one. As villages developed, it became necessary to build walls for protection against predators, both human and animal. Until the establishment of large city-states occurred, villages often fell prey to invasions from outsiders. Large animals were also prevalent threats, especially in the ancient near east, where large beasts of prey still roamed. Villages often had cattle as well as agricultural product and both were in danger from outsiders. The necessity of the wall was born from this. As villages grew into more established and formal city-states, fortification walls with elaborate towers and complex gate systems became an integral part of the planning. The gate system within the fortification walls served two main purposes; the first being as entry and exit points for the city, and the second as a means of crowd control. If you could control the flow of movement through the gates, you could effectively provide population control within the city walls.
The fortification walls and gate system of Nineveh and Babylon are some of the most elaborate and although not the earliest system, the most well documented. Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city, located on the banks of the Tigris River in ancient Mesopotamia. It served as the capitol for the Neo- Assyrian Empire and was positioned at the main crossroad for economic trade in the region. They sat on the pathway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The city was a symbol of eastern and western unity, but it was also prone to incursions and invasions. The necessity for an extensive fortification wall and system was paramount for protection and the flow of trade both in and out of the city.
Babylon, another city in Mesopotamia and perhaps one of the most famous cities in the ancient world, was home to one of the most enormous and extensive fortification walls and systems that existed in the ancient near east. The city, associated with King Nebuchadnezzar II, had several older double wall fortifications, and was added to with another triple wall located on the outside of the main wall. A second set of walls were erected to the north of the city, known as the Median Wall. Greek and Roman legend has it that the wall was 100 feet tall. The wall system and specifically the gates were so impressive that they are counted among the seven wonders of the ancient world. The main defensive system included a double defensive wall and a deep encircling moat. The ingenuity of this defense system is in understanding that it encircled the cities entire inhabited area; to include both sides of the banks of the Euphrates River. The purpose of the wall was defensive in nature and to control both people and trade.
Ancient Walls of Babylon by Jane Arraf NPR
A third example, the Great Wall of China, is a series of fortification walls meant to protect the borders of a unified China. Under the order of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, a fortification system was constructed around 220 BCE. The wall totals more than 13,000 miles in length and helped to prevent incursions from enemy nomadic tribes. While this wall has undergone many renovations throughout history, its purpose has remained the same; to provide a boundary and protection from invaders.
The excavation work, at Tall el Hammam in the Levant has also revealed an extensive wall and gate fortification system, meant to provide protection from invaders, as well as to control the flow of people and trade both inside and outside of the city walls. The whitewashed walls have been shown to be so significant in stature that they were most likely seen from the hilltops in Jerusalem.
While walls throughout history have often been constructed for protection, defense, population control and movement of trade, there is a final example of walls meant to divide, create fear, and to control its citizens. Of this wall I have personal experience. Many younger generations have failed to learn and understand that there exist two types of walls in this world; one that is meant to protect and one that is meant to destroy. The iconic Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, was created to prevent the spread of fascist elements. In reality, it isolated its citizens, created fear and was meant to restrict freedom of movement. It did not control the flow of people or trade, it neutralized it. Many may challenge this assertion, but I have lived it. I lived behind that wall, I saw the fear it inspired, I witnessed the death and destruction it brought, and I helped to tear it down with my own hands. The government behind the building of this wall separated families, friends and neighbors and forced an element of fear to pervade the region. The punishment for attempting to defect over the wall was death by shooting. I was a witness to this. Younger generations in our country cry out against a border wall, but I challenge them to understand the many meanings behind walls. A wall on our southern border can help in the protection of our country, it can help create an order to the flow of people and traffic through our borders and it can bring stability to the areas it runs through. Our southern border wall is not the Berlin Wall and we would do well to remember that.