The great wall of china is the most monumental barrier ever created in the ancient world. It is easily the most popular image we associate with the ancient Chinese Empire itself, but it has become so mythologized by in our imagination that we don’t realize it was actually the most extreme cultural barrier ever created. It’s sole purpose was to separate two groups of people, those who were civilized, and those who were not.
In some estimates they say more then a two to three million people were killed, and the construction went on in the initial part of the wall for over 14 years, starting in 220 BC. The Great Wall was not just a single barrier, but a chain of defenses, towers and huge expanses of 5 meter tall walls. This could not have been undertaken without a huge amount of resources and planning, not to mention organization on a scale probably never replicated since. And all this was said to be done in order to protect China form her enemies, the hoards of nomadic people that were gathering on the Mongolian plains, probing for any weakness in the Chinese defenses in order get at her seemingly unending wealth. The result was a wall that created a segregation of two people in a massive scale, people who were by most accounts ethnically of the same origin, yet separated by thousands of years of prejudice. Nevertheless, this wall has stood on the mountains of northern china since he foundation was laid under the Qin Emperor who was the first to unify China under his Celestial Kingdom.
What’s truly fascinating is not how long this wall has lasted, as very little of the original Qin wall still exists...but how much this barrier had an effect on the Chinese consciousness. This respect for the wall as a natural frontier has influenced the Chinese border ever since, so much in fact that when the Chinese began expanding their dominions in the 19th century, they headed west towards the impenetrable Gobi Desert, and south into the Himalayan plateau of Tibet, rather then expansion north towards the outer reaches of Asia, despite the fact that by these times those areas were sparsely populated and no longer a threat to Chinese sovereignty. The great wall was not only successful in keeping the barbarians out, but also resulted in containing the Chinese within.
But there are other examples of walls that defined cultural borders...
When Thyra Dannebod, wife of Gorm the Old and mother of all Danes stepped out into the Cimbrian Peninsula, she ordered her countrymen to build the foundations for the great Danevirke or Dane Work. This was a massive wall across the span of the narrowest waist of Denmark. The legend relates that this Danevirke was a fundamental cornerstone in the birth of Denmark as a state, effectively defining it’s national boundary.
So what caused a small young nation like Denmark to employ such drastic measures to protect their lands? In fact it was a fear of the increasing Frankish raids which were threatening with the real possibility of invasion. Since the 9th century there had been Germanic tribes radiating ever farther northward from their homelands on the Rhine. The Danes had by now become a settled people and had no choice but to jump into the sea, or defend their little Peninsula against the Franks. The wall has been the Danes national border, and line of separation between Danish and German people ever since.
The last battle on the Danevirk occurred in 1864 during the defense of Jutland on the legendary borderline during the Second Schleswig War.
Modern day Scotland has a border which is interestingly set between two great Ancient Walls, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine wall. Both were built by the Emperors who named them, and both had the same goal of demarcating a fortified boundary form which to fend off the Celtic people who inhabited the north. These defensive walls were built in two subsequent times, and the first, Hadrian’s wall, remained a in use for over three centuries. At this time the Romans were fearful of the Pictish tribes to the north, and in effect by isolating them north of the wall, they helped isolate and i sense preserve these people from roman assimilation. When Antoninus Pius tried to abandon this wall and head further north more then a century later, he built a second wall. This one, although not as expansive as Hadrian’s, it was deep within Caledonia, or Ancient Scotland. This wall suffered so many repeated attacks it was quickly abandoned and the Romans eventually retreated south towards the original wall.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, some roman garrisons continued to be stationed at the wall for several more centuries before the wall fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned. What the wall did achieve was a long lasting linguistic and ethnographic barrier, defining the lands north and south of the wall into what would eventually become the Kingdoms of Scotland and England. In the 18th century during the Scottish Enlightenment, many Scots began to excavate and preserve the remaining pieces of these walls helping stoke nationalist sentiment, thus providing a base for a revival of celtic culture.
What these ancient walls have in common is obvious, in so much that they were built to defend against rival groups of people. But what is less evident is how much these physical barriers had an effect on defining the political ambitions of the people that built them, or in same case the people were barred by them.