There is a German phrase ‘Mauer im Kopf’ that means “wall in the head”. It was a reference to the belief that while the Berlin Wall may have come down in 1989, there was still a wall in people’s head that needed to be removed. Its collapse was perhaps the most symbolic defeat of a wall in the history of Wall, and they have been around on the grounds ever since civilizations were being built.
From the walls of the Garden of Eden to Trump’s Mexico wall, from Aadhaar security wall to your Facebook Wall, from Great Wall of China to the Great Firewall of China, in a world of uncertainty and confusion, a wall not only guarantees a semblance of order and discipline in the otherwise chaotic and wild world. Along with it, the Wall carries a promise built in each brick of the wall- that the breach of the wall in inevitable, but until then what myths can be conjectured around these walls shaped by humans and built by destiny. Walls are two-faced creatures that once erected, take on a life of its own, unless of course they are brought down and some walls live on even after that.
The walls to the Garden of Eden and the Great Wall of China aren’t the only famous walls, extinct or extant since humans discovered the grand projects of civilization.
Though the oldest walls found in existence so far are those of the temple of Gobekli Tepe in Urfa in southeast Turkey that date back 11,500 years ago, but as far as the history of walls go the oldest city wall discovered by archaeologists anywhere in the world, is that of the city of Jericho (now in West Bank). Built around 10th century BCE it fell because of the trumpets that were blown by Joshua’s Israelite army. It beats the walls of the legendary Sumerian city of Uruk, which also lays claim to being the first city of the world, built by the great king Gilgamesh, the protagonist of the epic bearing his name.
Walls were also the rage in cities throughout Mesopotamia as civilization kicked off. Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE) built three walls around Babylon at heights of forty feet and the Greek Historian Herodotus may have exaggerated a bit, when he said that these walls were so broad at the top that chariots could race around them, for some a claim worthy of being a wonder of the world, giving company to the legendary Gardens of Babylon. Today, only its myth survives.
Not all walls were for fortification, there was the defensive wall built between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers by the Sumerian King- Sulgi of Ur. It was unique because it didn’t surround the city, rather was meant to merely mark the national boundary and territory. Despite the sons and grandsons of Shulgi trying their best to guard these defensive walls, the fact that it was not anchored at either end led to its breach and the fall of the city of Ur and subsequently, the region of Sumer. The failures of this wall was a huge learning for the Sasanian Persians who improved upon the Red Snake as the Great Wall of Gorgan is also called which was initially built by the Parthian Empire (247 BCE-224 CE) and can still be seen in modern-day Iran.
Legend has it that Great Wall of Gorgan (aka Red Snake) is traditionally linked to another defensive wall built across Syria, or across the Caucasus by Alexander the Great and his architect Dinocrates. This iron wall also known as the Gates of Alexander or Caspian Gates, was more likely built as a barrier against the Scythians but also finds mention in the Quran, where the traveller Dhu’l- Qarneyn (Alexander the Great) is divinely inspired to build a wall to contain Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog), whose eventual breaching of that wall precedes the end of days.
Around the same time as the Great Wall of Gordon was being built the Chinese under the reign of Shi Huangti (221- 210 BCE) had started putting together a defensive wall which would go on to overshadow the Red Snake and be known as the Great Wall of China, only after the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) gave it its final touches. Built for the purpose of keeping the nomadic empires or the Steppe empires, over those centuries, people against whom it was built – the Manchus and the Mongolians, found ways through and around it.
Though a miniature compared to the Great Wall of China, the most famous wall of antiquity in Europe is the Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) grew tired of incursions into the Roman provinces in Britain and so, in the year 122 CE, began building a wall across the northern border of Roman Britain to separate it from the invading Pict tribes.
It was Hadrian’s Wall that gave inspiration to the now famous wall in modern day popular culture – the wall of ice in HBO’s Game of Throne and in the author George R. R. Martin’s book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,”; here too guarding against – barbarians, zombies, and other monstrous outlanders.
“The Wall predates anything else,” Martin told Rolling Stone in 2014:
I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border between England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. ……. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces—it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colourful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.
India too has a Great Wall right in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, at the very centre of India. The Wall strangely running (allegedly 80 km) straight in parts, zigzag in some, with branches and other stops making for an abrupt interruption. The Archaeological Survey of India still hasn’t bothered to find out about the mystery of its origins or build a myth around it. It stretches there ignored just known as diwaal in the local parlance.
Once the wall has been erected, it acquires a life of its own and structures people’s lives according to its own rules.
Not only to the ‘citizens’ of the wall but also to those walled off, the Wall gives them meaning and a new sense of direction and purpose. If for the former the wall is to the protect the ‘self’ from the ‘other’ than the ‘other’ find whatever means it takes, to get on the other side of the wall.
It took the Ottoman’s several generations to breach the walls of Constantinople, and in that time led by the attractiveness of the wall they built huts and lived next to the wall with only one goal – to breach the wall. That’s how attractive the walls can be. It nurtures any side that makes it its own.
The symbolism of the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall can’t be lost which only by its sheer connection to the Temple Mount; the holiest site in the Jewish faith, has garnered its own meaning and ritual. Western Wall, itself a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the Holy Temples once stood and were destroyed in 70 CE by Titus and the Roman legions. Interestingly, the Romans did not destroy the protective wall that surrounded the Temple and the Jews survived. This along with the wall’s longevity have led many Jews to believe that the wall is holy and has been blessed by God. Every year, millions of Jews from all over the world visit it for prayer and lamentation. By denying the possibility of praying at the Temple Mount, because of the entry restrictions, the ancient limestone wall has taken on its own ritualistic meaning and power.
A wall is above all the admission of a fundamental vulnerability.
A study published in 2005 looked at the lasting psychological impact of the Berlin Wall and found that the problem with having walls is that not only do they keep everyone out; they also keep one locked in. One ends up creating their own prison. In that study, conducted fifteen years after that wall came down in 1990, a group of 83 Germans raised in West Germany guessed the distances between 11 cities on both sides of the former border. The researchers found that Germans systematically overestimated the distance between cities that had been in opposite halves of the divided country. And Germans who opposed reunification overestimated the distances more wildly. The effect was strong even in people too young to have built their mental maps of the world before the Iron Curtain’s fall
The wall serves a dual purpose, of projecting as well as announcing that there is something to be concealed. The wall is as much a creation of the other, the outsider than it is of the insider, the builder of the wall. Through the erection of the wall, I expose myself totally; my secret fears and anxieties can now be contemplated in all their nakedness. My Facebook wall becomes the site on which a ritual of social life gets played out, building its own meanings and myth and of course changing ownership, from becoming my wall to a Facebook wall, where what started as my wall is now just another brick in the wall.
On one hand, by building a wall I try to hide, to live in its shadow and, at the limit, make myself invisible. On the other, however, it is precisely by building it that I come to disclose myself in a decisive manner. One side of the wall tells us that it is in the nature of the wall to be conquered, broken or torn down. The other side of the wall tells us that wherever there will be a wall; humans will build their own myths around it.
Walls like humans have been a part of the evolutionary process. A new civilisation called upon a different set of Wall and no one understood the importance of a Wall in the modern century better than the Chinese. The other great wall of China, the great firewall of China is today a combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People’s Republic of China, to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic along with growing a domestic internet business and internet culture.
The wall itself is an illusion, a myth created by humans, it is not so much about protecting as it is about seen to be protecting.
p.s. The Title of the essay is from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall.
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