The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico

The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico

by Ian Volner
The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico

The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico

by Ian Volner


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“Timely and highly readable . . . provides a valuable backdrop to Donald Trump’s insistence on a barrier across America’s southern border.” —Robert Dallek, presidential historian

During his campaign for the presidency, one of Donald Trump’s signature promises was that he would build a “great great wall” on the border between the US and Mexico, and Mexico was going to pay for it. Now, with only a few prototype segments erected, the wall is the 2,000-mile, multibillion-dollar elephant in the room of contemporary American life.

In The Great Great Wall, architectural historian and critic Ian Volner takes a fascinating look at the barriers that we have built over millennia. Traveling far afield, to China, the Middle East, Europe, and along the U.S. Mexico border, Volner examines famous, contentious, and illuminating structures, and explores key questions: Why do we build walls? What do they reveal about human history? What happens after they go up? With special attention to Trump’s wall and the walls that exist along the US border already, this is an absorbing, smart, and timely book on an incredibly contentious and newsworthy topic.

“A work of literary alchemy that transmutes the wall, a simple architectural structure, and of late, political metaphor, into a prism through which to view the panorama of human history . . . this book will amaze, delight, and enchant even the most jaded nonfiction aficionado.” —William J. Bernstein, award-winning author of The Delusions of Crowds

“A global journey to some of history’s most significant walls—China, Berlin, and even Jericho—weaving together a fascinating account of their foundational myths and current realities.” —Carrie Gibson, author of El Norte

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781683355304
Publisher: ABRAMS, Inc. (Ignition)
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, Artforum, Architectural Digest, and The New Yorker online, among other publications, and is a contributing editor at Architect. His previous books include Michael Graves: Design for Life and, a winner of the International Deutsches Architekturmuseum Book Award in 2016. He lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt


The Invention of Difference


Gog and Magog were in Egypt. Or perhaps Ethiopia. They might, in fact, have been in Libya, or somewhere on the far side of the Black Sea. They may have been two people or two places; they may have been one place and its king — Gog of Magog — or they might have been a single person — Gogmagog, a medieval giant so powerful he was said to have lifted up an oak tree and waved it around like a wand. In the Book of Revelation, it was foretold that at the time of Armageddon, the armies of Gog and Magog would encircle the city of Christ. Arrayed around the fortress of the saints, their numbers would be "as the sand of the sea."

This malevolent double entity is first named in the Book of Ezekiel, when God addresses the titular prophet and commands him to "set [his] face" against the foes of Israel. As with much of the Nevi'im — the second segment of the Hebrew Tanakh — Ezekiel was composed during and after the forced exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, when their traditions and language were in peril as never before. Gog and Magog were boogiemen (or, as the case may be, boogieman), a rhetorical effigy for God's chosen to burn as they sat in bondage waiting for the return to Zion.

But before they could lament their lost homeland, the Jews had to have a homeland to lament. In the traditional biblical chronology, Canaan, the country of their fathers, had been seized by the Twelve Tribes beginning around 1500 BCE following the death of Moses, seven hundred years prior to the Babylonian captivity. The record of its conquest is given in the Book of Joshua, written at the same time as Ezekiel and featuring some of the most harrowing passages in ancient literature. On that occasion, it was the Jews themselves who were the menacing outsider, sweeping across the Jordan River and into the basin north of the Dead Sea. For the Canaanites, the approaching Hebrew host was as horrible a specter as any Gog or Magog. So they dug in — at Jericho, their walled capital, where the Israelites first met them in battle.

Such, at any rate, is the story. Beginning in the 1950s, with the pioneering work of archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, scholarship has fairly well debunked the biblical account, showing that no invasion occurred in the Jordan Valley at the time the Hebrews supposedly arrived there. But Jericho was no fiction, nor was its wall, as attested by Kenyon's discovery of ruins radiocarbon dated to as early as 8300 BCE, long predating the Israelites' arrival. The wall of Jericho was by most estimates the oldest of its kind in the world, the first urban fortification anywhere.

And this walled settlement, or its second-millennium BCE counterpart, is what the Israelites would claim to have attacked. "Now Jericho was straitly shut up," reads Joshua, "because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in." The Canaanites thought themselves secure behind their sloped barricade: The wall that most closely corresponds to the biblical period was covered in smooth plaster, making a seamless and apparently impregnable envelope around the city. But the Hebrews had an inside man. More precisely, they had an inside woman, a prostitute named Rahab.

Fearing the wrathful Adonai whom the Jews claimed as the one true god, Rahab hid a team of Hebrew scouts on their arrival in Jericho. As she lived atop the wall itself, she was able to let them down again by rope on their departure. In accordance with divine command, the Israelites then paraded around the walls of the town bearing before them the Ark of the Covenant — the gilded chest, decked with winged cherubim, that betokened their fealty to the Creator. On the seventh day, the walls of Jericho miraculously fell, and as the children of Israel overran the city they slaughtered every single man, woman, and child in it, sparing only Rahab and her kin.

The principle of herem, the holy ban placed on unbelievers in the Torah, is a subject little dwelt upon by modern Jews. The Canaanites, along with other vanished Semitic peoples (Jebusites, Hittites, Hivites) were prescribed for annihilation in the post-Mosaic settlement of the Promised Land, a program bearing a most discomfiting resemblance to what would now be known as ethnic cleansing. That the Hebrews could have carried out this agenda, considering their own predicament in Babylon (and later), is ironic enough. Even more so is that a history so laden with violence has been received, by the spiritual heirs of the Israelites, as a story of redemption.

Born of a people confined within walls, the Jericho story has long been used as an allegory for the triumph of justice over inequity, its unseemlier aspects — to say nothing of its archaeological improbability — all but ignored. In the early 1800s, slaves at work in the fields of the American South began to sing of Joshua, how he "fought the Battle of Jericho" and how "the walls came tumbling down." The spiritual would become, in the century that followed, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and its latter-day admirers. On January 20, 2008, parishioners at Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, formerly the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., heard a speech from a special guest about the wall of Jericho and its meaning. One year later to the day, Senator Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States.

Be it in songs and sermons, or in bricks and mortar, walls are sui generis among the artifacts of human culture. If not quite a precondition of culture as such, they must count among its first fruits, as elemental (or nearly so) as the sharpened stone and the roaring fire.

Prehistories of the built environment are notoriously shaky. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the intellectual scene in Europe was riven by debates — led by now-obscure figures like the Frenchman Quatremère de Quincy and Germany's Gottfried Semper — about the origins of manmade structures: Were the first dwellings something like a Greek temple made out of wood sticks or more akin to a Bedouin tent? But those arguments tended to end in a mist of conjecture. To search for the beginnings of the wall-as-defense is to disappear into the same fog: The minute a house's wooden frame (or the fabric of a tent) is rendered sufficiently sturdy, that membrane might be considered a shield. Restrict the definition to freestanding walls, and one is still confronted by a structure so rudimentary that it is hard to imagine not imagining it. For all archaeologists have learned since the days of Semper and de Quincy, the best we can say is that walls have been with us as long as there has been an "us."

The proof is at Jericho — the real Jericho, not the storied place of the Bible but the historical site, known today as Tell es-Sultan (Hill of the Sultan), located in the modern-day West Bank in the Palestinian territories. Not only the oldest city wall known to us, the ninth-millennium site is also by most estimates the oldest city, full stop. The original settlement began at the foot of the Judaean Mountains next to a natural spring, doubtless the spot's initial attraction to roving nomads. Easily visible today from anywhere in the valley, today's tell (the archaeological term for such artificial hills) is the product of successive waves of construction in the area. Originally the town was not much higher than the riverbank a short journey to the east — though its situation on lightly sloping terrain did give it a slight prominence, the gradient acting as a glacis, a protective incline that any would-be attackers would have to ascend. In this sense, and like so many of its successors, the earliest wall at Jericho acted as a kind of accentuation of the terrain. Nature, as the old philosophes would have agreed, might be considered the template for architecture.

Freestanding walls do not, however, spring organically out of the rocks and hills. It would seem intuitive that warfare, or something like it, must provide the spur to their construction; yet Jericho demonstrates precisely the opposite. Not only is there no evidence of fighting in the area during the biblical period, there is also nothing to indicate any intense conflict in the ninth millennium BCE either. Excavations of burial sites from the period of the original wall's construction have shown that male longevity rates were comparatively high at the time, pointing to a period of relative peace. From this seeming paradox has arisen the theory that — contrary to the city's celebrated place in biblical lore — the original Jericho was something very different from an unwelcoming stronghold.

Nondefensive explanations for the city wall began to circulate in the 1980s, after anthropologist and archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef observed that the wall's pinnacle-like tower, a twenty-eight-foot structure located on the western flank of the original fortifications, was located behind the wall, not in front of it. Perhaps, Bar-Yosef speculated, it might have been meant as some kind of temple? In 2008, Tel Aviv–based researchers Ran Barkai and Roy Liran took this notion further, suggesting still broader "ideological reasons" for the city's mysterious armatures. Tracking the astrological and topographical relationship of the wall, the tower, and the landscape, the pair made a startling discovery: The tower was exactly placed so that when the sun set on the longest day of the year, the hills behind it made it appear as though the tower were casting a shadow precisely over the settlement, spreading from the tip of the lofty pinnacle to every house and hut in Jericho. Seen from the proper perspective, the tower would appear as a representation of the peak of the Quruntul — the highest point in the Judean Mountains, later renowned as the site of Christ's temptation — while the rest of the wall "could symbolize the ridge from which the Quruntul emerges." The wall and tower were indeed quoting the landscape, but solely for the purpose of creating a stirring spectacle. They were not, the scholars concluded, built to keep anyone out. They were built to impress them, and to invite them in.

While this "beacon" theory has made some headway in archaeological circles, it still leaves unexplained why exactly such a beacon should arise where it did, when it did. It would be natural to assume that if the people of Jericho were advertising something, it must have been some new kind of social and economic order, presumably of the farming-and-barter variety that usually forms the basis of city life. But this is not the case. As Barkai and Liran also note, both wall and city predate the adoption of a fully agrarian lifestyle by the people living inside it — the citizens remained primarily hunter-gatherers until well after the wall's construction. The city-dwellers were, in fact, almost indistinguishable from their nomadic cousins wandering through the valley below, looking up in awe at the wall. The only thing that separated them was the wall. The only thing it advertised was that the people of Jericho had built it.

It is a prospect that would have staggered the Enlightenment-era theorists. This wall, the earliest of its kind, may not have appeared for any particular reason; instead, it created its own rationale — the idea itself of difference — that there could be not only an "us," but a "them." Archaeology throws us back into the realm of ideology, and thence to myth, and we're right back in the company of the herem, Joshua, and Gog and Magog.

What philosopher Gaston Bachelard once observed about the invention of fire might also be said of wall-building. "Our theory would appear less daring," he wrote, if contemporary readers would "cease to imagine prehistoric man as being automatically subject to misfortune and necessity." Using the built environment as an instrument of separation was never the work of intellectual innocents seeking a purely practical means to a purely practical end. It was always and already a matter of ideology, an ideology born the instant the people of Jericho began stacking their undressed stones.

As compared to the significance of that act, the manner of the stacking is almost unremarkable. The initial wall of circa 8300 BCE, built shortly after the regular settlement was established, was nearly twelve feet high and six feet wide at the base. The town encircled by the wall, housing perhaps fewer than a thousand inhabitants, occupied about six acres in an ovular plan, with most of the dwellings built of loaf-shaped mudbricks — the indentations of bricklayers' thumbs are still visible on their tops. The wall, from its earliest incarnation, was already entirely of stone, brought to the site more or less as found in the surrounding hills and set up against an internal earthen bank with a flat top. Winnowing slightly in width at the upper end to lessen the vertical load, the wall was sloped back slightly, but other than that it did not sport any crenellations or other features that would enhance its defensive strength. It could not have been terribly effective as a barrier, not even against the occasional alluvial washes descending from the uplands, which appear to have progressively eroded it and required it to be periodically reinforced.

After several centuries of habitation, the community that had built the first wall disappeared from the area. Subsequent generations would return to the manmade hill and settle there again, building different types of houses and rebuilding the wall along different lines, blocking off the entrance to the old tower and its twenty-two internal steps. As each successive age built on the last, the city steadily rose into the manmade plateau one sees today; eventually the tower was subsumed altogether, and against its flanks the citizens buried their dead. Over six thousand years and more, different civilizations made different uses of the wall, suiting it to their own needs and culture. Finally, around 1500 BCE, the age of the Israelites arrived, and the wall of Jericho began its slow metamorphosis from a thing of stone and earth into an object of pure myth. A remarkable victory, it might be said, given that the Israelites probably never conquered Jericho at all.

Equally remarkable is that the popularity of the myth would eventually result in its being debunked. Most of this history of Tell es-Sultan comes from researchers who hoped to discover the wall discussed in scripture and prove that the story was true. They came above all from England, beginning in the nineteenth century, pioneers in the burgeoning field of biblical archaeology; full of piety and high ideals, few of them truly knew what they were doing, and most of them may have done more harm than good. It was not until the 1930s that any of them even succeeded in positively identifying Tell es-Sultan as the remains of Jericho.

At last one arrived who did know what she was doing, and then some. Dame Kathleen Kenyon — K to her associates, the Great Sitt ("Lady") to her Arabic-speaking workers — first came to Tell es-Sultan in earnest in the dig season of 1952. No less a believing Christian than those who came before, she was of a far more exacting disposition, and, while she professed interest in verifying the Book of Joshua, she refused in any way to be blinkered by her convictions. Cutting a deep trench into the tell on its western side, Kenyon peeled back the soil layer after layer in five-meter squares, meticulously sifting and sorting every potsherd and castoff artifact. Her mostly untrained local labor (many of them the displaced and dispossessed of the recently concluded First Arab-Israeli War) were transformed into expert field hands by the redoubtable K, who stalked around the dig with a cigarette in one hand, often giving off a strong smell of gin. So precise, so careful were the methods deployed by her and her team that they were able to detect and preserve the most delicate traces: The skin of an evaporated fluid on a stone surface, the trail of a white ant across the remains of an ancient reed mat.

Kenyon's conclusion — that not only was there no wall for Joshua to bring down in the second millennium, but probably no town at that particular moment either — was a definitive rebuttal to the Joshua legend. She was coy in announcing it, as she had to be: Her expedition, intended to last a single season, grew into a six-year-long effort and financing it required institutional support that was more easily sustained by stirring up the press back home with stories echoing the biblical tale. Bearish as she could be, Kenyon was also capable of great tact, a birthright of her immensely privileged upbringing: Her father, Sir Frederick Kenyon, had been director of the British Museum, and she was raised in a house that was effectively built into the museum itself. For her entire life she moved in a rarified circle of elite academics, aristocrats, and government officials. She knew how to play the game and would occasionally let slip to the British papers some tantalizingly conjectural remark about how a piece of pottery might have been left behind by "a frightened Canaanite housewife fleeing her kitchen in the face of Joshua's assault."


Excerpted from "The Great Great Wall"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Ian Volner.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. The Invention of Difference,
2. Border as Forge,
3. Unstable Walls,
4. The Art of the Wall-able,
5. Constructing the Normal,
6. The Return of Them,
West Bank,
7. The Way of All Walls,
Selected Bibliography,

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