A sturdy historical tour of walls and their builders—and their discontents as well.
Build bridges, not walls. It’s a slogan, writes Frye (Ancient and Middle Eastern History/Eastern Connecticut State Univ.), “designed to give military historians fits.” Bridges, after all, have military purposes: to get across moats and earthworks and to ford rivers into enemy territory. Walls, on the other hand, make peace—history offers plenty of examples, he writes, to show that “the sense of security created by walls freed more and more males from the requirement of serving as warriors.” Indeed, by Frye’s account, walls are hallmarks of civilization, if ones that are easily thwarted. One of his examples is the Tres Long Mur, a defensive structure built more than 4,000 years ago, stretching across the Syrian desert and shielding some of the world’s oldest towns from marauders from the steppes beyond. There are mysteries associated with the ruins, just as there are with the Great Wall of China, another of Frye’s examples—and one that proves, readily, that where walls go up, people find ways to get around and over them. The author’s pointed case study of Hadrian’s Wall shows that it may not have been a defensive success, but that does not mean it didn’t have a defensive purpose, as some scholars have recently argued. As he writes, wittily, “there is little to be gained from rationalizing an irrational past.” Another defensive failure is the Maginot Line, which became more symbolic than practical in an age of modern tanks; on the reverse side are spectacular successes, such as the great walls of Constantinople, which shielded the city from siege by as many as 200,000 soldiers of the caliphate, “one of the greatest turning points in history.” Walls have many purposes, he concludes, and it is rather ironic that the matter of walls is often as divisive as a wall itself.
A provocative, well-written, and—with walls rising everywhere on the planet—timely study.