The Dirty Dozen: Top 13 Barrier Walls in History

One of America’s greatest political minds, Benjamin Franklin, wrote, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” It would seem today that the notion of a hedge against our neighbors is not a lost thought. As rhetoric becomes more bellicose regarding a robust wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, FTKC looks back of some of the most famous or significant walls throughout history. For this list we will be looking at physical barrier walls–either of mud, wood, stone, wire fence, concrete, or a combination of these–that were used for defensive or restrictive purposes. Because of this, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall or France’s Maginot Line do not make the list as they are not true walls in the sense of the word. We’ll leave off the U.S./Mexico border since it inspires this list. And, sorry Pink Floyd you don’t make the cut, either.

#13 Frontier Closed Area (Hong Kong)


Built in 1951 at the height of Cold War tensions during the Korean War, the Frontier Closed Area now straddles two of the largest metropolises in the world–Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Established as a buffer zone between communist China and colonial Hong Kong, the Frontier Closed Area was an U.N. embargo tool against China’s actions in Korea and was designed to keep out illegal immigrants, smugglers, and spies. Now, with Hong Kong part of China again, it is a 10 square mile relic of wetlands and isolated hamlets; a swath of untouched green earth in a concrete and metal urban sprawl. Slowly, the government of Hong Kong is opening the Frontier Closed Area to limited development, finally reintegrating Hong Kong into mainland China.

#12 Great Wall of Gorgan (Iran)


Also known as the “Red Snake” because of the red clay bricks used in its construction, the Great Wall of Gorgan is the second longest defensive wall in history and at least a 1000 years older than the Great Wall of China. Though the time of its construction is not well known, recent work by archaeologists in Iran and from the Universities of Edinburgh and Durham believe the Great Wall of Gorgan to have been construction in the 5th, or possibly 6th, century CE by the Sasanian Persians to keep out the White Huns invading from Central Asia. The wall is a complex collection of over 30 military forts that housed 30,000 troops and aqueducts and other water channels stretching from the Caspian Sea over 120 miles inland.

#11 Servian Walls (Rome, Italy)


Every major city in antiquity was surrounded by walls. Lugo, Spain has probably the best preserved Roman walls in western Europe and they are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But, they are in Lugo, Spain. What sets our #11 pick apart from these other walled cities is the city that the walls protected: Rome–the city at the heart of one of history’s most significant empires. Constructed in the early 4th century BCE of tufa, a type of volcanic rock, the walls were enough of a deterrent that they repelled an attack of Rome by Hannibal after he famously crossed the Alps with elephants during the Second Punic War. Eventually, Romans would outgrow the walls; they spread their city well beyond its security under the ever-present protection of the mighty Roman military and the Pax Romana.

#10 The Green line (Cyprus)


It is hard to imagine an island the size of Cyprus being nearly cut in two, but it is a reality for Greek Cypriots on the southern side and Turkish Cypriots in the north. Following Cyprus’ independence from Britain in 1960, tensions between the two communities festered. This animosity culminated when a 1974 coup by Greek National Guards, who favored a union with Greece, was met with troops supported by Turkey. The northern and southern lines of this 110 mile long scar across Cyprus are the lines where the belligerents stood in the ceasefire of 1974. Now patrolled by the U.N., the Green line has become a greenbelt of nature in a quickly modernizing nation. It is also known as the Nicosia line because it cuts through the center of the city of Nicosia where “new” cars from the 1970’s sit derelict in a car dealership garage.

#9 Great Wall of Tlaxcala (Mexico)


What do you do when your neighbors are fierce warriors who take captives to become human sacrifices at their temples? You build a wall. And you make it big. That’s exactly what the Tlaxcalan people of Mexico did. Though both the Tlaxcalan and Mexica people belonged to the Aztec culture, they were, at heart, bitter enemies. For over 200 years, the Tlaxcalan people lived in the shadows of the Aztec empire. By 1325, the Mexica had formed a powerful army and began subduing their neighbors. Expect for the Tlaxcalans. To help resist their hostile neighbors, the Tlaxcalans encircled their empire in a wall. By 1519, when Cortez arrives in Mexico, the Tlaxcalans were a completely isolated enclave deep in the heart of Aztec land. Cortez remarked that the walls surrounding Tlaxcalan territory were “about one and a half times the height of a man,” twenty paces wide, and stretched beyond what the eye could see. Unfortunately, the walls were no match for Cortez.

#8 Hadrian’s Wall (Scotland)


The second Roman wall to make our list, Hadrian’s Wall is the longest wall in Europe stretching across England from the River Tyne on the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. Built by Emperor Hadrian in 122 CE, the wall’s 73 mile length represented the furthest north boundary of the Roman Empire. Boundless theory’s exist as to why Hadrian constructed the wall but the most common idea is that the wall represented Roman power (it is thought the wall was covered in plaster and whitewashed so it would radiate in the sun) and Hadrian’s personal desire of defense of the empire rather than expansion of it. Another possibility was that it was a tax collecting and anti-immigration/smuggling tool: As people traveled across England they’d pass through the wall and pay tribute to the Roman empire, and the closely built towers could keep out enemies of the Empire and regulate immigration.

#7 Korean Wall/Demilitarized Zone (North/South Korea)

Imjinak South Korea DMZ

The #7 entry is one of the most famous border’s in the world because it is the demarcation line between two countries technically still at war. Despite the cease-fire agreed to in 1953, soldiers on both sides of the fence wake each morning and prepare for a war that probably will not break out, but there’s always that haunting chance. And yet, less than 35 miles to the south, the bright lights of Seoul burn through the night. Despite its name, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world with some 640,000 South Korean troops at the ready with 2.4 million in reserve backed by almost 30,000 American soldiers. Since 1953, over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 American have died along the 160 mile long, 2.5 miles wide fortified border. In 1977, the DPRK claimed that South Korea and the U.S. had begun constructing a concrete wall along the DMZ. This claim was repeated in 1999, and both times the U.S. and South Korean denied the existence of a physical, concrete wall.

#6 Line of Control (India-Pakistan)


It would be a gross understatement to say that India’s borders are hostile places. Aside from the Line of Actual Control separating India and China and the Indian/Bangladesh border, the contentious border between India and Pakistan in the former princely states of Jammu and Kashmir were considered by Bill Clinton to be the most dangerous border in the world. In 2003, India began constructing a 340 mile long fence along 460 miles of the disputed Line of Control established in 1972. It was built by the Indian government to prevent smuggling of arms, insurgents and terrorists across the border into disputed Indian territory. There are enough spotlights and floodlights illuminating the line that it is the only man-made border that can be seen from space. Since conflict began along the border in 1947, an estimated 100,000 people have died in the Kashmir region alone. Today, the border is an ever-present cause for the escalation of military power. Pakistan, with the world’s 7th largest military, recently announced that they had developed a miniature nuclear warhead designed to destroy tanks and even has identified targets across the disputed border in India ramping up tension in a region that is a tempest already.

#5 Walls of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)


Protecting one of the greatest cities in all of history are two walls–Wall of Constantine and Theodosian Walls–that combine to make up the formidable Walls of Constantinople. Constantinople stood at the epicenter of the world in the 7th century CE. It served as the bridge between Asia and Europe; traders from three continents converged on its markets. And behind its massive walls–which withstood over 15 different sieges over a millennium–Constantinople thrived. Far from a deterrent, the Walls of Constantinople lured invaders in with a song of wealth and power. Probably the most significant stand by Constantinople came in 674-677, and again in 717-718, when Arab armies marched northward after conquering much of the Byzantine empire and all of Persia. Both times Constantinople stood fast. The walls kept in check the spread of Islam into a fractured and chaotic Europe. One can only imagine the outcome for Europe had Constantinople fallen.

#4 Belfast Peace Line (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


Meant to separate predominantly Catholic–self-identifying Irish–and Protestant–self-identifying Unionist/British–neighborhoods, the Irish Peace Lines of Belfast,  Ireland stand as a legacy to mutual mistrust and loathing. The first walls went up in 1969 shortly after “the Troubles” when British soldiers were sent in to Belfast and uncoiled barbed wire to separate the warring factions. The commander in charge, Lt. Gen. Ian Freeland, said, “The peace lines will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.” Nearly 50 years later, the walls not only remain, but get taller, longer, and new ones are built, as recently as 2008. Despite calls for the walls to come down, nearly 70% of people living near them fear for their safety should they come down and 58% do not believe the police can contain the violence that may occur should the walls go away. None the less, plans are in the works to see the walls torn down by 2023.

#3 Israeli West Bank Barrier (Israel)


Begun in 2002 during the height of the Second Intifada and costing Israel an average of $260 million per year in maintenance, the Israeli West Bank Barrier is as controversial as it is massive. For Israelis, the wall is a security measure; when completed it will represent 430 miles of razor wire and anti-vehicle trenches, and in some places a twenty-six foot high concrete walls and massive watch towers, of anti-terrorism protection for the many Jewish settlements near the West Bank. To Palestinians living in the West Bank, the wall is seen as a political tool for Israel to encroach into Palestinian lands. Though it was to follow the Green Line–the 1967 boundary that separated Israel from the West Bank–some sections go as far as twelve miles beyond the Green Line often cutting off Palestinian villages from their farming lands. Israel argues that the wall is a necessity and that since its inception terrorism and bombings against Israel have dropped from 73 attacks between 2000-2003 (the start of construction) to 12 from 2003-2006.

#2 Berlin Wall (Germany)


The Berlin Wall was the physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain. Original plans for a wall were rejected by Moscow in 1953, but as defections to the West increased to over 1,000 per day by the summer of 1961, Khrushchev relented. Erected 1961, the East German government claimed that the “Antifascist Bulwark” was not to keep East Berliners in, but to keep West Germans and their fascists, spies and otherwise treasonous people out. The wall most people know was really only one side to two walls separated by a 160 yard wide “death strip” protected by guard dog runs, minefields, and watchtowers. Despite having stood at the Berlin Wall and proclaimed his solidarity with West Berliners, John F. Kennedy was actually happy that the wall was constructed. When he heard that Khrushchev was constructing the wall, he said, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war. This is the end of the Berlin crisis.”

Honorable Mentions

Walls of Jericho

Aurelian Walls (Rome)

Antonine Wall (Scotland)

#1 The Great Wall (China)


The Great Wall of China, in its entirety measuring over 13,000 miles, has become one of the most well known symbols of China to the rest of the world–a physical representation of China’s strength and its long history of isolation. Originally begun by Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BCE, it was conceived as a means to prevent future incursions by barbarian nomads into Chinese lands. The more famous portions of the wall were built between the 14th and 17th centuries CE by the Ming Dynasty. The main purpose of the wall was as a deterrent to invasion, but it also served as a tool to control immigration and emigration, a means to collect duties and taxes along the Silk Road, and as a way to regulate trade within the empire. That the wall can be seen from space is a myth–even at low orbit, NASA has found that it has to be under near perfect conditions, but even then it is not clearly discernible from other objects nearby.


What do you think about this list? Feel we missed something? Leave a comment below and tell us. And be sure to follow From The Kitchen Cabinet to get more Dirty Dozen lists and other historical perspectives.


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