The Walled Cities: Keeping Out The Joneses

"Us And Them." Human history, perhaps, was shaped mostly by... walls

It’d be so nice if it was true, but the fact is it ain’t: the first settlements – before bronze age, before iron age, even probably before the stone age – didn’t happen because folks liked each other’s company.
As the old saying goes: there really is safety in numbers … and fortifications.

If you have any doubt about how wood -- and then stone and later even steel – walls helped shape human civilization, all you need to do is take a close look at most of our cities, especially the older ones.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where the boundaries between "Us In Here And You Out There" once were. Just look at the lovely city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands: a picture postcard of lovely homes, sparkling waterways, brilliantly green parks, and meandering walkways – a true jewel of civilization. Except that
Utrecht, and a huge number of other cities throughout Europe, were built as walled fortresses. In the case of Utrecht that’s pretty obvious when you look at the city from either the air or at the old city plans.

With other cities, like London and Paris, their urban growth has completely overrun the original walls and fortifications – though they’re there if you look hard enough.

Highlights of Defensive Architecture

If you want real defensive architecture you have go step back to Medieval times, and away from Europe. Sure, cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam, Berlin, Lucerne, Winchester, and so many others have their fortifications – either still visible or all-but invisible – from their Medieval, or even Roman, roots. But it wasn’t long before these separate city/states looked out from their battlements and discovered that instead of keeping themselves safe they were keeping their good neighbors out.

Another reason why the battlements in Europe crumbled was because of a force even more powerful that the weapons of the time: money. As trade increased and financial empires bloomed war became a bad investment. Then there was the fact that as cities expanded far out beyond their old protective walls it became simply impossible to defend them without constantly building and rebuilding fortifications which, money again, was just too darned expensive.

But when you step before the relative comfort of Western Europe and out towards the rocky cruelty of Eastern Europe – and beyond – you find some cities were the walls went up, and stayed up, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

One of the jewels of the Adriatic is the (now) Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Beyond it’s current beauty and charm, the city is also considered to be one of the greatest, and best preserved, of the great walled cities. Even looking at it today you can see ghosts of it’s ancient strength: the specters of magnificent walls and towers surrounding a modern city:

A truly spectacular walled city is actually part of Europe, though at the bottom of it. Recently declared a Unesco World Heritage site, the Spanish city of Cuenca is mostly a monstrously huge citadel – a stone maze of ancient fortifications, churches, famous ‘hanging houses’ and other delightfully unique architectural treasures.

Walking the streets of Cuenca is like stepping back in time, becoming a Medieval citizen who knows that no matter the danger your stalwart city will protect you:

Stepping away from Europe again, another beautiful example of a walled city is another Unesco site: the Azerbaijan city of Baku:

Again, what makes Baku so wonderful is the juxtaposition between the ancient fortifications with the modern world: the way you can stand on a immaculately paved street, with your iphone in your hand, and look up at walls that were constructed … well, let’s just say a very, very long time ago. What’s sad, however, about this one particular walled city is that while the fortifications may have held back legions of threats, generations of hostiles, the ancient ramparts and defenses may finally crumble and fall – partially because of earthquake damage but also because people simply don’t care enough to preserve them.

"... But in the end it's only round and round." (Pink Floyd)

While it might be a bit of stretch, it’s interesting to look at how – as recent as the last century– some people still thought about defense as a fort, a fortress. While it didn’t surround Paris, the French military – aching from the First World War – tried to prevent the same kind of invasion of their homeland by creating what they hoped would be the wall to end all walls: an immense network of tunnels, bunkers, gun emplacements, gas-proof chambers, and even a carefully-protected narrow-gauge railway connecting a large percentage of it. Colloquially called the Maginot Line, the fortifications were – and are – a staggering achievement of military planning and architecture.

There’s only one problem: it didn’t work – or it didn’t work that well (depending on who you talk to). The fact is that while the Maginot Line was well planned and executed it was an artifact of the past – it simply didn’t have much of a chance against the kind of war the 20th century brought against it.

Like with the ancient cities all around it, the Maginot Line proved that the idea of hiding behind walls is, in the end, futile.


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