The 11 Most Significant Walls In World History

Donald Trump isn't the first leader to propose reinforcing a border with a giant impenetrable barrier. Famous walls in history date back millennia. Many were built all over the globe to protect civilizations from perceived enemies. Here are some of the great walls in history, why they were built, and whether or not they worked.

Photo: gmetrail / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • The Great Wall Of China Couldn’t Stop The Mongols Or The Manchus
    Photo: Hao Wei / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    The longest wall on Earth is actually a series of walls (over 13,000 miles of them) built over several hundred years in fits and starts beginning circa 200 BCE. The fortifications were meant to serve as a big visible boundary to keep the tribes of the north out. However, history says that the wall’s ability to hold back invaders was dubious.

    Genghis Khan’s great raiders passed through the Great Wall in the 13th century CE with little resistance due to its deteriorated state. China’s Ming Dynasty drove out the Mongols in 1368 and doubled down on Great Wall construction. Much of the Great Wall as we know it was constructed and reinforced by the Ming dynasty. However, when the Ming’s power diminished, top general Wu Sangui switched teams to side with the invading Manchus from the north. He opened up a gate in the Great Wall and the Manchus invaded.

    So much for the greatest architectural achievement in human history and the hundreds of thousands of people who perished in its construction, many of whom had their bodies repurposed as building materials.

  • The Berlin Wall Was Torn Apart By Ordinary Citizens

    The 91-mile wall encircling West Berlin built by the USSR in 1961 was meant to keep East Germans out of the one enclave of democracy left within the Iron Curtain, and it worked like a charm - until it didn’t work anymore. If permitted to cross into West Berlin, the people could escape Soviet rule, as many did before 1961. More than 100 people were killed by East German guards trying to escape over or under the wall.

    West Berlin’s thriving capitalistic system stood in contrast to the drab communist East Berlin and surrounding East Germany. Eventually, the Soviet Union-operated zone began to dismantle under the pressure of the oppressed people who were constantly within agonizing view of a Western democracy. So in 1989, East Germany announced people could pass through the wall to West Berlin. Overjoyed citizens, who had held mass demonstrations leading up to the decision, demolished the wall with anything they could get their hands on. East and West Germany officially reunified in 1990.

  • Walls Already Stand Along The US-Mexico Border

    Walls Already Stand Along The US-Mexico Border
    Photo: Tony Webster / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold the Line in Texas, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona are the names of three ongoing initiatives to close off the US border with Mexico. In total, 580 miles of fencing and sturdier wall structures already exist at the border, and areas in between are monitored by sensors that signal Border Patrol agents. The least hospitable areas along the 1,954-mile border are largely not secured, however.

    Many border-crossers have perished in the unsecured Sonora Desert stretch in Arizona because that's one area people can cross from Mexico to the US with a reduced risk of being sequestered. The operations have been credited with some reduction in illegal migration.

  • Hadrian's Wall In England Held Off 'Barbaric' Scots

    Built by the Romans starting in 122 CE, Hadrian’s Wall in England represented the northern border of the Roman Empire and completely dissected the island of Great Britain with over 73 miles of stone, forts, and motes. For the most part, the wall worked, but it’s difficult to say if it was ever really threatened by loosely organized tribes - many contemporary historians say it was more political symbolism representing Roman might.

    Roman armies never had much success occupying territory north of the wall, and for a few hundred years, Hadrian’s Wall - named after Emperor Hadrian - was a fairly solid border wall constructed of squared stones and standing 6 meters high at its tallest points. Much of it still stands today.

  • The Israel West Bank Barrier Wall Costs $260 Million Annually To Maintain

    In response to the Second Intifada (Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in the early 2000s), Israel erected an electrified and barbed wire wall along the 199-mile border. The zig-zagging wall is actually 422 miles long, however, and said to encroach on long-established Palestinian space. In some ways, it has worked at keeping Palestinians at bay.

    In other ways, isolating and alienating Palestinians in what they see as an illegal land grab, it has likely only fomented ill will between the bellicose neighbors. Israel expends a pretty penny on maintaining the wall to the tune of $260 million annually.

  • Northern Ireland Peace Lines Divide Catholics From Protestants

    Northern Ireland Peace Lines Divide Catholics From Protestants
    Photo: Diego_cue / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    Given to bouts of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland saw its solution in wall building, starting in 1969, as a reaction to a period of unrest known as The Troubles. The purpose of the "peace lines" or "peace walls" was to divide neighborhoods into Catholic and Protestant zones that were closed off at night. The 1990s saw a resurgence of violence and even more walls sprouted up, eventually totaling 48 walls, mostly in Belfast.

    Though they are deemed effective, taste for them is on the decline and government representatives have set a soft deadline to remove them by 2023.