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The Walled Cities: Keeping Out The Joneses


"QUANTUM SHOT" #579
Link - article by M. Christian and A. Abrams



"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.


Walled City of Shibam, Yemen - more info and images here

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.


Map of Utrecht from "Toonneel der Steden", published in 1652 - via

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.


The original Roman wall excavated recently, via (left)
"The Oudegracht With A View Of The Old Town Hall And The Dom Tower Beyond", old painting via (right)


Aerial views of Heusden and Naarden, both in Netherlands

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.


Map of Brugge, Belgium, 1563 (left) - Poertoren ("Powder Tower") tower in Brugge, via (right)


Noerdlingen, Germany from above; photo by Klaus Leidorf



Noerdlingen (above) and Dinkelsbuhl, Germany - the Rothenburg Gate and the aerial view. via

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.



The fortified city of Carcassonne, France - images via 1, 2


The model of The Walled City of Lahore, Pakistan, which dates as early as 2,000 B.C and has 13 gates - image via


Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (left) and St. Augustine, Florida (right, the oldest city in the U.S.; Spanish Castillo de San Marcos ca.1672) - images via 1, 2


The walled city of Lucca, Italy - and another one on top of a hill in Tuscany, image via

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:



Dubrovnik. (images via 1, 2, 3)

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.


Cuenca, Spain - image via

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:


Cuenca, Spain - image via

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


Baku, Azerbaijan (images via 1, 2)

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.


(images via 1, 2)

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.


Advertisement poster for BinHendi

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


Modern wall in Japan, original unknown

ALSO READ: MOST WONDERFUL CASTLES! ->

Also related: Mont St.Michel and The Hanging Monasteries

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YOUR COMMENTS::

27 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out Vienna... took down their walls and built a beautiful ring road. Good thinking.

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Blogger subbukl said...

http://www.desicolours.com/top-view-of-forts-in-maharashtra/17/06/2008

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

@anonymous

a beautiful ring road????

how strange to call that beautiful
thank God for living in the Netherlands where we don't do that

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Blogger Colan said...

one of the most beautiful walled cities I've ever seen is Aigues-Mortes, partially because it never really outgrew it's walls, so it still has the "in-here vs out-there feeling"

there are also plenty of post-medieval dutch fortifications, known as the "waterlinie", such as Woerden, which was also a roman and medieval city with castles and all, only 20KM from Utrecht

and many more forts in that style, such as Bourtange (also one of the most beautiful places I've ever been)

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Blogger bsprowl said...

In Verona, Italy there are three walls, Roman, Middle Ages and Austrian-Hungarian.

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Blogger Calli Arcale said...

How could you overlook Mont St Michel? It's a walled city, still functional today (though its main business today is tourism, plus some income from the surrounding floodplain pasturage), between Normandy and Brittany. The first fortifications were built by William the Conqueror, and it was added onto bit by bit. It was a penal colony for a while, and a monastery for much longer. Today, it is an actual city -- there are people who live there full-time, though they must feel a bit odd with all the tourists tramping around all the time. Carcasonne is another noteworthy walled city, in the south of France, and people still live in it as well.

While the ancient fortifications of London are not easily visible (apart from the Tower, and some influence on the way roads sprang up), the fortifications of Paris are easier to find. Some sections of medieval wall still stand, and the major routes into the city proper are in the same positions as the ancient portals -- and indeed, are referred to as "portes" even when the ancient archway is no longer present (though in many cases the arch is still there, along with a good bit of wall).

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Calli Arcade - thank you, good point. We did however write about Mont St.Michel - see this DRB page

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Blogger Frank said...

The The Walled City of Lahore reminds me of Labyrinth. Does anyone else see the connection?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another German city that still retains a good portion of its fortress wall is Rothenburg on der Tauber, also famous for the legendary Meistertrunk, a flagon of beer that, when drunk in one draught by one of the city fathers, saved the town during the Hundred Years War. The event is portrayed on a clock tower, reenacted every year, and numerous tourist trinkets celebrate it. Oh yeah; the town also hosts the original Kriskindlmarkt, or Christmas store, of Kathe Wolfahrt. The store is open year-round, except on Christmas.

Talk about a busy town!

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Blogger Alex Epstein said...

Actually the Maginot Line was 100% successful. The Germans never breached it. Unfortunately it did not extend past the Belgian border. That's not an indictment of fortifications. That's an indictment of stupid politics.

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Anonymous Brammi said...

I can't find the amazing Map of Utrecht from "Toonneel der Steden" on the source site you list.

Do you have a different source site?

I'm very interested in maps of that period.

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Blogger Phosphan said...

Also worth mentioning: The old city of Rhodes, see http://www.rhodes.gr/portal_gr/photos/images/air01_hires.jpg

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Blogger Phosphan said...

@Alex: 100% is definitely incorrect, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maginot_Line#German_invasion_in_World_War_II

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Anonymous patricio said...

Gostei muito,achei fantastico pena que aqui no Brasil não tem arquitetura desse tipo.
Um Abraço
Patricio Antonio
patrcio-a@hotmail.com

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Anonymous chefren said...

Another walled city is in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City

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Anonymous akb427 said...

Honolulu is older than St Augustine. I suspect a number of US cities have been continually occupied since before Europeans showed up.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derry city in Ireland is worth a mention :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derry

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Blogger Jon said...

I'm days late on this, but it's a shame that you didn't mention Nanjing, China. I don't know if this is true but their Ming dynasty city wall claims to be the longest ever built at over 33km. Whether or not that was true, the many hundreds of years of building & strengthening the wall and its implications during the Rape of Nanking make it rather significant. China also continues to spend a lot of money to keep it in good repair

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Blogger flemishpiotr said...

About the pictures of Naarden and Heusden (with the star fortifications), I'm pretty sure they were designed by Vauban. So if you wanna see more of them, look him up. Vauban and some pictures here
And to Alex Epstein, Rommel smashed right though the Maginot line, look it up.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot Québec, Canada

"Quebec City was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, and is the only remaining fortified city north of Mexico"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Quebec_City_Wall.jpg

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thessaloniki, Greece has some of the best surviving walls dating from Roman to Byzantine Empires.
Imagine a inverted C shaped wall going from ocean to ocean in Santa Barbara, California. Ringing the city in the mountains, in multiple layers as the city grew. The view from the fortifications down onto the Thermaic Gulf is pretty incredible.

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Anonymous VincentVega087 said...

Pingyao (china) is also worth mentioning. Beautiful city which looks as old as her mighty city walls. Like nobody ever crossed the walls since they were constructed.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can you imagine how the builders felt when they got done building the wall and the king said, "Ya' know, I think we should build ANOTHER wall in front of the one you just built, so start that first thing in the morning." ahahhahhhhhaaaa

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Jerusalem? At least the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/148

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_City_of_Jerusalem

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

where is Istanbul?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

should check out Derry, Ireland

http://www.derryswalls.com/hist-walled-cities.html

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Blogger shirley said...

Built a beautiful ring road is indeed wonderful point.

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