What History Teaches Us About Walls

It is lost to history whether Hadrian, Qin Shi Huang or Nikita Khrushchevever uttered, “I will build a wall.”

But build they did, and what happened? The history of walls — to keep people out or in — is also the history of people managing to get around, over and under them. Some come tumbling down.

The classic example is the Great Wall of China. Imposing and remarkably durable, yes, yet it didn’t block various nomadic tribes from the north. History is full of examples of engineering thwarted by goal-oriented rank amateurs. But Donald Trump has promised to build a wall on the United States-Mexican border that he says will be big, beautiful, tall and strong, and he says Mexico will pay for it.

Here’s some more historical perspective on walls.

A section of the Great Wall of China near Beijing. The wall, actually a series of fortifications, was built and rebuilt over the centuries to keep out invaders from the north. They got around it anyway.CreditKevin Frayer/Getty Images
Increasing the height on a section of the Berlin Wall on Oct. 9, 1961. The Communist East Germans built it to stem mass migrations into West Berlin. The wall accomplished that goal, but it also became an enduring symbol of the Cold War as people risked their lives to flee over and under it. Germans tore it down in 1989.CreditAssociated Press
Migrants in 2014 scaling a fence — one of a series of three — between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. It is one of the few land borders between Europe and Africa. The situation in Melilla highlights the desperation of migrants seeking a way in and the lengths to which Spain goes in trying to keep them out.CreditSanti Palacios/Associated Press
An aerial view of the barrier around the Palestinian Shuafat Refugee Camp, just outside Jerusalem. Israel says the network of steel and concrete walls, along with fences and barbed wire, is needed for security; the Palestinians view it as a land grab that undermines their promised state.CreditAbir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency
Hadrian’s Wall, in northern England, which the Romans began around 120 A.D., marked the northwestern frontier of their empire. Invaders were never a real threat. Today, tourists can walk the entire length of it coast to coast.CreditDeAgostini/Getty Images

A part of the current U.S.-Mexico border fence in the desert between Yuma, Ariz., and Calexico, Calif. Mexican drug cartels have built tunnels beneath it. The area is heavily patrolled, but immigrants have found ways over and through it.CreditDavid McNew/Getty Images
A guard outside the walls of the Kremlin, the central and oldest part of Moscow. The current walls date from the end of the 1400s, replacing earlier ones. The Kremlin was overrun by foreign forces on several occasions.CreditMisha Japaridze/Associated Press
Tourists next to the Vatican City wall in Rome in 2013. Some of its walls were built in the ninth century by Pope Leo IV in an effort to protect it from attacks by pirates and other marauders. Currently, the walls don’t entirely enclose the city. Anybody can walk into St. Peter’s Square.CreditDan Kitwood/Getty Images
A tourist looks through a wire fence decorated with ribbons written with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in South Korea. The heavily fortified border has effectively kept the two peoples separated for more than 60 years, although the South Koreans have occasionally found North Korean-built tunnels beneath it.CreditLee Jin-man/Associated Press

Workers finishing a concrete wall built around apartments housing Roma families in Baia Mare, Romania, in 2011. The walls, erected by the mayor of the town, created an enclosed ghetto. The Roma, originally from India, have faced oppression and violence for centuries in Europe.CreditDaniel Mihailescu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, the year of its construction. The Nazis herded and confined more than 400,000 Jews into a small area of the city; disease and starvation were rampant. In 1942, there were mass deportations to death camps. In the course of an uprising in 1943, the Germans leveled it.CreditAssociated Press
Indian Border Security Force soldiers patrolling the India-Bangladesh border in 2006. The fence was built by India to stem the flow of illegal crossings by Bangladeshis.CreditRamakanta Dey/Associated Press
Walls between Protestant and Roman Catholic areas of Belfast in Northern Ireland. The fences were built in 1969 in an effort to maintain peace. It didn’t work. Today, with violence abated, parts of the city have become a thriving tourist hub, with trendy shops and restaurants. The walls remain, but open each day under the watchful eyes of the police.CreditPeter Kemp/Associated Press
A competitor in the Paris-Dakar rally passing over a sand wall at the border between Mauritania and Morocco in 2001. Morocco built the wall in the early 1980s to keep out the Polisario Front guerrillas, who sought to make the western Sahara an independent nation. The Dakar, as it’s called, has taken place in South America since 2009 because of security concerns in Mauritania.CreditPatrick Hertzog/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images