President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it was one of his most controversial propositions and remains among his most polarizing policy goals.
Two years into his term, 52% of Americans oppose the border wall and 45% approve of it, and the debate doesn’t seem likely to resolve any time soon. The 35-day government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, was waged over funding for the wall since it became clear that money would not be coming from Mexico. Trump has since proposed declaring a national emergency to fund and build the wall.
The question many are asking is whether a border wall would work. While supporters argue it’s a necessary and effective measure to prevent illegal immigration at the southern border, critics believe the money could be used more effectively, and that the wall itself is unbecoming for a country that prides itself on being founded by immigrants.
But Trump is not the first person to propose building some kind of border barrier. Since around 8000 B.C., people have been building walls to protect themselves and keep others away—with varying levels of success. Since World War II, the world has gone from seven border fences to 77. Stacker compiled a list of 30 famous border walls from the Stone Age to the Information Age to see what lessons can be learned from the long history of building walls to keep others out.
Here, find out if the mighty Great Wall of China did its job, which country was named for a famous walled city, and how the European migrant crisis is reshaping that continent’s borders.
Jericho, located in the modern-day West Bank, is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the world. The famous stone wall that surrounds the city was the first of its kind; it’s believed residents of the growing city built it in 8000 B.C. to fortify the area. The walls around the city have been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history, such as in the biblical Battle of Jericho.
The Amorite Wall represents one of the world’s first border walls, 155 miles long and 29 feet thick, built in the 21st century B.C. during the reign of Shulgi. The border stretched along the eastern border of Sumeria in the city of Ur. Because it didn’t extend around all of the kingdom, however, nomadic Amorite invaders were able to simply walk around it. Ur was overtaken in the 20th century B.C., heralding the beginning of the end for Sumeria.
This city, made famous by the epic Greek poem "The Iliad,” was long thought to be fictional. In the 19th century, German archeologist Hermann Schliemann began his quest to find the famed walled city. He successfully located the ruins in Hisarlik, Turkey, in 1870. Archeologists have since discovered that Troy was rebuilt eight times between 2700 B.C. and around 1100 B.C.; the city that was destroyed by letting the Trojan Horse past its thick walls was the sixth.
It took more than 1,000 years to build the longest border wall in the world, finally completed in the third century B.C. when several smaller walls were joined together. The emperor hoped to prevent attacks from nomadic tribes, but it was only somewhat effective as invaders would just ride around the wall or bribe guards to let them through. Rulers during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) rebuilt parts of the wall and created the iconic landmark thousands of tourists visit every day.
King Hammurabi built the first walls in the ancient city of Babylon in 1792 B.C., but they became famous after Nebuchadnezzar II built three walls around the city over 1,000 years later. They were an important defense mechanism, but more importantly, they were impressive and beautiful. The city’s entrance, Ishtar’s Gate, was long considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. Tourists can still visit a replica of the gate, but the war in Iraq destroyed much of the original.
The Long Walls connected Athens to its port in Piraeus, protecting the city-state from the effects of sieges by making sure they always had a safe connection to the sea. The walls were destroyed by Sparta after the Athenians lost the Peloponnesian War in 403 B.C., but the city quickly rebuilt them once power was reclaimed. A Roman general destroyed them in 86 A.D, though a few traces are still visible today.
In 122 A.D., Roman emperor Hadrian gave the orders to build this 83-mile long wall on the northwest edge of his empire to separate Roman citizens from the "barbarians.” His successor ordered the construction of a new wall several miles away, but within 20 years, Roman soldiers returned to man Hadrian’s Wall through the end of the Roman empire 300 years later. The wall has since served as a popular tourist attraction and as inspiration for the wall in the "Game of Thrones” books and TV series.
Romans built the walls of Lugo in the third century to protect the most important parts of the city of Lugo from Germanic invaders and other local tribes. These walls, which stand 8 to 12 meters high (one meter is about 3.3 feet) and enclose 4.2 acres, are the best-preserved examples of the Roman empire’s military construction. Lugo is still a thriving city in Galicia, Spain, and the walls are a popular tourist attraction.
Constantine the Great first constructed the walls around the new capital of the Roman empire, but it wasn’t until the reign of Theodosius II that they became the largest, strongest fortifications of the ancient world. Designed to make the city impregnable, the walls withstood 800 years of enemy sieges and earthquakes. They only fell in 1204 when attackers entered through an open door, and large parts remain standing in Istanbul, Turkey.
Nicknamed for the red stone used to build it, the Great Wall of Gorgon was built in the fifth century to protect the fertile city of Hyrcania from the White Huns who raided it for its resources. Once the largest defensive structure ever built, it seems to have been successful at stopping raiders before it was mysteriously abandoned 200 years after it was built. Earth and sand covered it in the centuries since and it was almost forgotten before archeologists discovered it in 1999.
After pirates attacked Saint Peter’s Basilica in 824, the pope ordered the construction of walls surrounding the holy city to protect against future attacks, and they were continually expanded through the 1640s. Though they still stand today, they’re not meant to keep people out; anyone can walk into St. Peter’s Square and see the city’s famous landmarks.
Moscow’s founder Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy built the first wooden walls around the city in 1126. Wood replaced limestone in the 1360s and the walls and towers standing today were built from 1485 to 1495, but all failed to stop multiple invasions of the city. In 1947, Stalin had the walls painted red in honor of communism, and the Kremlin opened to the public around a decade later before becoming the residence of Russia’s president in 1991.
Ston, Croatia, is home to the longest fortress system in Europe, built in 1333 to protect the city and its smaller neighbor from the might of the Ottoman Empire. With 40 defensive towers and a massive hillside fortress, this 22,965-foot-long structure successfully defended the city for 500 years. It was damaged by an earthquake in 1996, but the restoration project that began afterward ensures tourists can continue to enjoy the monument.
Built by the Shona people 900 years ago, the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe has some of the oldest, largest ancient structures in sub-Saharan Africa. One of three parts of the site remaining, the Great Enclosure is believed to be the remains of a royal compound and is surrounded by a 35-foot-high wall and slightly smaller conical tower. The city was abandoned in the 1450s. It became an important national symbol and the country itself is named after the city.
The Killke people built a citadel on the outskirts of modern-day Cusco, Peru, in 1100, and it was expanded and walled in by the Incas in the 13th century. It’s most famous for the mysteries around its construction. Archeologists have spent years trying to determine how the Incas fit stones so tightly together that a piece of paper couldn’t slip between them, and how the walls were built so they lean inward.
In the 17th century, New York City’s Wall Street was a literal 12-foot-tall wall built to separate Dutch settlers from Manhattan’s Native American population and used as a marketplace where owners could hire out their slaves. It remained a hub for business after the ramparts were removed in 1699, but the Buttonwood Agreement in 1792 created what would eventually be called the New York Stock Exchange and shifted Wall Street’s reputation toward the hub for finance it is today.
This 1,100-foot-long living border wall was grown and maintained in the 1800s during Britain’s colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent to enforce a hefty salt tax. Thorny hedges were used because there wasn’t enough stone to build a wall, which proved a relatively effective way to enforce and collect taxes. A century later, almost no physical trace of the Great Hedge remains.
Built in Vietnam in 1819 under the direction of Le Van Duyet, the Long Wall of Quảng Ngãi was built along a pre-existing road to maintain security, collect taxes, and regulate travel and trade between mountain tribes and people living on the plains. After it was rediscovered in 2010, the Vietnamese government began working to turn the wall, the longest monument in Southeast Asia, into an international tourist attraction.
Following the German invasion of France in World War I, the French government began constructing a barrier of walls and fortresses along its border with Germany. France poured 11 years and $450 million into the 450-mile Maginot Line, but it wasn’t enough to prevent another attack. When the Germans invaded France at the start of World War II, they just went around it.
In 1940, Nazis occupying the Polish capital began evacuating Jewish people and moving them into a small section of the city separated from the rest by a 13-foot-high wall topped with barbed wire. Conditions in the ghetto were horrific, and most of the 450,000 residents either starved to death or were killed in death camps. In 1943, the remaining residents rose up in a failed revolt, which led Germans to destroy the ghetto and the wall. The parts that remain are now a historical monument.
The 1953 armistice that ended violent conflict in the Korean War established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) as the dividing line between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. There is no physical wall, but the line is heavily fortified and manned by armies on both sides. Recent diplomatic talks between North and South Korea have considered an end to the war, and both sides have acted to remove some firepower from the DMZ.
After Germany was divided by the Allied powers following World War II, East Germany’s communist government constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961 to keep its citizens from defecting to the democratic state in the west. The well-manned, barbed-wire wall stemmed a potential conflict brewing in the region, but separated families and led to the deaths of hundreds trying to cross. The wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, the largest section still standing has since become an open-air gallery. Other pieces have been shipped around the world as symbols of peace.
Centuries of tension in Northern Ireland between the Catholics loyal to the Irish state and Protestants loyal to Britain came to a head at the end of the 20th century. After riots in Belfast in 1969, the first peace walls were built to keep Republicans and Loyalists apart and were so effective at stopping the violence, they never came down. Peace walls continued to be built even after hostilities ceased in 1994 and have become an important tourist attraction, but Northern Ireland’s Parliament is committed to tearing them down by 2023.
Migration from Bangladesh into India’s Assam region turned politically explosive in the 1980s, prompting the Indian government to build an 8-foot-tall barbed-wire fence in hopes it would lower migration and ease tensions. Decades later, the border fence covers 90% of the 2,546-mile border between the countries but has done little to deter migration.
The tiny island nation of Cyprus is home to Europe’s last divided city, cut in half north to south by a United Nations-controlled buffer zone. Violence between Greeks and the Turkish had broken out a decade before, but Turkey invaded in 1974 following a coup by residents who supported uniting with Greece, leading to U.N. intervention. The capital, Nicosia, is the only city with a physical wall, and the two sides came back into contact and established checkpoint crossings in 2003.
Building a wall across the Sahara desert might seem like an impossible project, but Morocco completed a 1,700-mile sand wall, or berm, in Western Sahara in 1981, a few years after it invaded and occupied its neighbor. Its goal is to keep the Sahrawi people from resources in the west, and starve out their 40-year-long independence movement. The heavily manned wall is the longest minefield in the world, but that hasn’t stopped some independence activists from burrowing underneath.
In 1998, Spain built a border fence around the city and monitors it 24/7 with cameras, watchtowers, and help from the Moroccan government to deter migration from the surrounding region. Melilla is one of two Spanish cities in northern Africa, sharing a border with Morocco, and migrants have often tried to enter to reach Europe without a perilous sea crossing. Despite increasing numbers of refugees, Spain has vowed to remove the barbed wire from its fencing in the city after reports of injuries from those trying to climb over it.
In 2002, Israel built a wall in disputed territory in the West Bank region to prevent violent attacks from Palestinians and regulate the movement of Palestinians into Israel. The International Court of Justice issued an opinion in 2004 that the wall’s construction in occupied territory was illegal. Its existence and effectiveness continue to be at the center of an intense political debate.
More European countries are building border walls and fencing in response to Europe’s refugee crisis, and Hungary constructed one of the first. In 2015 and 2016, the government built a razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia, after it became a main point of crossing for asylum seekers. Since then, the country has improved its technology and taken a hard stance on asylum seekers as part of nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s political strategy.
In 2016, Britain and France teamed up to build a 13-foot-high border wall around the Calais refugee and migrant camp to keep nearly 7,000 residents from tunnels or the port that could give them access to Britain. Two months before the wall was completed, French police dismantled the camp and burned it to the ground, and it hasn’t prevent other migrants from coming to the area and finding a way to get to British soil.