Walled cities of the world

It'd be so nice if it was true, but the fact is it isn't: the first settlements - before the Bronze Age, before the Iron Age, probably even prior to the Stone Age - didn't happen because folks liked each other's company. As the old saying goes: safety in numbers ... and fortifications. Read more...


Aerial views of Heusden and Naarden, both in Netherlands.

It would be so nice if it were true, but the fact is it isn't: the first settlements - before the Bronze Age, before the Iron Age, probably even prior to the Stone Age - didn't happen because folks liked each other's company. As the old saying goes: safety in numbers ... and fortifications.

This post was written by American blogger Avi Abrams. His blog: "Dark Roasted Blend".

The 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 civilisation, all you need to do is take a closer 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 lay. 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 civilisation. 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, recently excavated - Via (left). "The Oudegracht With A View Of The Old Town Hall And The Dom Tower Beyond", old painting - Via (right).

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

In other cities such as London and Paris, urban growth has completely overrun the original walls and fortifications - though they're there if you look hard enough.

Modern fortresses

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 defence 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 artefact of the past - it simply didn't have much of a chance against the kind of war the 20th century brought against it. As with the ancient cities all around it, the Maginot Line proved that the idea of hiding behind walls is, in the end, futile.

Enduring fortresses

European cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam, Berlin, Lucerne, Winchester, and so many others have fortifications from medieval, or even Roman, roots. But it wasn't long before these separate cities/states looked out from their battlements and discovered that, instead of keeping themselves safe, they were keeping their good neighbours out.

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 more powerful than weapons: money. As trade increased and financial empires boomed, 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 was just too darned expensive.

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

But when you step beyond the relative comfort of Western Europe and out towards the rocky cruelty of Eastern Europe - and beyond - you find some cities where 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 its modern 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 its ancient strength: the spectres of magnificent walls and towers surrounding a modern city.

Spanish city Cuenca - a truly spectacular walled city, recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site - 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 city of Baku in Azerbaijan.

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 a 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 and generations of hostiles, the ancient ramparts and defences may finally crumble and fall - partially because of earthquake damage but also because people simply don't care enough to preserve them.