Both books and buildings have voices. But rather than the letters of an alphabet, buildings use towers and spires, columns and buttresses, mosaics and paintings, glass and geometric figures, and statues and friezes to speak volumes. However, even though architectural symbolism existed before the written word, the message of a building or structure is often difficult for most of us to recognize.
Although doomed to crumble, humans have always built walls. From the failed Maginot Line to the Great Wall of China they are an indelible part of our history.
As Donald Trump stands on stage proclaiming his dedication for the President of the United States, he taughts wall building as a way to unify America and once again, rise from the ashes.
The idea of building a wall a la Berlin between Mexico and the US to keep out illegal immigrants has been ridiculed in most quarters and rightly so. Walls do not keep people in. Peace and the right to live with security and an absence of constant fear is what mankind wants. And mankind is not getting it.
Walling oneself off from the enemy goes back since pre-dynastic times victories have often been depicted by Egyptians as conquests of cities and the demolition of their walls. Wars against neighbors but also possibly against foreigners, were frequent until the unification and pacification of the country. They broke out again when the central power decayed after the sixth dynasty, and nomarchs began vying for hegemony.
But even under stable governments, Egyptians could never feel completely secure. Bands of bedouins were attracted to the rich settlements of the Nile valley and never were the police forces strong enough to completely prevent their incursions. They therefore built their dwellings like minor forts, surrounded their cities with walls and erected strongholds in strategically important locations.
In the last two thousand years mankind’s material knowledge has increased so greatly that most of the natural hazards which afflicted the ancient human being have been overcome.
No longer do we fear the ghosts and spirits that burdened the lives o the untutored savages of the old world. We have every right to be proud of our achievement, but despite this boasted progress, most of our misfortune is the result of superstitions and traditions as senseless and deadly as those which afflicted primitive races.
There is nothing cultural or esthetic in the impulse to create large communities; the motive was fear, and the desire or mutual protection. Most ancient towns were walled and men huddled within these walls to find safety from invading armies and marauding bands of brigands. The invention of artillery ended the age of the walled cities, but habit caused the continuance of the huddling process, even after these towns had proved to be nothing but death-traps for their inhabitants.
Fear, the oldest and cruelest of man’s emotions, heartless and senseless in itself, is the source of endless pain and misery.
Always men have wanted to be remembered and have their deeds to live on after them.
The theory of accumulation has blighted the whole course of our civilization. It has turned every man against his brother, and filled the world with terrible fear.
Symbolized by a wall. This being its purpose and functionality as primarily a barrier against outside invasion. Other “symbolism” would be as a boundary of ownership or of the power and prosperity of the inhabitants within, which is still simply a subliminal projection of the primary symbolism, defense.
Not only does the wall act as a divider in separating the properties, but also acts as a barrier to friendship, communication.
Barriers lead to alienation and emotional isolation and loneliness.
It is no longer Africans and oriental sardine packed men women and children being literally trafficked across treacherous waters for that elusive better life. In a bitter irony the empires of history have come back to haunt the colonizers and they must soon be thinking if they hadn’t set sail to conquer the new world, the new world would not be coming back to them in droves.
What is odd is that this building is happening at a time when less-physical walls appear to be crumbling. This is the age of the global economy, multinationals, vanishing trade barriers; of “the free movement of goods, capital, services and people”, unprecedented mobility and instantaneous communication.
Most strikingly, some of the world’s leading democracies including the US, Israel and India have, in the past decade, built thousands of miles of barriers along borders both recognized and disputed. Since 2006, the US has erected 600 miles of fence along its Mexican border. Israel is building a 400-mile West Bank barrier, plus another 165-mile fence along its Egyptian border. India has built a 340-mile barrier along the so-called Line of Control of its disputed border with Pakistan, and is busily constructing another 2,500-mile fence on its frontier with Bangladesh. Last year, Greece threw up a four-meter-high wall along its short land border with Turkey. The river Evros runs along much of the land frontier.
So why build new walls – especially when, as history shows, the old ones rarely did what they set out to do?
For there is almost always a way through, under, over or round a wall. As Janet Napolitano, until recently US secretary of homeland security, once astutely observed: “Show me a 50ft wall, and I’ll show you a 51ft ladder.”
James Anderson, emeritus professor of political geography at Queen’s University Belfast, notes that walls get built for very different reasons. He says: “There are those built as a response to internal civil, often ethno-national, conflict, within states and often within cities. There are those erected because two groups are going at each other, but the state itself is not at stake – rich against poor, white against black, criminal against potential victim. And there are those that run along state borders.”
Justified more often than not, these days, as anti-terrorist measures, border fences are more likely to be aimed “at keeping out, or at least differentiating, migrant labor”, argues Anderson. He distinguishes, too, between walls that came from “the bottom up”, and those imposed from the top down.
Belfast’s walls, he notes, originated in 1969 as “simple defense mechanisms, barricades made of bedsteads and doors to stop vehicles coming in to your street”.
Thirty years on, they have become “part of people’s reality” and are still – perhaps uniquely in the world of walls – supported by almost all those who live beside them. Running for the most part parallel to the roads into the city centre, though, they are not “huge impediments” to day-to-day life.
The barrier separating Israel and the West Bank is different. “This was a state project,” says Anderson. “Certainly some, especially the settler movement, welcome it as protection. Palestinians see it as a mechanism for a land grab.” At times it also causes almost unimaginable inconvenience and hardship.
But walls can have unforeseen consequences, says Mick Dumper, professor in Middle East politics at Exeter University. “Israel built the separation barrier to separate two communities and prevent terrorism,” he says.
“One result has been that 60,000-70,000 Palestinians who had moved out of Jerusalem have moved back, as they didn’t want to be cut off from the services they need. At a time when Israel is seeking to assert the city’s Jewish identity, its Palestinian population has sharply increased.”
And a wall changes a city, even after it has come down.
Wendy Pullan, senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of architecture at Cambridge University, calls this a “disruption of urban order. A divided city changes its whole metabolism. And divided cities do not flourish.”
The physical reorganization engendered by a wall is accompanied by an inevitable impact on the psychology of those who live beside it, adds Pullan, who heads the Conflict in Cities (CinC) project run by Cambridge University’s centre for urban conflicts research: “There’s a tendency to vilify those on the other side. It’s very easy to say: we can’t see them, we don’t know them, so we don’t like them.”
But mainly, walls just don’t do their job very well. “We don’t have examples of walls solving problems,” says Pullan. Suicide bombings may have fallen dramatically since Israel built its wall. “But it’s hard to say whether that’s cause or correlation. The regime has also got much firmer, in other ways,” she adds.
Anderson, also a member of CinC, argues that national border fences are at least partly intended for show: to let governments be seen to be doing something. If the US were truly serious about tackling illegal migrant labour, he says, “it would prosecute more employers”.
So in general, concludes Pullan, walls are “more symbolic than anything else. But their symbolism is enormous. Even now, Berlin remains best known for the wall. The most recognizable image of Jerusalem is now, arguably, its wall. The visual impact is so very strong. If you want to get across the idea of division, a wall is very, very powerful.”
The wall in the poem ‘Mending Wall’ represents two view points of two different persons, one by the speaker and the other by his neighbor.
Frost has taken an ordinary incident of constructing or mending a wall between his and his neighbor’s garden and has turned it into a meditation on the division between human beings.
The narrator cannot help but notice that the natural world seems to dislike the existence of a wall as much as he does and therefore, mysterious gaps appear from nowhere and boulders fall for no reason. The poem portrays the lack of friendship between two neighbors, they know each other but they are not friends. There exists a communication gap between them; they meet each other only on appointed days to fix the wall separating their properties.
Thus, the poem is a sad reflection on today’s society, where man-made barriers exist between men, groups, nations based on discrimination of race, caste, creed, gender and religion.
On the other hand, the neighbor has different opinions. He believes that ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ He considers walls as necessary to create physical barriers and for mending relations. According the poet’s neighbor, physical barriers set limits and affirm the rights of each and every individual. Walls also stand for building goodwill and trust.
The fence symbolizes national, racial, religious, political and economic conflicts and discrimination which separate man from man and hinders the ways of understanding and cultivating relationships.
The dispute between the two neighbors symbolizes the clash between tradition and modernity. The young generation wants to demolish the old tradition and replace it with modernity while the old wants to cling on to the existing tradition and beliefs.
Nature seems to act as the third wheel in this poem – the silent character swirling around the speaker and his neighbor. Although he doesn’t explicitly describe the landscape, we see it very clearly, and we seem to know what the seasons are like in this part of the world. Similarly, tradition seems to be the silent subject over which the speaker and his neighbor wrestle. The neighbor upholds his ancestors’ way of life, while our speaker questions this philosophy.
“I’m no prophet, but I think the likelihood that a wall can ease hostilities is not too great.”
William H. McNeill, professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago
Putting up a wall is not so much a strategy as a symbol for the absence of one.
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