The Berlin Wall

It’s been said that good fences make good neighbors, and it seems that many of history’s most famous civilizations would agree. Dating back to the ancient world, governments and militaries have constructed sprawling defensive walls to keep hostile enemies at bay, define their national borders and even prevent their own citizens from fleeing—often with decidedly mixed results. From an ancient Sumerian bulwark to the Berlin Wall, here are seven of history’s most influential manmade barriers.

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Modern history’s most infamous wall was erected in 1961, when the Soviet-aligned East German government built a series of concrete partitions separating East and West Berlin. While Communist leaders claimed the barriers were designed to keep out fascists and other enemies of the state, their real function was to prevent East Germans from defecting to the West. More than 100 people were eventually killed while trying to escape through the maze of 12-foot walls, guard towers and electrified fences. Thousands more succeeded by scaling the wall, tunneling underneath it and even flying over it in ultra-light aircraft and homemade hot air balloons. Despite the Berlin Wall’s notorious reputation—Westerners dubbed it the “Wall of Shame”—it stood for more than 28 years before East German authorities finally opened it on November 9, 1989. The announcement sparked a wave of celebrations, and elated Berliners soon went to work demolishing the wall with jackhammers and chisels. East and West Germany were officially reunified less than a year later in October 1990.

The Sumerians’ Amorite Wall

The Sumerians’ Amorite Wall

The world’s earliest known civilization was also one of the first to build a defensive wall. During the 21st century B.C., the ancient Sumerian rulers Shulgi and Shu-Sin constructed a massive fortified barrier to keep out the Amorites, a group of nomadic tribesmen who had been making incursions into Mesopotamia. This “Amorite Wall” is believed to have stretched for over a hundred miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq. It was likely the first extensive rampart not built around a city, but it only succeeded in fending off the Sumerians’ enemies for a few years. Hostile invaders either penetrated the wall or simply walked around it, and by the reign of Shu-Sin’s successor, Ibbi-Sin, Sumer found itself under attack from both the Amorites and the neighboring Elamites. After the destruction of the city of Ur around 2000 B.C., Sumerian culture began to vanish from history.

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