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Ancient structures give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who came before us. This includes something as simple as a wall. Civilizations built walls to keep invaders at bay or to designate territorial lines. Some stood tall to show off a kingdom’s wealth and power. And sometimes, they did all of this at once. Ancient walls were constructed entirely by hand with minimal tools and often without building plans. Yet, many have withstood the test of time for hundreds — sometimes thousands — of years.
Some of these ancient walls still stand, which is a testament to the skill of the builders and the might of the kingdoms and sites they protected. Here are five ancient walls that you can still visit today.
Hadrian's Wall, United Kingdom
When Roman Emperor Hadrian took power in A.D. 117, he wanted to secure his empire. One area under threat was the northern territory of what is now considered Great Britain. Roman armies had already taken over most of the island, but "barbarian tribes" of Picts in the far north (present-day Scotland) created issues for the Romans. Hadrian needed a way to protect the empire's land from northern invasions, so he ordered his army to build a wall that would stretch across the width of the island.
While Hadrian originally considered building a simple turf wall, he later settled on a design that used local stone as the primary material. The 73-mile wall began in the east at Wallsend and ended in the west at Solway Firth. It stood almost 20 feet high in some places and was nearly 10 feet wide. Although exact numbers aren't available, historians estimate that at least 15,000 men spent approximately six years constructing Hadrian's Wall, including its stone forts and bridges.
Nearly 2,000 years later, there are areas where the original wall remains standing. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that receives thousands of visitors every year. Many areas of the wall have all but disappeared — not due to poor construction by the builders, but rather because of local residents recycling the building materials. Builders dismantled areas of the wall and took the stone for constructing houses, churches, and new walls. Conservation efforts put a stop to that in the 19th century, however.
Visitors who wish to see what remains of the wall can also tour one of the preserved forts along its path. Those interested in Roman history should check out Housesteads. There, visitors can tour the preserved Roman army barracks and the remains of the hospital and walk stretches of the famous wall.
Great Zimbabwe Walls, Zimbabwe and Mozambique
Great Zimbabwe was a thriving center of trade in sub-Saharan Africa from the 11th century through the 15th century. The walled complex sprawled across more than 1,800 acres, making it the largest ancient stone complex in Africa after Egypt's Great Pyramids.
A Bantu group of people known as the Shona constructed and expanded Great Zimbabwe over about 300 years. They built the walls from exposed granite in the nearby hills by carefully layering the rocks without mortar. It took incredible wealth, strength, and engineering skills to complete the fortress. At its peak, Great Zimbabwe was home to about 18,000 people, with a few hundred members of the noble class living within the well-guarded fortress.
When European explorers visited the site in the late 19th century, they refused to believe the African people were capable of creating such a marvelous place. They even credited the fortress to Portuguese invaders. Many of the dubious European visitors plundered the site in search of hidden wealth from the surrounding gold mines, leading to the unfortunate destruction of many areas within the site.
Years of outsiders digging for artifacts and treasures to donate to museums has threatened the structural integrity of the walls. The remaining ruins consist of three main areas: the Hill Ruin, the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins. The highest wall at 36 feet tall and over 800 feet long lies within the Great Enclosure. This is where historians believe religious rituals and administrative functions took place in the lost city.
It was only in the early 20th century that archeologists confirmed that the Shona people constructed the fortress, which is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, travelers can visit the walls of Great Zimbabwe, but it's important to be cautious and explore the fragile site with a guide.
Western Wall, Israel
Jerusalem is home to many ancient sites that carry great religious importance to the world's Abrahamic faiths. Two of the most important sites are the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Together, the two sites comprise an area called Temple Mount. This is the site where people of the Jewish and Christian faiths believe Abraham prepared his son Isaac for sacrifice. It's also where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The shared importance has made the Temple Mount a point of contention for centuries.
King Herod built the wall in 20 B.C. during an expansion of the Second Temple, a holy site for the Jewish faith. According to Tourist Israel, people have gathered for centuries at a particular section of the wall to call out prayers to God. This section of the wall is known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. Slips of paper fill the cracks along the length of the 160-foot-long wall —each containing a written prayer.
The Western Wall has long been a site of pilgrimage for Jewish people, while its proximity and connection to nearby Islamic sites make the wall important for Muslims too. Visitors of all faiths can visit the Wailing Wall, where they can also take tours of the ancient tunnels excavated underneath the site.
Theodosian Wall, Turkey
Originally named after the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, Constantinople (later called Istanbul) continued to grow with each successor. When Theodosius II took the throne in A.D. 408 , he ordered the construction of fortifying walls to protect the city. An earthquake destroyed the walls about 25 years after their completion, but citizens set to work rebuilding them.
At the same time, they added an exterior wall and a moat to further protect the city. The original wall was between 36 and 46 feet high and 16 feet thick. Towers up to 66 feet tall gave defenders a scenic view of the land and the perfect place to spot incoming invasions.
Ultimately, the wall was about four miles long and included large stone, marble, and gold gates for people to enter and exit the city. One of the most historically significant gates was called Edirnekapi. This was the gate where Fatih Mehmet entered and retook the city from the Christians. Today, those who visit Istanbul can see large parts of the red brick and limestone monoliths that made up the Theodosian wall.
Walls of Babylon, Iraq
The fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq is often called the Cradle of Civilization. It was home to several ancient cities, including the city of Babylon, which lies in the heart of Mesopotamia. You might be familiar with stories about the Tower of Babel and the magnificent Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Historians trace the emergence of Babylon to around 1894 B.C. —more than 4,000 years ago. But the civilization really reached its golden age between the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., when Nebuchadrezzar II ordered the construction of a third wall to further strengthen Babylon's double-walled defenses. The walls were so wide and solidly built that the ancient Babylonians could race chariots along the top of them.
Parts of those walls still stand today, but the site suffered some damage as a result of conflict in the region. Saddam Hussein famously rebuilt the ruins of Babylon in the 1980s, but wars in Iraq kept the sites closed to tourists for years. The UNESCO World Heritage Site reopened in 2009. Travel to this site south of Baghdad is still restricted for many travelers, who dream of someday being able to see the famous walls where the Hanging Gardens once stood.