While today’s modern cities certainly are graced by large
fortifications, since the first days of civilization walls have been built around cities to protect citizens from outside invaders and attacks. In fact, as early as the 8th century BCE, the city of Jericho in what is now the West Bank was protected by a wall. For thousands of years following this time, when cities were often ruled as city states and needed protection from their neighbors, walls and fortifications were built to defend from potential aggressors.
In the Caribbean, walls were built to fend off pirates. In Medieval Europe, they were used to protect the city from Visigoths, Gauls, Franks or Huns. In China, walls were built to protect settlements from Mongols and other warring factions.
While these walled cities served to protect the communities they guarded from various threats, beyond their defensive utility, many walls also had important symbolic functions – representing the status and independence of the communities they embraced.
According to UNESCO, today there are more than 50 cities around the world that have city walls which are still or almost complete. While many city walls that once stood around cities have long been demolished in the name of modernization, changing defense strategies and city growth, the walls still stand in many old cities around the world.
Perched up on a hill, the walled old portion of this French medieval walled city looks like something straight out of a fairy tale. You half expect a giant, fire breathing dragon to appear from behind the ramparts that separate the walled portion of the city from rest of modern day Carcassonne. Perched atop a hill and located at a strategic location in southwestern France on trade and migratory routes, Carcassonne was fortified over centuries by Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Franks, who continued to build up the walls of this city and which earned it a reputation of being an impenetrable fortress.
One of the most popular attractions in France, this unique walled city, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, draws more than 3 million visitors annually. Carcassonne is encircled by a huge double row of fortified walls that run almost 2 miles long and which are punctuated by 56 imposing towers.
A country known for a famous wall spanning a great length of the country, the Chinese did not only build walls to keep out their Mongol neighbors to the North. While Xi’an is probably best known for the famous terra cotta army that can be found just outside of the city, Xi’an is also surrounded by a large and impressive wall.
One of the oldest cities in China and an important cultural and sometimes political capital, Xi’an (which was historically known as Chang’an) is considered one of the four great ancient capitals of China and has served as the capital city for some of the most important Chinese dynasties.
Located at the terminus of the Silk Road, Xi’an has long been situated in an important strategic location over the course of its more than 3,000 years of history as a city. While the traditional name of this city meant "perpetual peace" in Chinese, the city was fortified and protected from outside attacks during the Han dynasty when the original wall (measuring 25 km in length and is 12-16 meters thick) was built, enclosing a large part of the city. Following several years of unrest across China, the Sui Dynasty took control, placing their capital at Xi’an-building the palace, imperial city and civilian area all within the 84 square kilometers inside the walls-making it the largest city in the world at the time.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula, Campeche was the first natural port discovered by the Spaniards in Mexico.
The colonial settlement establish in the mid 16th century was built atop old Mayan ruins. One of the richest port cities in the America during the 16th and 17th centuries, Campeche was a main target for pirates that once trolled the Caribbean waters in large numbers.
Because of frequent raids by pirates like the famous Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, the walls surrounding Campeche were built the late 17th century in an effort to protect the city from pirates and buccaneers (though not always successfully). A wall surrounding the city was built that measured 2,560 meters in length and formed an irregular hexagon with 8 defensive bastions around the main parts of the city.
Today the city retains many of the old colonial Spanish city walls and fortifications and the city was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 for the preservation and quality of the architecture.
San Gimignano, Italy
Historically a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and the Vatican, San Gimignano sits on the Road Francigena- the ancient road between Rome and Canterbury that was an important Medieval Road and pilgrimage route. Because of its important and strategic location along this route, the residents of San Gimignano enjoyed great wealth and power and in 998 the suburbs were encircled with the first walled enclosure.
In a time when the cities and states of Italy fought against one another, San Gimignano allied with nearby Florence and in 1207, the new town-walls (which today are recognizable in the city center) were built incorporating the villages of S.Matteo and San Giovanni.
Three gates of these town-walls still remain: the Arco Di Goro, Arco de Becci and of San Matteo.
Over the next few decades, the alliance of San Gimignano with Florence became stronger and during these years the city skyline of Saint Gimignano was studded with numerous towers symbols and testimonies to the fortune of the families that possessed them. Today the city is known throughout the world as. In the 13th century there 72 towers, but today only have 14 survived.
Today San Gimignano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a major tourist destination in Tuscany.
Nicknamed the "Grandmother of Marrakech," and surrounded by high, red, earthy walls, Taroudant is a walled city located in the Sous Valley in southern Morocco. Situated on the road leading from Ouarzazte and Marrakech, Taroudant has long been located at a strategic point along the Caravan route leading to and from the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean coast and capital city.
Unlike Marrakech, which also has walls enclosing parts of the old city, almost all of Taroudant is located within the large, fortified walls that surround the city. While the walls and famous mosque in Taroudant were built during the city’s golden age during the Saadi Dynasty in the 16th century, Taroudant had flourished since the 11th century thanks to its producing gold and silver mines and was a major trading post in Africa.
Long situated at an important strategic location near on the coastal region of Belgium, fortifications around Bruges
were first built after Julius Cesar’s conquest of nearby Menapii during the first century BCE . While the city changed hands of power several times throughout the next centuries (from the Romans to the Franks to the Vikings), the latest Viking invasions during the 9th century prompted the Count of Flanders to reinforce the first Roman fortifications protecting the city.
After Bruges received its city charter in the 12th century, the city erected new walls and canals around the city. After merchant fleets from Genoa arrived in Bruges in 1277, Bruges became the main link between northern European Flemish countries and the Mediterranean, which flooded a huge amount of capital into the city-making Bruges an important center of both trade and banking.
Over the following centuries, Bruges became a key trading centre in north-west Europe, exporting Flemish cloth all over the continent. The city expanded rapidly, which necessitated the construction of a new circuit of walls in the early 14th
century. However, the first artillery defenses in Bruges were not built until the 16th century when a double line of earthwork bastions were built in place of the old medieval walls.
While these walls successfully prevented William of Orange from reclaiming Bruges from the Spanish in the 17th century, Bruges’ walls were penetrated by the French during the War of Spanish Succession in a surprise attack (French troops pretending to be deserters succeeded in capturing one of the gates and they let in the rest of the French forces).
The highest provincial capital in Spain at 3665 feet above sea level, Avila is built on the flat summit of a rocky hill, which rises abruptly in the midst of a brown, arid, treeless table-land, which gave the city an important strategic location with long range vantage points from the top of the hill. Avila sits high on the hill, with mountains creating the dramatic backdrop for the impregnable stone walls that surround and mark the city of Avila.
Avila is best known for its medieval city walls, which were first constructed in the late 11th century over previous Roman and Muslim efforts. The walls are punctuated with 88 towers and nine gateways, which are still in excellent repair. In fact, the wall stretching 2.5 km in length is one of the world’s best preserved medieval defense parameters. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the Gothic cathedral at Avila was built into and integrated into the city’s defenses and has the appearance of a fortress.
Located near the Indian border and the Ravi River, Lahore is often called the cultural heart of Pakistan and is well known as being at the center of Pakistani arts, film and academia. However, long before Lahore became the cultural center of Pakistan, it was important and longstanding trade city.
Lahore has had many names over its long history-including kacha kot, which means "mud fort" and implies that the city was almost always surrounded by a wall of some sort. Because of the often changing name, it is unsure when the fortifications around the old city were first built, but it Lahore did experience several period in which the mud fortifications were greatly expanded over the past several thousand years.
Although many of the walls were destroyed and replaced by gardens shortly after the British annexed the Punjab region in 1849, access to the old walled city of Lahore is still gained by way of the 13 ancient gates (7 of which are still standing today).
While ancient walled cities like Avila and Carcassonne have been restored and protected over the years, the Punjab government is just now trying to restore the Royal Trail, which stretches from the Akbari gate to the Lahore Fort in an effort to gain status as a world heritage site.
Situated at the confluence of two major rivers in northern England and historically known as England’s "second city" and Capital of the North, the city of York has long been an important and strategic city since the Roman times. In fact, the entire Roman Empire was governed from York for two years and influential historical leaders like Constantine the Great and others have been associated with the city over its long and tumultuous past.
The first stone fortifications at York were built under what is now the York Minister and covered an area of 50 acres and housed more than 6,000 soldiers. After the city was captured by the Vikings during the 9th century and used as a major river port and trade capital in northern Europe, William the Conqueror immediately set to work at re-fortifying and protecting the strategically located trade city.
William the Conqueror built two fortresses on mottes in the city on either side of the river, which are still visible today. These walls played an important role during the civil war in England in 1644, when Parliamentarians besieged York
and many of the homes outside of the city’s protective walls were destroyed.
The capital and largest city in Azerbaijan on the southern shore of the Absheron Peninsula, Baku has a long history of conquests, take overs by outsiders and major destruction caused by wars. Baku first became important strategically in the 12th century when an earthquake destroyed the
former capital of Azerbaijan, Shamakhy, and Baku was named the new capital.
The historical core of Baku, which is a fortress marked by the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Maiden Tower, is thought to have been first constructed as early as the 7th century. During the medieval ages in Baku, the fortress walls and towers were built larger and stronger.
After 1806, when Baku was conquered by the Russian Empire, the city wall were repaired and the fortifications around the city were strengthened. Two gates gave access to the city, whose walls had dozens of cannons protecting the citizens and the port was reopened for trade with the reinforced fortifications in place.
While the inner city of Baku was deemed the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Azerbaijan in 2000, three years later, UNESCO placed the old city on its list of "World Heritage in Danger" citing damage from a November 2000 earthquake, poor conservation as well as "dubious" restoration efforts.
Although the colossus of Rhodes (a giant bronze statue that graced the city and is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) is no longer standing on this Greek island, the old medieval city in Rhodes is still classified as a UNESCO World Heritage and remains a major draw fro millions of tourists every year. While Rhodes was important strategically as a trade port and stop along Mediterranean sailing routes, it was not until later in the ancient city’s history that the walls protecting the city were built and fortified.
In 1309 at the end of the Byzantine era, Rhodes became occupied by the Knights of Hospitalier (who promptly renamed themselves the Knights of Rhodes) and the city was rebuilt into a model of a European medieval ideal.
The walls built during this era were successful in protecting the city from attacks for hundreds of years, keeping the Egyptians and others from taking over the city. However, despite the walls, Rhodes was conquered by the growing Ottoman Empire in 1522 and the Knights of Rhodes and their fellow Christians were forced to retreat to Sicily. For the next 4 centuries, the wall city of Rhodes was ruled by the Ottomans.
Today the old city of Rhodes is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, but is also known as one of the most impressive historical sites in Greece.
About the Author
BootsnAll staff writer Julie Blakley first became intrigued by walled cities after a visit to Carcassonne with her family as a kid. When she’s not plotting her next adventure and working on crossing all the walled cities of the world off her "places to go list," she’s busy writing the France Travel Guide.
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