One of the many controversial topics of discussion in the U.S. for the past few years has been the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the purpose of walls in general. Many on one side (literally and physically) believe it’s to keep people out, and there’s no greater example of that than Genghis Khan’s Wall in China. The wall which partly inspired the Great Wall of China was built over two centuries and its assumed purpose (in tradition, in politics and in history books) was to keep invaders out – specifically, Genghis Khan and his Mongol forces. Unfortunately for teachers and wall fans in general, it’s time to change the history books – the first-ever map of the Genghis Khan’s Wall has revealed that it wasn’t built to keep invaders out … its purpose was to keep people in. Uh-oh.
“We tend to think the walls are built against armies, but probably a lot are related to the movement of refugees, or from looming pressure of refugees and the perception — that is not necessarily true — that they [the rulers] need to stop them.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel touting the publication of his new study about Genghis Khan’s Wall in the journal Antiquity, Hebrew University Professor and archeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi describes mapping for the first time the entire length of Genghis Khan’s Wall, also known as the Northern Line – a 737 km (458 miles) wall across the Mongolian Steppe whose construction in the 11th century predates the unification and building that became the Great Wall.
Much of Genghis Khan’s Wall no longer exists. Using archaeological surveys, GIS analysis, drone photography, satellite imagery and good old-fashioned walking and looking, Shelach-Lavi and his team became the first to map the entire Northern Line. (Maps and images here.) What they discovered is that the wall was entirely made of compressed dirt, creating mounds up to two meters (6.2 feet) high, with no towers or forts. That made it easy to climb and difficult to defend – not exactly what a country would use to keep out invaders. Not only that, it was completed long before Genghis Khan was even born. So, why was it built?
“We think that they [the Liao Dynasty felt they] needed to control and stop massive movements of people.”
The Liao Dynasty ruled China from 916 to 1125 – a period of regular travel by nomadic shepherd to move their flocks to grasslands. Flocks in the Liao Dynasty’s land meant taxes for the Liao Dynasty, so it was important to keep those nomads from leaving for greener pastures up north. Unfortunately, climate change during that time caused extremely cold winters and gave them no choice. Hence, the Northern Line was built to keep the nomads in — remains of circular structures used as corrals confirmed this.
“A better way to interpret this wall may not be through the lens of a Chinese-nomadic dichotomy, but rather through a better understanding of the internal dynamics of political society among the nomads and semi-nomads of the Steppe regions. While more archaeological work is needed to test our various hypotheses, the data and analysis presented in this article are relevant not only to facilitate a better understanding of medieval wall systems, but also other episodes of wall-building in Mongolia and China, and perhaps to other places and periods around the world.”
Taxes and climate change. Some things never seem to change. Just like the idea that walls are only for keeping people out.