Home > Uncategorized > Architectural History for Gamers, 1: why build city walls?

Architectural History for Gamers, 1: why build city walls?

Restored walls of the Ark (fortress), Bukhara, Uzbekistan

I’ve previously tried to sneak some architectural history into the gaming space with my maps of classic dungeons and D&D tourism series. This is a lot more direct – a distillation of some lectures I’ve given on topics around cities – why they happen, why they take the specific forms that they do, what the essence and function of various city structures might be. I’m putting them here because I think they might be useful for worldbuilding – if you think about the why of a thing, it informs the what and how.

So. Why build a city? Or, if you’re in a Jane Jacobs mood, why do cities form?

…..ok, before I go any further I should warn you that a lot of what follows is fairy stories. Any time anyone tries to tell you about what people were thinking or why they did things, you have to be skeptical. Look at the news – people can’t tell you why they’re doing things right now. Imagine how unreliable our information is about other countries, or times from which we have no eye-witnesses to interview. Imagine how much of what we “know” about prehistoric peoples is just made up – stuff that “makes sense” to us. And yet. When we’re telling the history of cities, we keep going back to our place of maximum ignorance – trying to explain how they first came to be.

The usual answer is that they’re either defensive formations – a group of families huddling together to dissuade raiders – or overgrown homesteads, where layabout children can wait for jobs to become available. Once you’ve hunted and gathered more than you can use this week, it’s nice to be able to trade some of it, maybe turn it into something unique that other homesteads will want to exchange for their surplus. With surplus and trade, you wind up with routes and hubs – centers of interchange, where it’s useful to hang about for a bit, waiting for other traders to show up and buy your stuff. Therefore roads and crossroads and market squares, eventually a network of hubs, each with their own identity and stored trade goods/treasures. And eventually you get surplus labor, i.e. bored people who invent stuff, and then the city becomes a center for novelties. And eventually those layabout children get jobs designing games or some other frippery. Lewis Mumford called the city “a point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community.” Jacobs said it inevitably becomes the center of invention, because of what Spiro Kostof called “a certain energizing crowding of people:” the fizz of ideas being exchanged in the public square, the availability of surplus materials, concentrated together where they could be recombined.

So here’s the ancient ruins of Khirokitia, on Cyprus, inhabited roughly 9000 to 6000 years ago. A concentration of round houses built along a road (or “great wall” – honestly either interpretation can be supported, all we have is the foundations – but it looks like it links them together). Note, the “wall” around the whole thing is an archaeologist’s intervention – as far as we know, the community had no built defenses beyond the walls of the houses.

It might have looked something like this, only without the bombard damage on the big house, which conveniently shows that it has 2 storeys inside.

And here’s more-or-less contemporary Çatalhöyük, in Turkey – a city of unprecedented density (over 2000 people!), continuously occupied for over 7000 years.

Don’t pay too much attention to the captions – archaeologist James Mellaart was convinced everything was either a shrine or a proto-Roman courtyard. Now we know the “courtyards” were rubbish tips.

2 things to note:
1. the houses are so tightly packed together that they’ve gone square instead of circular… which means one wall can work for two houses!
2. there are no roads between the houses at all.

Why no roads? Because people got into their houses – and from house to house – via the flat roofs. Which is an ingenious form of defense (against wild animals, other communities)… if you don’t mind the cost of making every roof in the place load-bearing, strong enough to have all your neighbours traipsing across it at any moment.

…also, all those ladders. I’m glad it’s not my job to carry big pots of water into the middle of all that.

Didn’t you say this post was going to be about walls? Yeah, it seems walling in communities was actually not that popular during the Neolithic – there were plenty of other ways to defend against the sorts of threats people faced in the years while they were inventing pottery. High castellated walls in particular seem to only become a thing once there are more effective missile weapons than spears.

But they still show some characteristics that walled towns would share:
1. they’re compact. People have clustered together and been accepted by their neighbours, and they’re clearly different from whatever is outside.
2. they share communal costs. Maintaining houses, common structures, and defense are all group responsibilities.
3. they show a clear inside/outside boundary, between domestic stuff that is close to hand for raising children and reproducing society and the stuff that doesn’t fit, that people don’t want in the collective front yard, which all gets ejected from the centre (or buried in a midden). This also happens in (unwalled) Kayapo villages in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil:

I can’t quite believe I’m retreading this old 19th century conceit of forest peoples being “primitive,” best considered alongside the ancient world, but this example does fit the theory neatly. This photo, of course, is of a totally museumified village, so you have to take the anthropologists’ word for its representativeness.

Here’s the anthro theory of the Kayapo village – that it’s a set of social categories expressed as a concentric spatial order. The community gathers in the centre (ritual hut and dancing space, shown in red, the Kayapo colour of sociality/engagement), they have individual family homes around that (in the unmarked white zone), and outside that ring of houses is the dirty space (in the Kayapo taboo/ignore color, black), before you get to the forest.

No physical wall is expressed but there’s a clear inside/outside, and what goes outside is… the same for the Kayapo as for ancient Romans – lepers, outcasts, tanners, burials, catacombs (OK, the Kayapo don’t build catacombs, but they are all outside the city wall in Rome).

So the theory of the city wall that’s common in architectural history and anthropology is that it expresses something like this:
– a social boundary thats separates the local community from the undifferentiated space of the outside
– a liminal zone where stuff can be ejected, therefore an area of non-stewardship or non-responsibility
– a controlling device that keeps threats (animals, raiders) out and productive citizens in.
The wall unites the city – it is usually its single biggest public work. Building city walls shows up repeatedly in ancient Greek foundation myths, as the critical moment of founding. Our word “urban” refers to the walls (urbs) of the city. Vitruvius’s ideal city is walled, and Aristotle’s definition of civilization (itself a word derived from civitas – the city) is a situation where a woman will be safe, because her scream will be heard from the city walls (and therefore any city that’s too big for the scream to carry must be too big to be properly civilized).

OK so, some principles.

1. walls define the community

instead of showing you a load of Greek stuff I’m going to China. These are Tulous – multi-family community houses – built by the Hakka minority in Yongding, in the mountainous southwestern part of Fujian.

Tulous are houses and towns. Surrounded by a defensive ring wall, they’re made up of several separate houses (segments, if you fancy a trip down the history of anthropology) built together. Communal activities happen in the middle courtyard, private ones in the individual houses’ courts. Property is shared communally within the tulou: the whole community is thought of as an extended family.

(it is BTW rather unfortunate that Disney’s live action Mulan decided to put the nationally-identified saviour of China in a Hakka tulou, given how the Chinese have recently been trying to erase the Hakka and incorporate them in the national “harmony”)

So the whole ring is the whole community, and the segment (one house) is a cake slice of it:

With living space on the outer rim and work space closer to the middle. The next tulou over is another, separate community, or was, before the Han ostracized and museumized them.

2. as a corollory, walls express inequality

Once you have specialization and division of labor, you get hierarchies and status differences and separate sub-communities and administration. In the classic/prototypical Islamic city this leads to a social division in the city – a high town of nobles and administrators is walled off from the low town of workers and producers. The walls may be practical or ceremonial – either way, their primary role is communicative.

Bukhara Ark, containing the emir’s palace and vizier’s offices. When first constructed, this wall was surrounded by commoners’ houses, but the Soviets tore them all down to leave it marooned in a level plain.
The wall of the Ark is in blue, the city wall encircling pre-Russian-invasion Bukhara in pink.

Aside from protecting the rulers from the citizenry, walled subdivisions might also maintain boundaries around foreigners’ quarters (usually outside the locals’ wall, rather than walled in, although the caravanserai/fondaco is a special walled building type for enclosing foreign merchants), royal hunting parks/gardens/harems, and family compounds, as in those hilltop walled towns of Tuscany that everyone loves to cite as birthplaces of rationalist humanism:

Tiny San Gimignano still has 14 giant towers, each guarding a separate noble family compound that at one stage completely screwed the town’s street plan and traffic flow. UNESCO offers an overview from the viewpoint of preservation, Medina Lasansky has a whole book about how the city you see today is Mussolini’s reinvention.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople they put up a load of mosque-hospital-bath complexes, free for the use of all the city’s Muslims, to show the citizens the benefits of converting to Islam and being good Ottoman subjects. But they walled them off, so that the city’s Jews and Christians, who didn’t have the right to enter, would be both excluded and intrigued. The walls became a symbol of social hierarchy.

The Suleimaniye kulliye in Istanbul, walled off from the rest of the city even though it’s supposed to serve the public.

3. walls have gates, and pirates and emperors love a choke point

Control over the boundary = control over community membership. And if you can control who goes in and out through a narrow choke point, then you can have power over them every time they want to cross that boundary.

diagram of a city: the community is orange, the outside black.

So the second purpose of building a wall is to restrict traffic to a single point where you can extort money from it.

The choke points of Europe’s waterways are a wargamer’s or toll-taker’s wet dream. If you want to get from Mariupol to the Atlantic you have to cross the Kerch Strait, the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, the Marsala gap, and the strait of Gibraltar, and every one of those chokes has been used as a toll gate.

High, thick walls have a propaganda effect – look how safe you are in here – but the everyday point of the wall is toll-taking.

House for weighing imported goods to assess customs duties, Amsterdam. In this case the wharf is the gate.

One of the oldest types of neighbourhood associations in Europe is the Gate Defense Association – a communal organization that collects all the tolls and then redistributes…. some of them… to the deserving poor and public works like… repairing the church or the association’s HQ.

gates of the Ark, Bukhara

4. walls state what you are prepared to defend

The Mongols tore all the city walls down when their empire was expanding, then put them back up when it started contracting: if you control the countryside, you don’t need them. If you need them, then you only really control the city. That impulse, to add or subtract walls from cities, has played out many times in Europe and Central Asia. For an emperor, walled cities are potential sources of rebellion, fortresses of power for over-mighty subjects. The license to crenellate your manor house is a barometer of state power.

If you charge customs on goods that enter the city wall and also refuse to defend the parts of the city that fall outside your wall, you get faubourgs – commercial districts that operate (comparatively) freely from state intervention. And of course if the city extends too far beyond the walls, you have to build new walls (funded by new toll-gates).

For a legendary unplanned example, check out Baghdad as it stood under the wise and pious Harun al-Rashid:

Baghdad was planned and built from scratch by Caliph al Mansur and his vizier Khalid ibn Barmak to be the Caliphal seat, the perfect city of peace, round as the world because it represented the world – or at least the world of Islam, the abode of peace. There were ideas about being able to shelter the whole population of the realm within its encircling walls. And it had four gates pointing to the four corners of the Islamic domain and/or four greatest other cities in the Islamic world – a fortress, a symbol, and (at last) an administrative center capable of governing the vast and unruly Caliphate. It was, by several orders of magnitude, the biggest single building work conducted under Islam. al Mansur’s brother had recently been propelled into the Caliphate by a bloody civil war, his reign depended on slave soldiers and propaganda. Baghdad was to prove that there was substance to the new world he promised. The specs were outlandish – millions of tons of baked and glazed bricks, bronze, copper, and gold domes, viziers’ offices and barracks and mosques and great parade grounds, and the whole thing was to be enclosed in a stout, circular wall. There was just one problem: to build such an orderly monster, you had to import hundreds of thousands of workers, who needed somewhere to live, and markets for food, and stores for materials, and brick factories….. And so before the Round City could be raised, there first had to be built a sprawling, unplanned, supposedly temporary city for the workers. And of course today there is no trace of the Round City, but Baghdad the sprawl remains. And that’s why the Arabian Nights is full of stories in which Harun (al Mansur’s son) disguises himself to walk outside the palace among the common Baghdadis and discovers terrible injustices, which he demands Ja’far (Khalid’s grandson) put right.

Successful cities outgrow their walls and successful territorial states have progressively less and less use for them – a bloody great wall in the middle of your city plays havoc with traffic flow (by design).

Paris in the 19th century, showing concentric walls showing several eras of the city’s expansion. Before Haussmann’s road-building program

The traditional thing to do (in London, Paris, Vienna, and Moscow, at least) is to tear the walls down and turn them into unusually broad streets, maybe with a line of trees or a whole park to show how important they are – the origin of the Parisian boulevard (bulwark) and Vienna’s Ringstrasse (ring-road – because the walls form a ring around the old city). And I know it sounds contradictory, to first build a giant wall and then flatten it again, but trust me, that’s easier than displacing all the people who would’ve built houses all over that prime urban land if the wall hadn’t been there.

The Ringstrasse is now one of Vienna’s top attractions, as well as the means for visiting the others. Not bad when you consider it used to be a rubbish tip.

Paris’s last wall, erected in the 19th century by Thiers, became the Paris ringroad – which is not leafy or park-like, but with its notorious traffic jams and noise it could be considered a defense of a sort.

Next: how to defend your walls, or: fortifications through the ages.

  1. Jensan
    April 1, 2023 at 10:12 pm

    Very interesting read, thanks for sharing!

  2. April 1, 2023 at 10:33 pm

    What a delightful and informative read this made! I look forward to the next installment, and browsing your blog further. I can tell already how some of the ideas you’ve presented here are reshaping my thought processes where city-building for ttRPGs is concerned.

    • April 3, 2023 at 9:38 pm

      thank you! I’ve just posted the second part, so I hope you like it!

  3. xaosseed
    April 8, 2023 at 9:03 pm

    A great write up – love the examples!

  1. May 2, 2023 at 4:48 am

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