The idea of walls – Donald Trump’s proposed “beautiful” build along Mexico; Israel’s 708-km separator from the West Bank; Tunisia’s barrier of sand banks and water trenches along its border with Libya – can be pretty comforting.
Nearly 1,400 years ago, when the Umayyads had established the first Muslim caliphate, they started to construct walled enclosures in parts of the kingdom that were not urban or well-populated.
Qasr Al Hayr East, a 100 km northeast of Palmyra at the intersection of the main roads from Aleppo to Iraq and from the upper Euphrates to Damascus, may have been one of the first.
It was about 7 by 4 km, had a public bath, a medina (or city centre), six large aristocratic houses, some others much less grand, a mosque and an olive oil press. According to some scholars, it was probably begun in the early decades of the 8th century and never properly finished, though it continued as a small city for more than a 100 years.
What’s interesting about Qasr Al Hayr East is that three of the four gates in the “city’s” walls were immediately bricked up after construction probably because they made it seem less secure. The second interesting point is that its exterior wall and entrance were deliberately monumental to demonstrate the wealth and power of the new Muslim empire. If that didn’t strike fear into the hearts of people of ill-will, nothing would.
Fast forward to the present day and think about all these politicians talking about walls – real, and sometimes virtual.
And then consider a point made very eloquently recently by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Professor Sachs told Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw, about the reason walls have purchase on the human imagination:
“Trump’s announcement that he would construct a wall on the Mexican border horrified right-thinking Americans. It sounds so vulgar, like building the Berlin Wall. But to half the country, it made sense. Don’t countries have borders, and don’t you police borders? And that’s where I return to my critique of the center left. Would a fence or a wall work? To a large extent, yes, it would, actually. But the left doesn’t have a language that acknowledges the need for borders and the need to police them. I’m not in favor of a wall, per se, but I am in favor of regulated borders, not an open door to unregulated migration. All high-income countries need borders. Borders do not mean closed doors or bans (like Trump’s), least of all religiously based bans, which are deeply offensive and self-defeating. But borders do mean enforcement of limits to migration.”
There you have it. A wall really does say something. The Umayyads knew that just as much as Donald Trump.