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A Brief History of Border Walls

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This image essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project lead by artist Hillary Mushkin. Incendiary Traces is holding a series of site-specific draw-ins taking place across Southern California. Artbound is following the draw-ins and publishing related materials as the project develops. This post was generated in conjunction with the recent draw-in at the U.S./Mexico border in San Diego, which will be published in the upcoming weeks.

In an upcoming post, Incendiary Traces will report on its recent visit to Border Field State Park to draw the wall that exists between the United States and Mexico. For those who haven't been to the border since its construction, the wall there is actually two sets of fences built at separate times. The first row, furthest to the south, is composed of broad strokes of rusted steel laid out consecutively every six inches and reaching up towards the sky. The second resembles a prison gate made of pale metal and mesh. Encountering them for the first time, one begins to question, why? Differences between people are often superficial in daily life, but with those walls there, they become official. This bold, double vision presence upon the land seems so strange and harsh, but in concept it is nothing new. Border walls exist all over the world today.

I present below a list of historical and contemporary border walls to provide some global and historical context for understanding our own contested wall, as well as to consider the many reasons for and affects of erecting barriers along borders. Whether built to protect from perceived military, economic, social or cultural threats, border walls represent geographic national and territorial boundaries. Unlike an open border, their intent is to keep others out. As they cut across and wind their way over the land, these walls trace the symbolic lines that exist between customs, values and beliefs adopted by people of particular regions. However, in many cases the lines do not differentiate, dividing whole communities and cultural groups in the process. The construction of a wall makes tangible the very abstract notion of sovereignty, particularly for those caught living on the border. The presence of a border wall here in Southern California reminds us of the similarities that exist between the United States and other countries engaged in border conflict and control. (Note the many lives that have been lost at these borders.)


Pre-modern State Walls:

These walls were built on the boundaries of prototypical (pre-modern) states with centralized governments. They defined the geographic reach of imperial territories against lands occupied by decentralized tribes. This differs from our understanding of state boundaries in the modern world in which most of the entire globe lies within the territories of one state or another.

Great Wall of China

Building Begun: 7th Century BC, continued over several centuries, primarily during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Construction: Stone, brick, tamped earth, wood and other materials

Total distance: approx. 13,171 miles

Over the time of the Great Wall's construction, the state we recognize today as China was surrounded by marauding nomadic tribes. The Great Wall protected the people and resources of the state from invasion by these tribes while regulating trade and immigration.

Hadrian's Wall

Building Begun: AD 122

Construction: Stone and turf

This defensive fortification in Roman Britain was begun during the rule of Emperor Hadrian. Like the Great Wall of China, it was built to keep barbarians out of the Roman Empire and also to provide customs checkpoints for the movement of goods and people.


Demilitarized Borders:
Demilitarized borders exist between states that no longer view one another as a threat. Both countries have since withdrawn military presence and activity from their shared boundary.

Building Begun: 1930

Construction: Concrete, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts

Total Distance: approx. 240 miles (estimates vary greatly)

Named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, France constructed this permanent system of fortifications along the German and Italian borders in the run-up to World War II. The wall was mostly demilitarized after 1966. Many of the original fortifications have since been converted for other uses, including several wine cellars, a mushroom farm and a disco.

Berlin Wall

Building Began: 1961

Construction: Concrete reinforced with mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, dogs on long lines, "beds of nails", over 116 watchtowers, and 20 bunkers

Total Distance: approx. 96 miles

The Berlin Wall, officially referred to by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart," was constructed to protect the East German population from perceived fascist elements conspiring to prevent a new socialist state. On November 9, 1989, after several weeks of increasing civil unrest, the East German government announced that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Over the months that followed, citizens from both sides began to dismantle the wall piece by piece. Today only a small section remains as a historical marker.


Modern Nation-to-Nation Walls:
Nation-to-nation barriers are those that were constructed on the national boundary of two or more present day countries and are ongoing sources of conflict.

Friendship Park is one of the few sites along the border wall where citizens from both sides can see and speak to one another face-to-face. It is located at Imperial Beach, CA between the two-fence barrier that marks the U.S. and Mexico border. | Image: Jena Lee.

U.S. - Mexico Border Wall

Building Began: 2006

Construction: Steel and concrete (double fence in some sections)

Total Distance: approx. 640 miles (construction suspended)

In an attempt to quell the world's highest rate of illegal border crossing, increases in drug and weapons trafficking, and related violence, President George W. Bush ordered the construction of several strategically placed sections of wall along the U.S/Mexico international border. In 2010, President Barack Obama halted construction and reallocated all funding towards researching and upgrading border technology. The state of Arizona has vowed to continue construction of its portion of the fence through private online donations. Read more about the history of our border in a previous post by Susanna Newbury.

Botswana-Zimbabwe Border

Building Began: 2003

Construction: Electric fence

Total Distance: approx. 300 miles

The official reason Botswana began building a fence along its western border with Zimbabwe is purportedly to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock. However, Zimbabweans believe that it is really intended to keep people from migrating into Botswana since the 2000 land reform policy in Zimbabwe resulted in an economic crisis, leaving many desperate and in search of employment.

Indo-Bangladeshi Barrier

Building Began: 2005

Construction: Barbed wire and concrete

Total Distance (Goal): I2,116 miles

India is constructing a barrier to prevent illegal immigration and the smuggling of weapons and narcotics from Bangladesh to the Indian state of Assam. In recent years, it has been a site of particular focus for Human Rights Watch (HRW) because of the border patrol's controversial shoot on sight policy. HRW reported in 2010 that over 900 Bengladeshi, including children, had been killed by both sides along the border in the last decade alone.

Kuwait-Iraq Barrier

Building Began: 1991

Construction: Electrified fencing, concertina wire, trenches and dirt berms

Total Distance: approx. 120 miles

After the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, international military intervention and the defeat of Iraq, the Kuwait-Iraq barrier was constructed by the United Nations Security Council to prevent future invasion by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The separation barrier extends six miles into Iraq, three miles into Kuwait, across the full length of their mutual border from Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf and is guarded by hundreds of soldiers, several patrol boats, and helicopters.

Iran Border Walls:

In July 2010, the Iranian Interior Minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar announced that the country would be building walls along its entire border with Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government has purportedly allocated 150 million dollars for this purpose.

Pakistan-Iran Barrier

Building Began: 2007

Construction: Reinforced concrete, earth and stone embankments, deep ditches, observation towers and garrisons

Total Distance: approx. 435 miles

The Iran-Pakistan barrier is a separation barrier which Iran in the process of reconstructing and fortifying along its border with Pakistan. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry has said that Iran has the right to erect border fencing in its territory to deter drug smuggling and illegal crossings. However, the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan (Pakistan) opposes the wall. They maintain that it will create problems for the Baloch people, whose lands straddle the border region, dividing them politically and impeding trade and social activities.

A wall along the Iran-Iraq border in Wasit Province. Image credit: cheeseitz87 via
A wall along the Iran-Iraq border in Wasit Province. | Image: cheeseitz87 via flickr

Iran-Iraq Barrier

Building Began: 2007

Construction: Concrete and electric wire

Total Distance: approximately 3 miles

The Iranian government has built a long wall on its border with Iraq to stop drug and weapons smuggling. However, according to Iraqis and Iranians living near the border, the wall has created employment problems for the Iraqis. It is also reported that Iran has issued IDs to Iranian smugglers to regulate their activities.


Green Lines and Territory Walls
Green line and territory walls refer to those that separate nations from occupied territories or lands that are claimed by one and disputed by another.

West Bank Separation Barrier

Building Began: 2002

Construction: fences, barbed wire, ditches and concrete slabs up to 26ft high sensors, sand (to help identify footprints), patrol roads and buffer zones up to 200 feet wide

Total Distance: approx. 436 miles

The Israeli-built barrier along the West Bank is primarily located within Palestinian lands. Only 15% of the barrier follows the so-called "Green Line", the internationally recognized border. Israel built the "security fence" as a military measure in the conflict with Palestinians. In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague deemed the barrier was illegal. Palestinians view it as an "apartheid wall" which threatens their human rights, and believe that its true aim is to expand Israeli territory. Israel has also constructed fencing along its borders with Lebanon and Gaza, and is going ahead with plans to complete barriers at its boundaries with Egypt, Syria and part of Jordan.

Indian Line of Control Fencing

Building Began: 1990s

Construction: Double-row of electrified fencing and concertina wire 8-12 feet high, landmines, and surveillance systems

Total Distance: 340 miles along the 460 mile disputed border

The Line of Control (LoC) established in 1972 separates the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan's Azad Kashmir--all of which were once part of the "five Northern states of India" that both countries would like to claim as their own. The fence, constructed by India, is situated 150 yards inside Indian-controlled territory. Its stated purpose is to exclude arms smuggling and infiltration by Pakistani-based separatist militants.

The Berm (Moroccan Wall)

Building Began: 1980

Construction: 10 foot high sand walls, landmines

Total Distance: at least 1,550 miles long

The Moroccan Wall, or The Berm, divides the entire area of Western Sahara. Morocco built the wall in response to Polisario efforts to establish Western Sahara's independence. The wall initially contained just a small northwestern part of the territory, but by building a succession of six different walls, the Moroccans expanded their occupation to the majority of the contested land.

Ceuta and Melilla Borders (Spain-Morocco)

Building Began: circa 2000

Construction: three rows of high wire barricades ranging 10 - 20 feet high

Total Distance: approximately 6 miles total (surrounding both cities)

Ceuta and Melilla are free port cities on the northern tip of Africa under Spanish control since 1986. Both cities are surrounded by Morocco, which disputes Spanish sovereignty over them. Spain built the fences to deter Africans from migrating to Iberia through these ports. In 2005, fifteen people were killed trying to cross over the barrier. Still many try to make it over, some getting caught in the process or drowning while attempting to make the sea crossing. Human trafficking is common.

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