The walls we build

Now that we’ve been traveling for a while we’re less excited about ticking the boxes of the typical tourist sights and more about settling in, meeting people, and living for a while in new and interesting places.  But there are some sights that must be seen to be appreciated and the  Theodosian Land Walls of Istanbul are one of those sights.

History of the land walls

Everyone has heard of the Great Wall of China but fewer are familiar with Istanbul’s ancient fortifications.  Istanbul’s land walls are so old they aren’t even Istanbul’s.  They were built in the 4th century by Constantine the Great to protect the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.  

The walls protected the city for over a thousand years.  They were so important that at one point massive damage from an earthquake led to government conscription of the entire populace to the rebuilding effort.  Peasants, merchants and statesmen worked together to rebuild the massive structure in two months.  The result was a wall that would repel would-be besiegers for a millennium.

On the 29th of May, 1453, Ottoman forces finally took the city after a six week siege.  But it wasn’t the walls that fell.  In fact, the Romans would repair them as fast as the cannonballs would damage them.  The Roman forces were overpowered by the Ottomans who outnumbered them ten to one.  They used the walls to strangle the supply of food and military support.

What is a wall

We spent a day walking the land walls.  Some sections are remarkably maintained, others are crumbling, still others have been rebuilt.  Extending over six kilometres, we walked  a section on the north end including the gate that Sultan Mehmed entered through upon his victory.  We picked our way along the top of the wall, imagining the Ottoman forces gathering on the other side.  We strolled along outside the wall where the moat would have been, gazing up at the intimidating towers. As we walked, the wall was rebuilt in our imaginations.  A formidable barrier.  A division of culture.  A tool of survival.

The paradox of Istanbul’s walls is that their existence enabled growth and prosperity but they were also instrumental in Istanbul’s destruction. The Ottomans could not have led an effective siege without them.

It got me thinking about other walls.  Where we build them, their strength and structure, their permeability.

We are builders of walls

We are builders of walls.  Most of them are shared fictions.  Borders are lines on a map sorting our species into groups.  Laws are behavioural walls promoting order. Parents set boundaries for children then endeavour to systematically expand and perforate them as they mature.

We also build walls for ourselves to deal with the onslaught of information we are exposed to on a daily basis.  The daily news is one example.  Most of us lack the education and experience to pass fair judgement on the actions of those portrayed in the media.  But subconsciously we constrain those stories into comprehensible nuggets, wrapping them up in a nice neat cognitive package with the things we know inside and the things we don’t outside.

Are we aware that we have built these walls?  How soon do we forget about how much we don’t know – all those things that lie outside the cognitive barriers we have erected?  How much easier is it to form opinions based on the small sample of information that made it inside those walls?  How tempting is it to bar the gates of those walls, locking out new information that may threaten the nice neat narrative we have constructed for ourselves?  How can our understanding of that issue broaden and deepen without the integration of new and conflicting information?

On the one hand we lack the capacity to gather and absorb all relevant information on any given topic.  So, we must build walls to frame our understanding, to compartmentalize so that we can move on with our lives.  Survival necessitates mental shortcuts.

On the other hand, it is easy to be seduced by the comfort walls give us, the protection from threats real and imagined.  The vastness of the world is scary.  It is tempting to build walls everywhere, stuffing reality into inaccurate but convenient packages that we can control and understand. 

The holes in our walls

Inevitably opposing ideas will come knocking at the gates of our own understanding.  Do we let them in?  Doing so may require some tough changes to accommodate them.  They may dig up old wounds, reveal weaknesses, prove assumptions wrong.  But if our fear of change is too fragile, if our sense of self is not strong enough to survive the integration of new ideas, we will bar the gates.  If the strength of those opposing ideas grows, we will fortify the walls.

At the same time that we reinforce our (incomplete) understanding, we put distance between ourselves and those with alternative viewpoints.  Fearful of our own vulnerability, we prop ourselves up by demonizing the other side.  Paradoxically, the less we know about them, the more confident we become in our own opinions.  There is always the hope of diplomacy, but how much more difficult is it when the walls are built and viewpoints have crystallized in isolation?

Istanbul needed walls.  The burgeoning metropolis could never have developed and prospered as it did without the security they afforded.  But perhaps the fact that the walls held for so long is a testament to their permeability more than their strength.  Perhaps the Ottoman victory had less to do with physical fortifications and more to do with the disintegrating allegiances of a failing Roman empire.


We have not and will not outgrow our propensity to build walls.  In an era when the most powerful man on earth was elected largely on the promise of building more walls, I think its a good time to look at what those walls mean.  They are a double-edged sword.

Walls protect | and they isolate.

They allow comprehension | but they limit understanding.

They aid survival | but hinder evolution.

There is little need for physical walls in our modern world.  But it is the mental walls that have always been more dangerous.  More easily constructed.  More easily sealed. Less likely to be breached by new ideas.

Gate management

We came to Istanbul ignorant.  Muslim countries as a whole occupied a tiny mental box containing factoids gleaned from headlines and fragments of 1990’s university course material.  I’m not proud of that.  I realize, however, that it is not the content of those mental boxes that we control. It is the openness to new information.  We can choose to exist in an echo-chamber of reinforcing ideas or we can risk our comfort for the sake of growth and empathy.

As we walked along Istanbul’s walls, I found myself thinking less about the mass and scale of the stone face and more about the gates that punctuated its length.  It was not the wall that made Istanbul strong but the places where the wall was opened. The flow of people, trade and ideas.  The city breathed through its gates.  


  1. Hi Matt,
    Absolutely love your blogs. I envy your adventures and encourage everyone I know to read them. Hopefully your experience will motivate others to explore the world and open up their minds.
    If you’re still not sure where your next career path is, I’m thinking that you’d make an outstanding author.
    I wish you, Lindsay, and the boys continued health and happiness for as long as you travel. (and beyond of course)

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