Ramparts, Then And Now
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Ramparts, Then And Now

The Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall of China.

For Americans, the majestic defensive walls of Europe have something in common with beer in the French McDonald’s and topless ladies on the Riviera. They’re all fascinating precisely because they’re so foreign.

Boston, Charleston and St. Augustine all once boasted fortifications — during the Colonial era, when Europeans were in charge of infrastructure. But walls are alien to the American landscape, literally and figuratively. We are a country of openness, expansive and sprawling.

Our greatest physical barriers are two mighty oceans whose size has proven more effective than any fixed edifice. This is a lesson we all re-learned twice last week — first when a series of International Holocaust Remembrance Day tweets reminded us of boats full of Jewish refugees turned away in 1939, and again when our international airports became flashpoints for an overnight, origin-based immigration ban.

Once on land, generations of Americans have gazed over the horizon and felt the pull and possibility of an open continent.

Tight enclosures, in contrast, evoke the Old World. It’s no coincidence that the walled cities of the Americas — Cartagena, San Juan, Havana — were mostly built by Spain, whose former colonies bear a far greater European architectural imprint.

American travelers generally adore the walled cities of Europe, which in many cases retain intact urban streetscapes from centuries ago, with all the attendant charm and history. Along the Mediterranean, it is not unusual to see a crumbling fortification wall guarding a small harbor or wrapping around a hilltop town.

More often than not these places are picturesque resort towns, where crowds ebb and flow in the rhythm of seasonal tourism. Few give much thought to the threats kept at bay by these vestigial walls in their prime.

Today the Mediterranean hums with cruise ships, yachts, ferries and rickety boats full of refugees and economic migrants. But centuries ago, the coast of Southern Europe was menaced by Saracen pirates and marauders from assorted lands — invaders whose aim was to seize territory, pillage and burn along the way. On the Spanish coast at Tarragona, sleepy cafés sit in the shadow of fearsomely thick walls that protected a Roman-era Jewish ghetto. Atop the hills of Tuscany, self-contained republics like Siena used their walled parapets to defend against rival empires in Florence and beyond.

Such conflicts are hard to conjure today in Siena or nearby Lucca, the most famous of Italy’s fortified medieval cities, which nowadays are menaced more by tourist traps than conquering kingdoms. Those ramparts looked mighty to the Romans. But in an epoch of bombs, airplanes, and complex geopolitical conflicts, fortress walls seem rather quaint. Are we Americans enchanted by the tangible remnants of bygone worlds — or by the innocence of a time when sturdy physical barriers felt invincible and existential threats were clear-cut?

A year and a half ago, I drove Interstate 10 along the U.S.-Mexican border from California to Texas, and what struck me was how peaceful it felt. In New Mexico, tumbleweeds blew across the lonely desert frontier. In El Paso, I gazed over the border at the pastel jumble of Ciudad Juárez, where thousands cross in orderly fashion every day to work, study and shop on both sides.

Even without a border wall, net U.S. immigration from Latin America has been flat since the Great Recession, and in El Paso, you could see why. The vintage downtown feels derelict, filled with empty storefronts and the kinds of makeshift businesses — check-cashers, fruit stands — that connote struggle rather than prosperity. All along I-10, you could feel the distinctive hybridity of border culture, which by definition transcends any physical wall.

In peaceful regions, the recent trend is toward erasing barriers, not reinforcing them. Modern families spread across borders and oceans and immigration checkpoints; opportunity awaits travelers, students and workers in points around the globe.

Pros and cons aside, there’s an inevitability to this openness that is impervious to policy. Western countries increasingly seize on the advantages while endeavoring to neutralize the threats, both explicit and subtle, that ineluctably arise out of migration.

And even as we marvel at the durability of Roman fortifications, they remind us that brick barriers were more effective in past centuries; more sophisticated strategies are typical of today’s turbulent, comingled world. As anyone with a sibling knows, walls alone aren’t ultimately all that good at keeping people out.

Still, some of the world’s most beautiful destinations lie behind barriers. Most of the time, we stroll in the shade of these ancient fortifications, savoring the aura of history that lingers without peering too closely into bygone conflicts.

Perhaps now, we might peer a little deeper. And we might re-learn the lesson apparent to all who gaze upon the Great Wall of China, the ramparts at San Juan and the turrets of San Gimignano — that fortress walls are only beautiful once they are no longer in use. 

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