The Great Wall of China is more than aptly named. Built to put an end to nomadic maurauders from Central Asia, this fortification is one of the world’s most mind-blowing sites. This fact was confirmed by the Great Wall’s inclusion into the list of the New Seven Wonders which was chosen by hundreds of millions of voters around the world. Contrary to popular opinion, the Great Wall is actually a series of dozens of walls that were built over the course of nearly two thousand years. Most of what is now thought of the Great Wall dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Also contrary to popular opinion it is not visible from space. However, it is visible to the millions of tourists who flock to Northern China every year. The Great Wall of China is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Great Wall of China traces its roots to the era known as the Warring States period in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. During this time, China’s numerous kingdoms were in a constant state of warfare, and all of them built extensive border fortifications. These included free-standing fortresses as well as immense earthen barriers erected along the feudal frontiers. Many areas boasted full-fledged walls in the sense that the Great Wall is thought of today. At first all of these fortifications were designed to protect the Chinese from each other, and only little thought given at the time to border defenses against the nomadic tribes of Central Asia.
That changed in 221 BC. At that time the Qin managed to finally conquer all of its rivals and establish a new imperial dynasty in China. Among their first projects was to destroy the massive walls that served to divide up the country, and which might be used by rebellious warlords against the emperor. One of the next projects was to strengthen and expand those sections of wall which could be used to protect China from marauders from the outside. This was the beginning of the true Great Wall as we know it today. The Qin wall took many years to complete. According to some estimates, nearly a million laborers, working in virtual slave-like conditions, died during its construction.
The Great Wall remained an ongoing public works project throughout ancient times. It was massively expanded during the Han and Wei dynasties, and it was during the former period that the wall reached its greatest length. The Great Wall met with varying degrees of success. Although it certainly hampered the movement of Central Asia’s massive, fast-moving horse-mounted armies, it was too big to be properly defended against a concentrated force. In the end it did little to stop the Mongols, who overran China in the 13th century.
In the wake of the Mongols, the Great Wall was neglected for many years, until the Ming dynasty took a renewed interest in the 15th century. At that time China was constantly dealing with border wars and raids from the north. Huge sections of the wall were rebuilt, incorporating then state-of-the-art engineering and military techniques. This defensive structure held off the Manchus for two hundred years. The Manchus broke through in 1644 only due to the foolishness of an ambitious commander who let them through. During the Manchu period there was little need for the Great Wall. Sections have been kept up only to accommodate the throngs of tourists who visit this most famous and popular of Chinese historical sites every year.
The Great Wall of China is one of the most distinctive and recognized structures on Earth. It snakes for thousands of miles among the hills of China’s northern frontiers. However, while many are familiar with images of what appears to be a pristine, perfectly intact structure, the fact is that the fully intact sections are few and far between. Much of the wall is in disrepair, and sections, especially out in the western desert, are barely discernible. However, thanks to the efforts of the Chinese government, large stretches of Great Wall, especially those sections heavily visited by tourists, look as good as they did in the Ming era.
In these photo-perfect sections, the wall ranges from ten to twenty feet in height and is generally about ten feet wide. The wide walkway was necessary as the wall was also used as a means of communications and needed to be easily navigated by runners and messengers. Crenelated battlements line both sides. Countless watchtowers and barracks pierce the wall, each able to be secured as an independent bastion in times of war. Larger fortresses guard the major passes.
The Great Wall of China is easily accessible over huge areas, and is often trekked by intrepid hikers. The major sections lie entirely within modern China, so there is little danger of visitors straying into Mongolia or Russia. The most commonly visited section is at Badaling, which is about fifty miles northwest of Beijing. The entire wall is an open site. There is, in theory, no hours and no cost of admission. Web: www.china.org.cn (official website).
In addition to the main, more easily accessible sections of the Great Wall, some of the most popular places to visit along the wall are located at the historic passes: the Jiayuguan Fortress at the western end; the Shanhaiguan Fortress; and the Juyongguan Fortress only thirty miles or so from Beijing. Also in Beijing is the Forbidden City, the world’s largest fortified palace.