Nomadic warrior tribes from Mongolia established a great empire under their leader Genghis Khan (1206–27). It stretched from eastern Europe across the north of India into China – the Mongols destroyed Beijing – and as far north as anyone wanted to live. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan (1215–94) took control of China as the founder of the Yuan Dynasty.
Traditionally, the achievements of civilizations such as the Mongols have been marginalized by architectural historians. Being nomadic, they built no monuments, but they clearly had the upper hand. The Mongols’ great invention was the stirrup, and their skill at horsemanship was admired, but above all their sedentary neighbours feared their savagery. If a town resisted but fell to them, the captured townsfolk would be executed en masse. If there was any doubt about a conflict's outcome – and their fighting skills and determination were legendary – it was prudent to welcome the Mongols in, let them take as much treasure and provisions as they wanted, and allow them be on their way. At least then there was some possibility of recovery.
The Great Wall of China is a less unified project than at first it seems, with various attempts at building extensive defences against the Mongol hordes and their predecessors, but the wall as we know it was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The earlier walls, mainly of rammed earth, had been insufficient to protect China against its predatory northern neighbours, and when the idea of a wall was revived it was made more solid than ever, using fired bricks and stone.
The Yuan emperors had taken little interest in administration and, by the time the dynasty foundered, the country was at war with itself and being preyed upon by bands of wild horsemen that the government could not control. By contrast, the emperors of the Ming Dynasty were bureaucratic and effective governors of a sedentary state. They conceived the Great Wall as a way of keeping the Mongols at bay.
Begun in 1449, the wall eventually stretched across more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles) – or 8,000 km (5,000 miles) if the natural features along the way that acted as an equivalent barrier are included. It is an extraordinary feat of organization – a measure of how much the Mongol hordes were feared – and the millions of working lives that were used up in its construction were guided by enough common purpose to achieve a coherent result. The wall was well maintained and remained as an effective protection into the seventeenth century. It has become emblematic of the power of collective effort.
The story that the Great Wall can be seen from the Moon is a fabrication – but it is a potent myth that continues to circulate, even though it has been repudiated by astronauts. It seems to have originated in a speculation by William Stukeley (1687–1785). Not only was Stukeley in no position to know, but he had a reputation as a fantastist, having invented the modern idea of the ancient British Druid (on the basis of very little evidence).
The Great Wall was a straightforward idea, based on the practical desire to keep people safe in their homes. For an individual devoting a life to the project, it must have felt much like any other building project, but the vast scale of the common effort, the ingenuity with which it deals with the varied conditions along the way, and the accidentally picturesque effects of the wall ascending through mountainous scenery, have made it a thing that stirs the imagination and takes it completely outside the realm of ordinary experience.
Related Credo Articles
Built between about 350 and 200 B.C., the Great Wall stretches for over 2,500 miles along China’s northern frontier. An army of laborers w
The 2400 km- (1500 mile-) long Great Wall, the largest single building work on Earth, is built of various materials depending on the terrain...
During the 3rd century BCE the Qin emperors started to build a huge stone wall to stop goods from being smuggled out of China. Later dynas