Sunday, 3 November 2013


For the third week in a row the subject has been suggested by a reader, Munzly suggesting I have a look at some of the walls of the world and how the names developed. Two walls, historical boundaries between Roman-occupied Britain and the peoples to the north, were covered in a recent post. Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were named after the Roman rulers at the time. Hadrian’s name means he was ‘from Hadria’, a town in northern Italy which also gave a name to the Adriatic Sea, while Antoninius is derived from the Greek for ‘flower’.

Having got this far it became clear I needed to understand just what a ‘wall’ is. This may sound a ludicrous idea but even the two examples above have little in common with a ‘wall’ as we would know it. In Hadrian’s Wall at least there is some evidence of ‘building’, albeit it follows a natural outcrop of rock to take reduce construction to a bare minimum. In the case of the Antonine Wall there is no recognizable ‘building’ but a large bank of stone and earth, which may explain why it took 12 years to complete but was abandoned just 20 years later. Hence as we are looking at ‘walls’ from an etymological viewpoint, for the purposes of identification a ‘wall’ is considered a ‘wall’ by virtue of its name only. This is also the reason for listing them alphabetically.

Anastasian Wall – found in Turkey and built to defend the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire and Constantinople from invading tribes coming from the east. Named after the Emperor Anastasius, ruler 491-518, it does show good evidence it was here in some form at least a hundred years before this. His name, the male version of the better-known Anastasia, means ‘resurrection’ and a reference to his religious background. Perhaps it is as well the wall did not adopt his nickname of Dicorus – (Biggus Dicorus?) – which, despite the reminder of the Monty Python character, comes from the Greek meaning ‘two-pupils’ and pointing to his differently-coloured eyes, one black and one blue.

Aurelian Walls – a third century AD construction around Rome, named after Emperor Aurelius whose name meant ‘golden’.

Cheolli Jangseong – historically is the 11th century construction in North Korea, although there is another of the 7th century in what is now China referred to by this name. The Korean wall is the origin of the name, it meaning ‘Thousand Li Wall’, the Li a unit of measurement roughly equal to 500 metres and itself coming from the average diameter of a village.

Great Wall of China - is not only the longest but the best known of them all. It was not built as one wall but joined together several others built over many years. As with Hadrians Wall it takes a natural defensive line. It seems the wall was never referred to by any name other than the Great Wall when it was joined up, the various smaller parts simply referred to as ‘the wall’ by those who built them. We often hear how this is last man-made object we can see as spacecraft retreat further from the planet. This was never true as it is a long line (or long lines before joined together) and would easily become invisible among the pyramids or temples. It is certainly not visible from the Moon, this particular gem of myth first appearing in writing in a letter by William Stukeley in 1754!

Danevirke – 20 miles of defensive earthwork across the Cimbrian Peninsular constructed duing the Viking age and last used for military purposes in 1864. Constructed in several phases which, with the aid of dendrochronolgy, shows it was completed around AD950 and started at least five centuries earlier. The name is easy to see as referring to ‘the earthwork of the Danes’ although, as with nearly all place names, this will have been named by the Germanic tribes and then taken by the Danes themselves. Had the Danes named this feature it would be known as ‘our earthwork’.

Fossatum Africae – is Latin for ‘the African Ditch’. Built by the Romans in North Africa, it is said to measure some 450 miles, although modern evidence is somewhat fragmented, and protected the Roman Empire’s interests having defeated the Carthagians. The defensive feature is an earthwork, the embankment created by using the earth moved in creating the ditch on the far side (from the point of view of the defenders) thus effectively doubling its height. The eagle-eyed will have spotted this is not a ‘wall’ but a ‘ditch’. However it has been included as from an etymological viewpoint they are the same thing. Here in Britain the Old English dic has given us both ‘ditch’ and ‘dyke’, the southern pronunciation as ‘ditch’ pointing to where the soil had been removed, the northern pronunciation of ‘dyke’ and where the spoil had been heaped up.

Kremlin Wall – strictly speaking I am not going back on my earlier statement that I would not define walls taking the name of the place it was meant to defend. For while we associate the name with one place, it should correctly be known as the Moscow Kremlin as the term is Russian for ‘fortress’ and this is not the only example. Note today’s Kremlin Wall can be traced back to at least 1169 when it was little more than a wooden palisade or fence. Somehow the ‘Fence in Moscow’ does not sound as daunting as ‘Kremlin’.

Long Walls – I included this name, despite its obvious meaning, because of its significance in history. In the fifth century BC these walls – the North Long Wall and the South Long Wall – formed a corridor between Athens and its port of Piraeus and Faliro during the Peloponnesian Wars between the city states of Athens and Sparta. Ignoring those portions of the walls which were really the defensive walls around the city of Athens and the ports, the Long Walls were, at most, just five miles in length.

Offa’s Dyke – the defensive earthwork between England and Wales was constructed in the eighth century between the Saxon kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh kingdom of Powys. Named after the Merican king Offa, it is known to the Welsh as Clawdd Offa – interestingly the name Offa means ‘king’.

Red Snake – is the name archaeologists give to the Great Wall of Gorgan in Iran, a reference to its shape and the colour of the bricks. At 120 miles in length it is known by several other names including its Persian name of Sadd-i-Iskandar meaning ‘the barrier of Alexander’ as Alexander the Great is said to have ridden through here when marching east. Other than the Great Wall of China it is the longest defensive wall known.

Serpent’s Wall – a 2nd century construction running across the Ukraine and built to keep out the Huns, Goths, and Visigoths. It is not a modern description of its course but derived from the enemy tribes’ association with the winged dragon or wyvern.

Wat’s Dyke - for a short distance the route mirrors that of Offa’s Dyke. This name has never been understood although as a personal name is certainly common.

Western Wall – the accepted international name for that part of Jerusalem most often known as the Wailing Wall but probably based on a misunderstanding. The term ‘Western Wall’ is found in an ancient document referring to the Old City Walls of Jerusalem, yet there is nothing to suggest this particular wall is the one being referred to. Its popular name of Wailing Wall is, of course, from the mourning of the destruction of the temple by those followers of the Hebrew faith. The Arabic name of el-Mabka similarly translates as ‘place of weeping’, while the alternative Arabic name of al-Buraq comes from the name of Muhammad’s winged steed Buraq who was tethered here.

There are many others named after the cities which they were designed to protect. Many of these I have covered in earlier posts on the origins of those place names and, in the case of those in Britain, try my books such as Cheshire Place Names in the case of Chester.

At the risk of being inundated with requests, as usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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