Random question, but don’t you think we take walls for granted? If it wasn’t for people building walls, we’d be sleeping a few feet away from strangers wouldn’t we? There are walls between your house and mine so that you and I can have our own dwelling spaces. Walls ensure the preservation of a priceless quality: privacy.
WALLS FOR SHELTER
Now think about the miles of TV footage that we see of refugee camps or makeshift shelters for people affected by natural disasters. What don’t they have? Four solid walls to provide security.
Moving on now to the centre of London where miles upon miles of walls ensure that workers and visitors have comfortable even luxurious spaces in which to live, work and play. Those same walls are impenetrable to more than 7,000 people who slept on the streets last year.
WALLS HAVE HISTORY
There is a point to this. I’m not laying the foundations for a polemic about walls being the preserve of privilege, or walls symbolising exclusion. I’m not even edging my way to a certain wall that’s bulldozing and tweeting its way into being. Who knows, one day, a 2,000 mile steel and concrete carbuncle might have World Heritage Site stamped on its big and beautiful posterior. I just want to pay homage to the forgotten elements went into the creation of structures that prop up or divide our lives. How often do we acknowledge the exertion and effort that is part of the history of building walls?
Take for example the two grey brick walls bordering my back garden. One day, they will be wisteria laden but for now, they are repurposed as an outdoors gym for feral cats and feisty foxes. Those two walls were there before I moved to the property. All I really know about their history is that somebody else put them up. It’s safe to say that cheap manual labour was deployed in their construction. The exploitation of people to build our environments is not news to anybody, it’s is almost as old as the hills that provided the raw materials.
NEITHER COMMON NOR GARDEN
I can just about lay a table, let alone a garden wall. Even if I was armed with pre-mixed cement and a YouTube video. I would huff, puff and plant brambles instead. How would I have fared at the building sites of antiquity? I wouldn’t have lasted an hour as one of the nameless, countless grafters and masons who had to manually dig, hew and heave blocks of stone in order to erect the greatest walls in the world. I don’t even think I would have qualified for tea duty, not if it meant drawing water from a well.
The stones that make up the Western Wall in Jerusalem would have confounded and flattened the bejinkers out of me. Each of the remaining stones of the 56m long visible elevation, where Jews come to supplicate, weighs up to eight tonnes. Every block was crafted with such precision that there was no need for mortar. Only in recent history have people been using folded paper, upon which prayers are written, to fill in the chinks. How? It would take me all day to chisel out an eight gramme block of limestone. And even then somebody would have to go to Wickes to get the stone for me. Imagine actually having to quarry it.
Contemporaneous sketches suggest that in order to extract the locally sourced limestone, stonecutters bore a series of holes in the bedrock. Then, in the holes, they inserted two blades separated by a triangular wedge. The wedge was hammered until the crack widened and deepened. This cracked the bedrock allowing for the extrication of a stone. Yay for pioneering techniques, but it was all manual. That means actual blood, sweat and tears.
HOW, JUST HOW?
My thoughts on the historical walls that are now backdrops to selfies, are paved with spurious links. From Herodian borders (the finely chiselled 2cm deep and 8cm wide edging on those great big stones of the Temple Mount complex – keep up) to the pyramids, to Stonehenge. The last one’s a bit gappy, perhaps not technically a wall, but I can envisage a pergola of sorts. No matter how many times the construction process is explained, I still ask how.
You can tell me that the pyramids were aligned to true north within a tenth of a degree. And I’ll say fine, they knew how to use a compass and a bit of plumb line. You can explain that blocks of stone from a quarry south of Giza were transported using large sledges and wetted sand to reduce friction. I’ve researched this and almost all explanations are qualified with ‘probably’, ‘most likely’. Again, I ask, how? How did people not break in two lifting such loads? There’s only so much red meat you can feed a person before their herculean strength is expended.
BUILDING A LEGACY
Nothing I have ever produced will last more than a lifetime. I am therefore in awe of the people spanning centuries of construction who never thought that building walls was a monumental achievement. To the labourers of today who put up walls that will outlive them, I hope more of us will appreciate the sheer hard work that provides the world with privacy, security, Instagram fodder, and even divisive politics.