The City Walls and their Embellishments

In terms of "survivability", walls are rather like theatres: little beside serious earthquake and plunder can demolish them - whereas "single-skin" buildings, or temples supported on columns, are inherently less stable. This is not the place for a discourse on the military architecture of the Greeks and Romans, except to say that the interested visitor is well served by Turkey, where are to be found longer and higher stretches of walls (and in better general condition) than anywhere else. There are plenty of ancient sites where nothing remains except for sections of the walls; and many sites where the walls are just a crowning glory: Perge, Assos, Heracleia under Latmos, Alinda, Priene and Ephesus are good examples of the latter. Those interested in a good hike will be able to pick out many aspects of defensive architecture: towers, gates and windows everywhere, and supports for upper floors; gate towers (Sillyon); false - that is, corbelled - arches (Assos, Herakleia under Latmos); true arches (Sillyon); arcades supporting walkways (Perge); loophole slits for archers (Perge); sallyports (Iasos, Assos); multiple walls with ditches and moats (Constantinople); artillery towers (Assos); steps up to the walkways (Assos, Priene); and (probable) supports for ballistae (Assos, Herakleia).

If Constantinople is typical, then the walls were a burden on all the inhabitants of a city, everyone being obliged to help or pay for workmen; one third of the city's land tax might be used for expenses, but anything above that amount was a levy on the inhabitants (Tsangadas 1980, 9). For such arrangements, we might draw the conclusion that the impulse to build walls of a quality beyond that needed purely for defence was indeed due to the will of the citizens, and not to the whim of only a few of them.

What makes a fine wall? Special attention to the dressing of the stone; the regularity of the blocks; rough "bossing" to add light and shade; polygonal blocks - all these can provide an artistic effect, without necessarily aiding solidity. However, it is arguable (although difficult to prove) that the Greeks used walls built with polygonal blocks because they believed them better able to cope with earth movement than walls built in courses. The solidity of walls (as well as their beauty) sometimes needed special design against earthquakes. The great polygonal wall at Delphi is the best-known example, but others are to be found all around Turkey. At Arycanda, for example, north of Finike, there is a very impressive row of monumental temple-tombs (Hellenistic in date) in the eastern necropolis. The walls that stand free are built of magnificently jointed squared blocks - but the walls that abut the hillside (as indeed the upper retaining walls of both the agora and the stadium on the same site) are of polygonal masonry.

The survival of city walls

Why do so many fine walls survive? City walls cannot usually be as regimented as the city plan itself, because they must follow the lie of the land if they are to fulfil their primary purpose, which is to defend. With this in view, they sometimes climb hills so inexorably that even the most energetic visitor might be hard pressed to scramble up the slope. However, for the traveller not to pursue their upward course would often be a pity for, whenever walls get demolished (so that their blocks may be re-used), it is always at the lower levels, near where people want to live, and therefore seek convenient building blocks. The higher stretches, which sometimes climb 200 metres and more to an acropolis, almost always have the most to tell us - undisturbed courses of stone, fine gates, and even guard towers with the barrack shelters sometimes still roofed over, as at Alinda, with its magnificent views (SB2.4, SB3.2). In some cases, the site itself is difficult to approach and therefore difficult to capture: Alexander the Great failed to take either Sillyon or Termessus, and visits to those sites make it easy to see why. In others, the uphill parts of the wall survive, whilst those on the plain do not: Alabanda is one such example.

It is often difficult to estimate the lifespan of any antique acropolis in its changing "suits" of fortifications. But, because once a strategic position, always a strategic position (vide Crusader castles, or Flanders), many citadels have been fortified and defended, although we cannot know whether continuously, for well over two thousand years. Ibn Battuta, for example, when he visited Pergamum in 1331, found it a city in ruins, with a great and formidable fortress on top of a hill (Gibb 1962, 448-9).

The walls of Assos

Of all the splendid walls in Turkey, amongst the very best are to be found at Assos, where the quality of the Hellenistic masonry is no less than superb, especially in the section between the main gateway and the acropolis (SB2.3). Particularly noteworthy in this stretch is the small gateway with the carefully bossed blocks forming a false (corbelled) arch. The bossed blocks, cut back at the edges to mate with their fellows, are cut with precision, and do not require decoration: at Assos, indeed, it is not difficult to see how city walls are themselves a work of art. However, by far the best-preserved walls in Turkey (because the most complete) are those of Constantinople (SB2.5). Yet considering walls (especially Hellenistic walls) as things of beauty, one must admit to a slight decline in quality when considering the late antique land walls of Constantinople, which stretch without any except minor breaks from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. These were deliberately built (according to bitter experience) with the towers only lightly tied into the walls from which they protruded: thus an attacker pulling down a tower would not bring down the wall with it. Unfortunately, by removing the support of the walls as a crutch for the towers, such "flexibility" may have made the towers much more vulnerable to earthquake damage. Again using the "old photograph" test, it is clear that they have rotted extensively during the past century. This decay has now been arrested, and whole sections are either being re-secured or, indeed, completely re-built.

The dismantling of city walls

Over the past century or so, many cities in East and West have pulled down their walls, partly because they were now useless for defence purposes (not least because of expanding populations), but also because they were a symbol of the old-fashioned past and, together with their generous field of fire, could easily be sacrificed for up-to-the-minute needs like roads and motor traffic. If decline could shrink the area of the defended monuments of ancient cities, then population increase and the needs of modern life could sometimes erase them altogether. When Beaufort visited Antalya in 1811, for example, the circuit of walls was still complete. Little now remains. Sanitation - the need to let healthy air blow through the streets - could also be used as a reason for demolishing walls. Constantinople did not follow this trend, because the enormous area covered by the ancient city was not filled until well into this century, when a "pro-historical" view could prevail.

If walls are primarily to defend, in the Greek and Roman worlds, they clearly have a secondary function. This is to impress the visitor just like the monuments contained within them. This suggestion is provable by observing the extreme care with which many of the walls in Turkey have been constructed - a care which has nothing to do with structural solidity, but much to do with refinement. Building beautiful walls is therefore a fashion, and one especially noticeable in the Hellenistic period. This is not to say that overt decoration - friezes, other reliefs, statues or even inscriptions - were common, but simply that some walls (especially from the Hellenistic period) are in themselves works of art, because their stones would be exactingly and beautifully cut.


From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Building for Splendour, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey