Early Fortifications

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The Ishtar Gate

Structures built to protect against attack-played an important role in the city-states, kingdoms, and empires of the ancient Near East.

This was especially true for cities built on flat plains that had no natural barriers, in regions such as southern Mesopotamia. Most early fortifications consisted of walls built around a city. These walls not only provided protection from enemy attack, but they also marked the limits of the city. Their size and strength symbolized the power and prestige of the state or ruler. In some places, walls also served as barriers against flooding. In addition to city walls, ancient peoples also built fortresses at strategic points within their territory and along its borders to help defend against invaders.

The nature of fortifications varied greatly, depending on a combination of military, political, economic, and geographic factors. These factors influenced the size, shape, and structure of fortifications as well as the materials used to build them. Wealthy, powerful cities could afford to build large and elaborate fortifications. Communities that lacked adequate resources might devise a simple defensive system by arranging an outer ring of houses around the settlement. The rear walls of these houses provided a simple barrier against intruders. As the political and economic fortunes of a city or town changed over time, its fortifications often changed as well.

Basic Elements of Fortifications.

The fortification systems of the ancient Near East consisted of several basic elements: a barrier wall or earthen rampart, GATES, towers, and surrounding ditches and slopes. The earliest and simplest type of barrier was a solid wall of stone or brick. Built to various heights and widths, such walls generally provided an effective barrier against attackers. Sometimes other solid walls were built against the outside of the original wall to make the wall thicker and to provide added defense.

Another type of barrier was the casemate wall, which consisted of two parallel walls with a space between. The space might be filled with soil or stones to provide added strength or left open and used as a storage space. Sometimes the casemate walls were integrated into dwellings and functioned as the rear part of a house. Solid and casemate walls generally had walkways and overhanging balcony-like structures along their tops from which defenders could attack an enemy.

Some ancient cities had large earthen ramparts, or mounds, rising as high as 295 feet. However, archaeologists have found no evidence that city walls were built on these ramparts. This suggests that they served to mark city limits or to give inhabitants a feeling of security.

People in the ancient Near East entered and left their WALLED CITIES through gates. There were generally only a few main gates because they represented the weakest line of defense in a wall, the place where the city was most easily accessible to foes. Projecting towers were usually built on each side of a gate, providing a platform from which armed troops could defend it and the city. Rooms within the towers housed guards or served as storage areas. Often towers were spaced apart along other sections of a wall to serve as platforms for defenders. Walls also contained bastions, reinforced corners that enabled defenders to fire at attackers from various angles.

Urban fortifications often included deep ditches called moats, which surrounded the city walls. Constructed at the foot of walls or ramparts to increase their height, moats were especially important on level terrain, where there were no natural slopes or hills to help protect the site. Sometimes moats were filled with water, providing an added level of defense.

Protecting the outer slopes of some walls were inclined layers of soil, bricks, or stone known as a glacis. A retaining wall of brick or stone at the foot of the glacis helped to hold it in place, and the face of the glacis was sometimes covered with paving stone. The glacis served two purposes: it helped protect the foundation of a wall from damage due to erosion, and it created a smooth, slippery slope that was difficult for attackers to climb.

History of Fortifications.

Fortifications started to appear in the Near East as early as the eighth millennium B.C., when rivalries between neighboring settlements created a need for defensive structures. Among the earliest known examples of a wall and tower are those of the town of JERICHO in the Levant, which date back to the eighth millennium B.C. In the centuries that followed, fortifications sprang up throughout the Near East, becoming increasingly large and sophisticated.

By the third millennium B.C. (years from 3000 to 2001 B.C.), the rise of large territorial states – often at war with each other – had created a need for extensive fortifications. The most outstanding example of city fortifications in Mesopotamia during this period protected the Sumerian city of URUK. Surrounding Uruk was an enormous wall nearly 6 miles long with about 900 semicircular towers. The best-known fortifications in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) are those of TROY, which consisted of massive city walls, bastions, and towers. Though no remains of fortifications from this period have been found in Egypt, evidence from paintings and other sources reveals that the Egyptians also built impressive urban fortifications.

During the second millennium B.C. (years from 2000 to 1001 B.C.), many cities had begun to incorporate earthen ramparts, glacis, and moats into their fortifications. The most impressive use of these elements was in the Levant, where some cities had massive earthen ramparts up to 130 feet thick at the base and nearly 50 feet high. The steep slopes created by such ramparts and glacis provided better protection against the siege weapons and techniques of warfare that were used during this time.

The expansion of rival empires in the first millennium B.C. (years from 1000 to 1 B.C.) led to the development of new methods of warfare and more extensive fortifications. NINEVEH and BABYLON had immense fortifications that fit their status as capitals of mighty empires. Fortifications of Babylon, included two enormous walls, one inside the other; many towers; and a large moat nearly 330 feet wide. Many large cities built separate defensive systems within such fortifications to provide added protection to palaces and government buildings. Because this was a period of intense rivalry between kingdoms and empires, almost all cities of the ancient Near East constructed strong fortifications for defense.

Toward the end of the first millennium. B.C., a new dynamic began to unfold. Fortified cities in conquered territories posed a threat to the conquering imperial power. This was because the conquered inhabitants might feel that the walls made them secure and that they could therefore revolt. For instance, when the city of Babylon tried to revolt against Persian rule in the 400 B.C., the Persians destroyed the city’s walls to deprive the city of defenses. The Persians did the same to other cities in areas to make them defenseless against their imperial forces. At the same time, they established military forts throughout their empire to station troops and secure conquered territories. Such forts had existed throughout the centuries, but they became a standard feature of imperial rule.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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