Saturday, September 25, 2021



“People discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other, and they believed in this and lived confidently. People thus had three choices when they encountered the Other: They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.” 


Ryszard Kapuściński 


“I'm gonna build me a wall, I'll make it ten feet high. 

See ya later pal, bye bye. 

No one gettin' in so don't you even try. 

A ten foot wall..” 


Shrek: The Musical 



As a fourteen year old Assyrian refugee, my wife and her family crossed the Evros River from Turkey into Greece four times, paying people smugglers a small fortune to show them the way. Each time, they were caught by border guards and sent back.  Finally, in desperation, they paid the last of their savings to someone in Smyrna, who provided them with a leaky boat, packed them and thirty others in it, told them to steer towards the lights and to say they had come from Lebanon if asked. Not having driven a boat before, they found themselves off course in no time. A little while later, the boat began to sink and just as the water level had reached their chest, they were rescued by the coast-guard just off the island of Kos. Necessity, will always find a way. 


In the wake of America’s abandonment of Afghanistan and its re-conquest by the Taliban, Greece is bracing itself for a flood of refugees, akin to those that swept through the border in  2015 when nearly a million people fleeing war or merely seeking to emigrate, crossed from Greece from Turkey. As a result, it has recently completed a forty -steel wall, replete with surveillance systems, with which it hopes to stem the projected flow. The problem with walls of course is that they are finite. One may not be able to climb them, but one can go around them, under them, or indeed, render them completely useless by attempting another entry point altogether. 


The same dilemma was faced by the Greeks in ancient times, especially in relation to the fortification of the Isthmus of Corinth, which before the construction of the canal, constituted the only land route onto the Peloponnesian Peninsula from the Greek mainland. The necessity of securing the passage seems to have occupied the minds of regional powers from the earliest times, with  some archaeological evidence suggesting there may have been attempts to build a wall across the Isthmus during the Mycenaean era. 


In Herodotus’ Histories, we learn that when Xerxes invaded Greece in 480BC, a number of Peloponnesian city states were in favour of constructing a wall across the Isthmus, rather than opposing the Persians at Thermopylae, only to be overruled by Spartan king Leonidas. Given that the Greeks lost the Battle at Thermopylae, the matter was not settled and arose again before the Battle of Salamis. Nonetheless, Herodotus perceptively points out that any walls built across the Isthmus to keep an attacker out would be completely useless without full control of the surrounding seas, a perspective that modern Greek wall-builders would benefit from considering: “For I cannot perceive what advantage could accrue from the walls built across the isthmus, while the king was master of the seas.”  The matter was thus left in abeyance with subsequent rulers, such as Nero, concerning themselves with constructing a canal across the Ismthus, rather than any wall.  


It is not known to what extent early Byzantine emperors read or appreciated the musings of Herodotus, for when a massive incursion of Visigoths headed by the unspeakably vile sacker of cities Alaric pressed down upon Greece, the Emperor Theodosius II determined that the most effective way of deterring any future attacks and protecting the Peloponnese, was to build a wall. So seriously was the effort taken, so massive the enterprise constituted, that it is a little known fact that the wall is the largest archaeological site in all of Greece.  


In the tremendous effort to construct the wall, every significant structure in the region was plundered. The temple of Poseidon at Isthmia, which had been sacked by the marauding Visigoths was incorporated directly into the wall, while the ruins of the sanctuary of Hera at Perachora, as well as much of the statues of Corinth broken during the Roman sack of that city were burnt and converted into lime. So substantial was the wall, that by the reign of the Emperor Justinian one hundred years later, the wall boasted one hundred and fifty-three defensive towers and was seemingly impregnable. 


Except that it wasn’t. The wall was not able to prevent the incursions and settlement of Slavic tribes in the Peloponnese in the seventh and eighth centuries and the wall, known as the Hexamilion, named for its length, was largely abandoned for military use. 


Indicative of the desperation felt by the potentate of a declining power, the next attempt at rebuilding the Hexamilion wall took place in 1415, during the reign of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. At that time, the empire’s Peloponnesian province, the Despotate of Morea, was expanding at the expense of the occupying Latins and the Emperor feared an attack both by the Latins from the Duchy of Athens and the Ottomans to the north.  He personally supervised construction works for forty days, the cost of same causing unrest from local grandees. 


Despite all his efforts, Emperor Manuel’s efforts were futile, Ottoman governor of Thessaly Turahan Bey led a cavalry raid that smashed through the Hexamilion on 21 May 1423. He went on to ravage much of the Peloponnese. This however did not perturb the Byzantines of Morea, who recovered quickly and spent the next few years repairing the wall and bringing the entire Peloponnese under their control. Their success was not looked upon kindly by Turahan, who decided to embark upon a punitive campaign to stop Byzantine expansion. Against his 1431 incursion, the Hexamilion wall proved no obstacle: Turahan breached and destroyed the Hexamilion. The Byzantines of the Despotate of Morea, whose entire defensive strategy relied upon the existence of the Hexamilion, were now under the constant threat of renewed Ottoman invasion, clung on to a precarious independence only through continuous gifts and payment of tribute to a smug Turahan. 


Notwithstanding the manifest failure of the wall to provide much coveted security, in 1444, Despot of Morea Constantine Palaiologos, who would go on to become the last Byzantine Emperor, decided that it should be restored. The project, which was costly at a time when the finances of the Empire were virtually non-existent, impressed many contemporaries including the Venetian nobles of the Peloponnese, who politely but rather inexplicably declined to assist its funding. Indeed, many of the landowners of Morea fled to Venetian-held territory in order to escape being forced to pay for the wall, while others rebelled and had to be compelled via physical means to disgorge the contents of their money bags. Upon completing this task, he used the wall as a base for his attack on the Latins in the Duchy of Athens. Successful in that pursuit, and being renamed by one of his sycophantic courtiers as the modern Themistocles, Constantine raided as far as Thessaly, one of his governors seizing the Ottoman-held town of Lidorikion.  


It was at this moment that Ottoman Sultan Murad II, decided to put an end to the Byzantine Reconquista.  Accompanied by the ousted Latin Duke Nerio II of Athens, Murad marched on the Morea in 1446, with an army of 60,000. He was opposed by Constantine at the Hexamilion which, after superhuman efforts, he managed to man with 20,000 men. Unperturbed, Murad pounded the wall with cannon and reduced it to rubble. Crossing over with ease, he laid waste to the Peloponnese and reduced it to desolation, compelling Constantine to seek a truce, acknowledge Murad as his overlord and undertake to never again reconstruct the Hexamilion wall. 


By 1452, Constantine was Emperor and was valiantly attempting to fortify Constantinople against the inevitable Ottoman attack, this time by the aggressing Mehmet II. In order to prevent the Byzantines of Morea from sending aid to Constantinople, the Sultan ordered Turahan Bey to raid the Peloponnese once more. Turahan crossed the Hexamilion with ease, his attack being repulsed attack was repelled by the Byzantines further inland, a victory came too late to offer any aid to Constantinople, which fell after its walls collapsed in  the face of a devastating cannonade similar to that which had levelled the Hexamilion seven years earlier.  


In 1460, when the Ottomans finally descended to conquer Morea, the Hexamilion was but a footnote along their way and though of immense interest, rarely features today in the must-see itinerary of tourists. 


While knowledge that the Hexamilion would prove ineffectual for its prescribed use existed since ancient times, the fact that it was rebuilt time and time again speaks to the innate need of people to achieve security by purporting to shut others out of their realm of angst, ignoring its pointlessness. It is in addressing this psychological phenomenon, that Cavafy has the last word: 


“Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.
And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind…”



First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 September 2021