A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Alexander’s Gates

One of many books I’ve been enjoying this autumn is On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma, an extended look into where formal deviation occurs in the world and what unexpected, often emotionally disconcerting, shapes and forces can result.

[Image: The Dariel Pass in the Caucausus Mountains, rumored possible site of the mythic Alexander’s Gates].

According to Asma, measuring these swerves and abnormalities against each other—and against ourselves—can shed much-needed light on the alternative “developmental trajectories” by which monsters come into being. This speculative monsterology, as he describes it it, would thus uncover the rules by which even the most stunning mutational transformations occur—allowing us to catalog extraordinary beings according to what Asma calls a “continuum of strangeness: first, nonnative species, then familiar beasts with unfamiliar sizes or modified body parts, then hybrids of surprising combination, and finally, at the furthest margins, shape-shifters and indescribable creatures.” Asma specifically mentions “mosaic beings,” beings “grafted together or hybridized by nature or artifice.”

In the book’s fascinating first-third—easily the book’s best section—Asma spends a great deal of time describing ancient myths of variation by which monsters were believed to have originated. From the mind-blowing and completely inexplicable discovery of dinosaur bones by ancient societies with no conception of geological time to the hordes of “monstrous races” believed to exist on the imperial perimeter, there have always been monsters somewhere in the world’s geography.

Of specific relevance to an architecture blog, however, are Alexander’s Gates.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, mythic isotope to Alexander’s Gates].

Alexander’s Gates, Asma writes, were the ultimate wall between the literally Caucasian West and its monstrous opponents, dating back to Alexander the Great:

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration.

(…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

Beyond this wall was a “monster zone.”

[Image: The geography of Us vs. Them, in a “12th century map by the Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi. ‘Yajooj’ and ‘Majooj’ (Gog and Magog) appear in Arabic script on the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass, enclosed within dark mountains, at a location corresponding roughly to Mongolia.” Via Wikipedia].

Interestingly, a variation of this story is also told within Islam—indeed, in the Koran itself. In Islamic mythology, however, Alexander the Great is replaced by a figure called Dhul-Qarnayn (who might also be a legendary variation on the Persian king Cyrus).

Even more interesting than that, however, the Koran‘s own story of geographically distant monsters entombed behind a vast wall—the border fence as theological infrastructure—appears to be a kind of literary remix of the so-called Alexander Romance. To quote that widely known religious authority Wikipedia, “The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an… matches the Gog and Magog episode in the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars.” That is, the Koran, supposedly the exact and holy words of God himself, actually contains a secular myth from 3rd-century Greece.

The construction of Dhul-Qarnayn’s wall against the non-Muslim monstrous hordes can specifically be found in verses 18:89-98. For instance:

“…Lend me a force of men, and I will raise a rampart between you and them. Come, bring me blocks or iron.”
He dammed up the valley between the Two Mountains, and said: “Ply your bellows.” And when the iron blocks were red with heat, he said: “Bring me molten brass to pour on them.”
Gog and Magog could not scale it, nor could they dig their way through it.

Think of it as a kind of religious quarantine—a biosafe wall through which no moral contagion could pass.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, via Wikipedia].

But as with all border walls, and all imperial limits, there will someday be a breach.

For instance, Asma goes on to cite a book, published in the 14th century, called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There, we read how Alexander’s Gates will, on some future day blackened by the full horror of monstrous return, be rendered completely obsolete:

In the end, Mandeville predicts, a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claims, without revealing how he comes by such specific prophecy, that during the time of the Antichrist a fox will dig a hole through Alexander’s gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, as such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway between the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the gates, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.

In any case, the idea that the line between human and not-human has been represented in myth and religion as a very specifically architectural form—that is, a literal wall built high in the mountains, far away—is absolutely fascinating to me.

Further, it’s not hard to wonder how Alexander’s Gates compare, on the level of imperial psychology, to things like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the U.S./Mexico border fence, or the Distant Early Warning Line—even London’s Ring of Steel—let alone the Black Gates of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

[Image: A map of the Distant Early Warning Line, an electromagnetic Alexander’s Gates for the Cold War].

Perhaps there is a kind of theological Hyperborder waiting to be written about the Wall of Gog and Magog.

Or could someone produce an architectural history of border stations as described in world mythology? I sense an amazing Ph.D. research topic here.