Focus Friday - History of Fortifications

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Friday, Jul 1 2011 by

Fortifications are military constructions and buildings designed for defence in warfare and military bases. Humans have constructed defensive works for many thousands of years, in a variety of increasingly complex designs. The term is derived from the Latin fortis (“strong”) and facere (“to make”).


From very early history to modern times, walls have been a necessity for many cities. Uruk in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) is one of the world’s oldest known walled cities.

Ruins of the ancient city of Uruk (Google Maps)
Ruins of the ancient city of Uruk

Babylon was one of the most famous cities of the ancient world, especially as a result of the building program of Nebuchadnezzar, who expanded the walls and built the Ishtar Gate.

Babylon (Google Maps)

Large tempered earth (i.e. rammed earth) walls were built in ancient China since the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BC), as the capital at ancient Ao had enormous walls built in this fashion (see siege for more info). Although stone walls were built in China during the Warring States (481-221 BC), mass conversion to stone architecture did not begin in earnest until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

In terms of China’s longest and most impressive fortification, the Great Wall had been built since the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), although its present form was mostly an engineering feat and remodelling of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

Great Wall of China (Google Maps)
Great Wall of China

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman Empire across the width of what is now northern England following a visit by Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) in AD 122.

Hadrian's Wall (Google Maps)
Hadrian's Wall


Roman forts and hill forts were the main antecedents of castles in Europe, which emerged in the 9th century in the Carolingian Empire.

Maiden Castle (Bing Maps)
Maiden Castle

The Early Middle Ages saw the creation of some towns built around castles.

Genoese fortress (Google Maps)
Genoese fortress

During the Renaissance era, the Venetians raised great walls around cities threatened by the Ottoman empire. The finest examples are, among others, in Nicosia (Cyprus) and Chania (Crete), and they still stand, to this day.

Kyrenia Castle (Google Maps)
Kyrenia Castle

Early Modern

Medieval-style fortifications were largely made obsolete by the arrival of cannons on the 14th century battlefield. Fortifications in the age of blackpowder evolved into much lower structures with greater use of ditches and earth ramparts that would absorb and disperse the energy of cannon fire. Walls exposed to direct cannon fire were very vulnerable, so were sunk into ditches fronted by earth slopes.

Fortezza di Sarzana (Google Maps)
Fortezza di Sarzana

Fortifications also extended in depth, with protected batteries for defensive cannonry, to allow them to engage attacking cannon to keep them at a distance and prevent them bearing directly on the vulnerable walls. The result was star shaped fortifications with tier upon tier of hornworks and bastions, of which Bourtange illustrated to the right is an excellent example.

Bourtange, Dutch star fort (Google Maps)
Bourtange, Dutch star fort

There are also extensive fortifications from this era in the Nordic states and in Britain, the fortifications of Berwick-upon-Tweed…

Berwick-upon-Tweed ramparts (Google Maps)
Berwick-upon-Tweed ramparts

…and the harbour archipelago of Suomenlinna at Helsinki being fine examples.

Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) fortress (Google Maps)
Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) fortress

19th Century

The arrival of explosive shells in the 19th century led to yet another stage in the evolution of fortification. Star forts of the cannon era did not fare well against the effects of high explosive and the intricate arrangements of bastions, flanking batteries and the carefully constructed lines of fire for the defending cannon could be rapidly disrupted by explosive shells.

In response, military engineers evolved the polygonal style of fortification.

Fort Delimara (Google Maps)
Fort Delimara

20th and 21st Centuries

Steel-and-concrete fortifications were common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, however the advances in modern warfare since World War I have made large-scale fortifications obsolete in most situations.

Petit Ouvrage de Welschoff (Maginot Line Fort) (Google Maps)
Petit Ouvrage de Welschoff (Maginot Line Fort)

Only underground bunkers are still able to provide some protection in modern wars.

Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (Birds Eye)
Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center