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What’s so ‘Great’ about the Great Wall? A History of the Great Wall of China

News and Travel Editor

What’s so great about the Great Wall of China and why does it deserve its name?

Its size? The average height of the wall is 7.8 metres and the highest point is 14 metres.

Its length?  The total length of all sections of wall built throughout the dynasties reaches 13,170 miles. If stretched out in a straight line, the Great Wall could travel almost half way around the equator.

Its weight? Some people estimate an incredible 58,095,000 tons! That’s 9 times heavier than the collective weight of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Or was it known by a different name when it was built and simply became the ‘Great Wall’ as time passed? We hope to answer all these questions and more by separating the facts from the legends and myths.

The Great Wall was, and remains, the longest man-made construction in the world. This might explain why today we’ve refer to it  as ‘Great’, but when it was built, it was simply known as the ‘Long Wall’ or ‘Long City’, as it was simply seen as a stretched out, giant, city wall.

Unsurprisingly, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, alongside Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Italy and Petra in Jordan. But it was not built over one time period. Instead, the Great Wall has been built, modified or extended for around 2,000 years since the 7th and 8th centuries after regular invasions from the Mongols in the north.

We’ve all heard stories of workers being buried under the wall, but there are many other entertaining legends and myths surrounding the structure. The stories are incredibly wide-ranging and perhaps the most entertaining has been featured in a recent Hollywood-Chinese movie starring Matt Damon. The Great Wall film plays with the myth that the wall was not intended for keeping out the Mongol invaders from the north, but was in fact needed to protect China from supernatural forces.

But our all time favourite story is one that we think might just have a little bit of truth in it;

The Legend of Yi Kaizhan tells the story of the Yi, a mathematician who explained that it would take exactly 99,999 bricks to build the section of wall at Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province. His supervisor argued that if he was wrong, the entire workforce would be forced to do 3 years hard labour as punishment. Guess what? It took 99,998. Thankfully, good old Yi had a trick up his sleeve.  Even though the left over brick hadn’t been used in the construction, Yi quickly suggested that a supernatural being had placed it close by and that moving it would force the wall to collapse. Suspicious, the supervisor never moved the brick and, legend has it, the brick can still be found in the same spot today…

Whilst we can’t vouch for this story, one thing we can say is that, unfortunately and contrary to popular belief, the wall cannot be seen from space. This is probably because the original statement was made before anyone actually went into space… Even NASA admit that the Great Wall becomes somewhat less great when photographed from a low earth orbit.

Finally, did you also know that the wall is not really an ‘it’ but more of a ‘them’? The wall was very much built in sections, with many overlapping and some more ancient and wild sections crumbling away. That might also be because many sections of the wall are not built from bricks and mortar, but are sometimes moulded from the earth to create humps in the ground which are often reshaped by the weather.

Have you visited the Great Wall recently? Can you vouch for any of these stories? Please let us know if you go to Jiayuguan and find that famous supernatural brick still sitting there…