The Hadrian’s Wall of the East
George R R Martin says that he came up with the idea for his sprawling epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, when he was on holiday in Scotland. He stood on Hadrian’s Wall and imagined what it must have been like to be a Roman legionary, standing there at the edge of the known world, facing north into a wild oblivion. It inspired The Wall, a structure at the top of the continent of Westeros in his book series, which was built to keep unimaginable terrors away from the civilised world.
It is a fundamentally human concept, the inside vs the outside, and it exists in all cultures to some degree. Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier between ‘civilised’ Roman society, with its city planning and professional armies and paperwork and roads and trade, and the remaining free Celtic tribes, is perhaps the most poignant and well-known example of it today.
But if you were to speak to someone in the ancient or medieval world about this concept, they would probably have thought of a different place.
It has gone by many names over the centuries. Its modern name is Derbent, from the Persian Darband, meaning ‘gate in the barrier,’ but it has also been known as The Gate of all Gates, The Gates of Alexander, The Gruzinian Guard, and the Gate of Iron. It is the southernmost city in modern Russia, and one of the oldest, too, having been occupied since 800BC.
And in ancient times, it was the edge of the world.
To its south lay the Caucasus — a region that was fought over by successive empires — and beyond that, Persia, which was, under the Achaemenids, the centre of the civilised world. (We’ve all seen 300, right?)
To its north lay the Eurasian steppe, populated by Scythian and later Turkic nomads. To continue with the A Song of Ice and Fire terminology, these were the Wildlings. The Other, the people outside, the barbarians.
There are only two ways through the Caucasian Mountains, which marked the boundary between these two worlds. One is a gorge in the middle of the range, difficult to traverse and hard to find, and the other is a three-kilometre stretch of flat land between the easternmost edge of the mountains and the Caspian Sea…