by Stephen T. Asma
According to U.S. border patrol, Donald Trump's wall scheme (and Hillary Clinton's amnesty proposal) have inspired a northward rush to our border in recent months. Trump's proposed wall is unrealistic and unlikely to happen. But his desire to build it, and the giddy excitement it has inspired in his supporters, reminds us that “a wall” is a longstanding cultural answer to fear and xenophobia. The West has a storied tradition of trying to contain the foreign hordes –people who we recreate as monsters and barbarians.
The xenophobic idea of dangerous barbarians culminated in a popular story about “Alexander's Gates.” The European version of the story, of a barrier erected against savage enemies, seems to have first appeared in sixth century accounts of the Alexander Romance, but the legend is probably much older. Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then closed them all behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, but it was very often retold –especially in the age of exploration.
By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the meaning of Alexander's Gates had long since been Christianized, and played an important role in both the geography of monsters and the ultimate end-time purpose of such fiends. 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 directly by Alexander but indirectly by God, housed the savage tribes of Gog and Magog. Recall that Gog and Magog are referred to, with great ambiguity throughout the Bible –sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places. In the story of Alexander's Gates, a kind of synthesis occurs, in which “Gog and Magog” becomes a label for designating infidel nations and monstrous races –a monster zone, which different scribes can populate with all manner of projected fears.
Mathew Paris was the chronicle writer of the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans in England from 1235-1259, and he drew up a series of influential maps –usually with Jerusalem and the Holy Land as the central focus. In his maps he placed the monster zone of Gog and Magog in Northern Asia, and populated it with Tatars (Turkic peoples or Muslims generally).
The British Hereford mappamundi (c. 1300) continued the tradition of moral geography –placing Jerusalem as the righteous navel, with lesser-known territories (some quite deviant) near the perimeter. In addition to the Alexander Romance, the Hereford map drew heavily for its source material upon the writings of Solinus, a fourth century author of De Mirabilibus Mundi (On The Wonders of the World). The Mirabilibus itself drew significantly on Pliny's Natural History and therefore repeats the familiar monsters of the ancient world, like the cyclopes, the dog-headed cynocephali, the satyrs, the blemmyae, the cannibal anthropophagi, and so on. But now these strange creatures are all reconceived as players in the metaphysical geography of Christianity.
The Hereford map shows the people of India as exotic, but it does not disparage them. The inhabitants residing along the Nile, however, are characterized as deformed and less civilized. And the full weight of aversion is saved for the Northern perimeter of the map (in Scythia), where live the worst monsters who are shut up behind Alexander's Gates. Here we find the Arimaspi one-eyed race of men, together with their enemies the gold-digging half-lion, half-eagle griffin. But most importantly, the map warns us that in this region “Everything is horrible, more than can be believed” (Omnia horribilia plus quam credi potest). The map continues its description: “Here there are very savage men feeding on human flesh, drinking blood, the sons of accursed Cain. The Lord closed these in by means of Alexander the Great…. At the time of the Antichrist they will break out and will carry persecution to the whole world.” Here we find two extremely popular late medieval ideas, namely that the monstrous races are descendants of Cain, and when the end-of-times comes they will join forces with the Antichrist and persecute the righteous.
The monsters' incarceration behind Alexander's Gates is, however, only temporary. They await their imminent release, medieval theorists believed, and will be upon us shortly. The famous Travels of Sir John Mandeville (published between 1357-1371) reveals precisely how this unleashing will finally occur.
Mandeville retells the story of a monster zone (full of dragons, serpents, and venomous beasts) in the Caspian Mountains, but he adds another ethnic group –indeed, what he considers the main ethnic group –to the famous confinement. In Chapter XXIX, he states that “Between those mountains the Jews of ten lineages be enclosed, that men call Gog and Magog and they may not go out on any side.” Here he is referring to the legendary ten lost tribes that disappeared from history after the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century BCE. These Jews, according to Mandeville, will escape during the time of the Antichrist and “make great slaughter of Christian men. And therefore all the Jews that dwell in all lands learn always to speak Hebrew, in hope, that when the other Jews shall go out, that they may understand their speech, and to lead them into Christendom for to destroy the Christian people.”
Christian paranoia about Jews was, of course, an old story. Here in Mandeville we find a late medieval anti-Semitic maneuver that linked Jews directly with other monsters (behind the gates) and also gave Christians increased paranoia about the local Jewish populations. For Christians, Jews could be seen as proximate in-house monsters who also had genealogical relations with the most foreign and distant of monsters. Anti-Semitism didn't really need help from Mandeville's like, because the pious fury of the formally anti-Muslim crusades (1095-1291 and beyond) had already been spilling over to include violence against local Jews for centuries. The religious zeal of a Christian warrior culture, marching to retake the Holy Land from the infidels, did much damage to Jews in France, Germany, Hungary, England, Syria and Palestine. Like a demonstration of Freudian aggression theory, Christians who were frustrated in their desires to beat down their Muslim enemies, vented spleen on their in-house “foreigners,” the Jews. Christian forms of anti-Semitism, which had long demonized Jews for “killing Christ,” offered ready-to-hand justifications for such massacres, and then Mandeville simply added more fuel to the fire.
In the end, Mandeville predicted a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claimed that a fox will, during the time of the Antichrist, dig a hole through Alexander's Gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, since such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway through the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the Gates, having discovered a chink in the armor, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.
The Christians were not the only ones interested in Alexander's Gates. The Qur'an itself tells a story that rehearses many of the features of the Alexander story. In “the Cave” chapter (Surat al-kahf) of the Qur'an, we learn of a great king Dhu'l-Qarneyn (He of the Two Horns) who many secular and Islamic scholars take to be Alexander. The Qur'an tells the following story of how the great king confined Gog and Magog:
They said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Lo! Gog and Magog are spoiling the land. So may we pay thee tribute on condition that thou set a barrier between us and them? He said: That wherein my Lord hath established me is better (than your tribute). Do but help me with strength (of men), I will set between you and them a bank. Give me pieces of iron – till, when he had leveled up (the gap) between the cliffs, he said: Blow! – till, when he had made it a fire, he said: Bring me molten copper to pour thereon. And (Gog and Magog) were not able to surmount, nor could they pierce it.
Muslims, like everyone else, accepted the existence of barbaric races. Historian Aziz Al-Azmeh even suggests three common markers that Muslims used to diagnose foreign peoples for “barbaric” status; filth, profligate sexuality (ascribed to Europeans), and unholy funerary rites. In principle then, the idea of a great king shutting-up dangerous uncivilized races behind an iron gate made sense, but the question was who were these brutes?
Muslims could not and would not interpret the gates as blocking themselves or the relatively more familiar peoples of the Eurasian steppes, nor did they see Gog and Magog as comprised of lost Jewish tribes. Islamic civilization of the time, unlike European Christendom, was simply too close to the region to accept any facile identification of the monstrous Gog and Magog. During the Patriarchal and Umayyad Caliphate expansions of Islam (632-750 CE), for example, the territories near the legendary Gates would likely have been Muslim. And when, in the ninth-century, Caliph al-Wathiq-Billah sent an interpreter named Sallam to find Alexander's renowned Gate, Sallam failed to discover it in the Caucasus but claimed to find it much further inside Asia. Which tells us something about the human tendency to keep locating barbarism and monstrosity farther and farther away from oneself and one's own tribes. Instead of naming the ethnic groups inside Gog and Magog, Aziz Al-Azmeh claims, Arab-Islamic culture left them unnamed imaginary place-holders. These unnamed were the antithesis of civilization, and Muslims accepted the idea that they would strike against pious culture once the gates were breached, but the creatures themselves were more anonymous than in the European narratives. In the 14th century, the North African traveler Ibn Battuta visited China, and hearing of the Great Wall of China assumed that it was indeed Alexander's Gates.
Many cultures have “wall narratives” or “gate narratives” that purport to contain the barbarians. Our current fascination with a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is part of this long tradition. On this side of the wall, we have the “good,” and the “pure,” and the “true.” And on that side we have “monsters,” “barbarians,” and “bad hombres.”
This is not to say that we shouldn't protect our borders. We should. But we are currently in a paranoid phase, much like the medieval devotees of Alexander's Gates. Increased economic prosperity usually mitigates some of this cultural paranoia, but the more vulnerable we feel, the higher the wall we want to build. In the coming Trump presidency we will need to be mindful of looming xenophobia, and lessen it wherever possible. The insular nature of the U.S. media and indeed the American psyche is reminiscent of a much earlier time, when travel was difficult and rare. Our digitally blinkered population may need to travel beyond their provincial circles to meet more “barbarians” in person. Of course this seems even less likely now that U.S. blue-states and red-states are calling each other “barbarians” too.
* * *
Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is a founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture.
Asma is the author of seven books, including Against Fairness (Univ. of Chicago Press), On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford Univ. Press) and The Gods Drink Whiskey (HarperOne).
In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, and in 2007 he lived and studied in Shanghai China. Asma has also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. And in 2013, he won a Fulbright award to teach in Beijing, PRC.
Asma has been invited to lecture at Harvard, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Newberry Library, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, University of Macau, and many more.
His website is: www.stephenasma.com