The fortified towers, wall platforms, and watchtowers of the Great Wall

By Simatai Great Wall

Dong Yaohui

Huangya Pass Great Wall in sea of clouds by Laojiang / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Fortified towers

A fortified tower is a type of building that was widely used along the Great Wall when Qi Jiguang was appointed as General Commander of the Garrison of Ji and charged with strengthening and building the Great Wall. Fortified towers were generally square or rectangular, and their length and width varied according to the terrain and offensive and defensive needs. They were usually 12–15 meters tall, though some were taller.

Close-up of the summer at Fairy Tower of Simatai Great Wall (2020-06-12) by Wu QiangSimatai Great Wall

Two-story fortified towers

Fortified towers were generally divided into two or three floors. The roof of a two-story fortified tower was open-air, with battlement walls and watchtowers from which soldiers could shoot in combat, sound the alarm, and communicate with each other when patrolling on duty. Tools used for sharing information included smoke signals, lanterns, flags, etc. The second floor was used by soldiers on guard duty, and all four walls were built with embrasures and arrow slits for crossbows.

Internal building structure of the Great Wall (2021-08-11) by Wu QiangSimatai Great Wall

The first floor contained soldiers' accommodation and was used to store weapons, food, drinking water, and other combat and living materials. Three-story fortified towers were similar to this, except that their combat and garrison space was larger. Some fortified towers were built with steps leading up and down, while others used wooden ladders or rope ladders.

Interior view of a fortified tower

Apricot blossoms bloom in the west section of Simatai Great Wall (2021-05-11) by Wu QiangSimatai Great Wall

Fortified towers were usually built on top of walls or on areas of high ground nearby. This way, their positions were conducive to combat. Located near the wall, standalone fortified towers were often built at a great height, which helped to support combat on the Great Wall.

Hollow fortified towers were distributed at a fixed distance according to differences in topography, and became the strongholds where the soldiers who guarded the Great Wall lived and fought.

Zijing Pass Great Wall by Fangkuai Liu / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Wall platforms

Wall platforms are platforms that protrude out of the wall at intervals along it. The function of a wall platform was similar to that of a lookout tower. When an enemy attacked the wall, the guards on the wall could shoot the invading enemy from the side using a wall platform. The distance between two wall platforms was generally within the range of fire for bows or crossbows.

Jiayu Pass watchtower by Lu Xianzhi / TuchongSimatai Great Wall


Watchtowers, also known as abutments, could be square, rectangular, or round. These ancient buildings were used to communicate the military situation and other information. Watchtowers already existed long before the construction of the Great Wall. They were mainly made of packed earth, adobe, stone, and ladle bricks. 

Jiayu Pass by Haitao RUNner / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Watchtowers made from packed earth and stones 

There were a large number of Han Dynasty watchtowers in Gansu and Xinjiang, and most of them were made from packed earth. Houses were built on the south sides of many watchtowers, and in some places you can still see their remains. The watchtowers inside and outside the Ming Dynasty Great Wall were mostly made of stone, with a few of them built from brick. 

The size of the watchtower building varied according to different situations. The Han Dynasty watchtowers in Gansu, Xinjiang and other places were slightly square-shaped, with a depth of 6–7 meters and a residual height of about 8 meters. 

Summer scenery of Simatai Great Wall by Simatai Great WallSimatai Great Wall

Ming Great Wall watchtowers

The watchtowers built along the Ming Great Wall were generally 5–8 meters long and 6 meters high. They were large at the bottom and small at the top. The walls recede from the bottom to the top in proportion, and the top contained a guard room. The outside of stone watchtowers was built with natural stone, and the bottom foundation was built with standard large blocks of stone. On top of this they placed blue bricks, and white plaster was used for the jointing.

Spring scenery of Simatai Great Wall by Simatai Great WallSimatai Great Wall

Border towers

The watchtowers of the Ming Great Wall can be divided into three types according to their different functions. Firstly, there are the watchtowers adjacent to the Great Wall and lined up along the Great Wall, which were called border towers.

Watchtower at Yanmen Pass by Lao Shanhuo / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Outer towers

Secondly, there are the watchtowers that extend out from the Great Wall. These were called outer towers. 

Sea of Clouds at Huangya Pass Great Wall by Fanruo ChenxiSimatai Great Wall

Inner towers

Third, there are the watchtowers that extend in towards the guard garrison. These were called inner towers.

These watchtowers were generally placed on high hills or mounds from which it was easy to observe the surrounding area. The distance between adjacent watchtowers was usually about five kilometers. The garrison could communicate reconnaissance information to a nearby watchtower at any time using smoke signals. They could then rapidly organize appropriate defensive measures, and share information regarding the enemy's situation with the military command.

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