1. Landscape Form and Military Defense
Terrain is the foundation of any society, its most fundamental parameter. It sets limits: a landlocked country can’t develop a sea trade for example. Particular crops can be grown here but not there; different locales contain different natural resources, above Earth’s surface and below.
Beyond that, though, the very shape of a landscape can have a profound impact on how communities organize themselves on its surface. In the eons before telephone, telegraph, and motorized transport, extremely rugged mountains often produced fragmented social systems made up of self-reliant subunits. If visits to neighboring villages were grueling because of sheer ravines and cliffs, there couldn’t be as much common activity as where the intervening ground was flat.
Mountains also protect against enemies. Before motorized vehicles and airplanes, a high mountain chain made it extremely difficult to get your army up and over to assail the polity on the other side. Even today, we see the impact of rugged terrain in Afghanistan: it has defeated many modern foreign armies that have sought to control it.
Throughout history, people have chosen the highest points in the landscape for their forts and castles.
Burg Kats (Castle Kat) above the Rhine River and the town of Petersburg, Germany.
Photo courtesy Caniluna Pty Ltd.
In the millennia before airplanes, the highest point in a landscape enabled inhabitants to spot invaders from far off. The enemy had to struggle to climb up to attack. Heights gave gravitational advantage to castle dwellers’ arrows and hot oil, while the enemies’ arrows had to fight gravity on their way up.
But what about a country whose land was completely flat, with no mountains on its borders? What if you had no high cliffs to build your forts atop? Then you might well have to devote enormous energy and resources to creating other means of defense.
Vasily Vereshchagin's "Defeated: Service for the Dead" portrays the bodies
of many centuries of Russia's war dead forming the soil of the steppe.
Painted in 1878-1879.
Graphic courtesy A Journey Through Slavic Culture.