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Can You See the Great Wall of China from Space?

The Great Wall of China features prominently in Western popular imagination. Most of us have grown up with the idea that this ancient wall is so large that it is the only human-made structure that can be seen on the moon, and with the naked eye. So pervasive is this idea that it appeared in the 1932 edition of Robert Ripley’s “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Neil Armstrong says he is frequently asked if he saw the Great Wall of China. Did Armstrong see it? If not, where did the idea originate?

Restored Great Wall Tower at Mutianyu, near Beijing, China
A watchtower on the Great Wall of China.

The English antiquarian William Stukeley is quoted in a letter he wrote in 1754 and published in his “The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley” (1887), as saying:

This mighty wall [he was referring to Hadrian’s Wall] of four score miles in length is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the Moon.

Stukeley’s comment is the earliest known written record of the myth. A myth that has been around long before humans set foot on the moon. And a myth that has been debunked by many, including those who have in fact set foot on the moon.

The myth aside, it still is an impressive structure. I am always taken by photographs that show the wall snaking across the landscape along the crests of mountains, for miles and miles. And here is another myth, the wall is not one single wall, but a number of different walls that have been built at different times, and joined together. The oldest wall was created in the third century BC out of compacted earth – remains of which are still standing today albeit somewhat weather beaten. That wall we are more familiar with is much more recent having been built in the Ming Dynasty as a result of new threats from the Mongols from the north. After its final phase of construction the wall was 20,000 kilometres long.

Great wall under sunshine during sunset
A watchtower on the Great Wall of China.

Guided Tours & Activities for the Great Wall of China

Archaeology Travel Writer

Thomas Dowson

With a professional background in archaeology and a passion for travel, I founded Archaeology Travel to help more people explore our world’s fascinating pasts. Born in Zambia, I trained as an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa) and taught archaeology at the universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). Read More

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