The Great Wall of China and other unearthings

Mixed among the headlines about OPEC meetings and military aid to El Salvador , two stories well over 2,000 years old have made their way into the new. Chinese archaeologists announced the discovery of a section of the Great Wall that adds 62 miles to the charted length of 3,600 miles or so. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, after 15 years of study, Dr. Asher Kauffman claims to have located the foundation stone upon which the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon was built - about 330 feet north of the position most scholars have hypothesized.

One can stretch the coincidence a little further. Obviously the Great Wall of China and the Temple of Solomon are two separate works from two quite different cultures. One structure is as secular as you can get; the other is religious. But they shared one thing in common when they were erected. Apart from their specific functions, both edifices served as symbols for a new unity within their emerging nations.

The Great Wall is thought of ordinarily as a military fortification, designed to keep the ''barbarians'' of the steppes and forests of Mongolia and Manchuria from overrunning northern China. But as more than one historian has pointed out, the Great Wall did not work all that successfully against marauding nomads. For some 850 of the last 1,500 years invading foreigners managed to capture and rule large portions of China.

A more ingenious, less prevalent explanation suggests that the Great Wall was designed to draw the line for the Chinese as well as the barbarians. The fence was meant to keep the Chinese in as much as the enemy out. Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, the ''First Emperor'' of China, who created the Great Wall as a system and as an idea, experienced firsthand the risks of expanding militarily beyond the distance he could govern, despite a new network of roads and canals that he also built. The First Emperor was not a good man. He was a tyrant who killed people and burned books with equal disdain. But he was an eminently practical politician who recognized limits when he saw them. He built the Great Wall to say to himself as well as the barbarians: ''Thus far, and no farther.''

After conscripting a million laborers on the Great Wall, the First Emperor turned his attention to the farmers in the valleys just to the south, building irrigation systems that were even more of a marvel. And so the yin of the military was restrained and balanced by the yang of the economy. The Great Wall said no to the aggressors on both its sides.

A curious thing happened when the barbarians penetrated the Great Wall and made what they took to be their conquests. They were not the same people they had been when they stormed the breaches. They turned back and looked at the wall from the other side and became Chinese themselves, absorbed by the conquered.

It all makes, at the least, a provocative theory.

The Temple of Solomon was a dot compared to the Great Wall - 115 by 33 feet, according to estimates, small even for a temple. But it contained, in the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, and what tribute could crude physical space pay to that treasure?

The tribes of Israel had been their own nomads. The Temple of Solomon, in addition to its profound religious meaning, signaled that the wandering children of the desert had at last found a rock on which to build, to worship, to form themselves into a whole. If the Great Wall shaped a perimeter, the Temple of Solomon established a center - and one that, in every sense but the physical, has proven a mightier and more enduring fortress.

There are no neat parallels between the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Solomon, and the headlines of today. Wars go on, as do the strategies for living at peace without being massacred.

But at some point, every civilization has to define itself, rather like an adolescent - pull in its boundaries, declare what it will not do as well as what it will do, come to terms with its untamed ambitions, signal where its heart lies, find its center in acts of building and surviving.

Certainly there is a need, 20 to 30 centuries later, to discover something like the ''wisdom of Solomon,'' while practicing the Chinese art of making even a wall a positive gesture.

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