Namhansanseong: World Heritage in South Korea

Namhansanseong is a former fort that has been transformed into a park located in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. Situated in a mountainous region dominated by Namhansan, the fort is just a few dozen kilometers away from Seoul. This historical site served as a “refuge capital” during the Joseon period and was constructed by Buddhist soldier-monks. The complex encompasses numerous temples and stands as a significant “symbol of Korean sovereignty.”

In recognition of its historical and cultural importance, Namhansanseong was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2014. This designation reflects its significance as a site with rich historical and architectural value.

Namhansanseong is a historical mountain fortress city situated 25 km southeast of Seoul, South Korea. Perched at an elevation of approximately 480 m above sea level, the fortress is strategically aligned with the ridges of the mountain to maximize defensibility. Stretching over a length of 12 km, this fortress played a crucial role in protecting a vast area utilized as an emergency capital city during the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392–1910). The fortress’s design is rooted in the architectural styles of East Asia, embodying elements from four historical cultural periods: the Joseon of Korea, the Azuchi-Momoyama Period of Japan, and Ming and Qing China. It underwent extensive development during the 16th to 18th centuries, marked by a period of continuous warfare.

The fortress not only serves as a testament to the military strategies of the time but also highlights the influential role of Buddhism in safeguarding the state. It has become a symbol of sovereignty in Korea. Situated on Namhansan (South Han Mountain), the fortress encompasses fortifications dating back to the 17th century, along with several temples, further contributing to its historical and cultural significance.

Introducing Namhansanseong 

Namhansanseong is located 25 km southeast of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Perched at an elevation of 480 m above sea level, the mountain fortress city strategically aligns itself with the mountain ridges to enhance its defensive capabilities. The 12 km-long fortress served as a protective barrier for a large area designated as an emergency capital during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Drawing inspiration from fortress architecture in East Asia, Namhansanseong reflects extensive exchanges between four countries—Korea during the Joseon period, Japan during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Ming (China), and Qing (China)—particularly from the 16th to the 18th century, marked by continuous wars.

The fortress’s design and layout were influenced by the technical development of weapons and armament during this period, including the introduction of gunpowder from Europe. Namhansanseong illustrates how various defense theories in Korea were implemented, considering both the daily lives of citizens and the national defense goals. Additionally, the fortress vividly demonstrates the integral role played by Buddhism in safeguarding the state, solidifying its status as a symbol of Korea’s sovereignty.

History

Namhansanseong’s most notable characteristic lies in its topographical advantage. It features a spacious, flat top known as Gorobong, with a low center and high sides situated over 480 m above sea level. The mountain’s elevated position over flat lands allows for easy observation of the surrounding area, making it an ideal command post. This topography has been significant since the Unified Silla era in the 7th century.

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During Unified Silla, the Jujangseong fortress, located at the present site of Namhansanseong, was constructed to house men and stock supplies while fighting against the Tang dynasty. In the 13th century, during the Goryeo dynasty, Namhansanseong served as a stronghold against Mongol invasions. From the 17th century onward, it expanded in size, becoming a crucial mountain fortress near Seoul and serving as an emergency capital for the Joseon Dynasty.

Namhansanseong was systematically managed and operated for over 300 years since its construction in 1624. It played a role in the Qing invasion during the Ming-Qing transition in China and stood as a spiritual symbol of Joseon’s sovereignty until the 20th century. The rich history of Namhansanseong reflects the exchange of Buddhist, Confucian, folk religion, and Christian values from its construction to the present day.

Constructed as a planned city in the 17th century, Namhansanseong served as both an emergency capital during war and an administrative center in times of peace. Unlike European and Japanese fortresses designed primarily to defend the ruling class, Namhansanseong was a self-sufficient defensive structure where both the ruling class and commoners could seek shelter. It encompassed traditional villages, the local administrative town, the Emergency Palace, and performed various functions such as defense, administration, business, and royal ancestral rites.

Namhansanseong: World Heritage in South Korea

Since the 17th century, Namhansanseong has been home to over 4,000 people, and its preservation and management have been passed down through generations of residents. Unlike many fortress towns in Korea that experienced significant deformations and changes during Japanese colonial times and the periods of industrialization and urbanization, Namhansanseong has retained its original layout. This preservation can be attributed to the Japanese colonial government relocating administrative functions and demolishing military structures during the early stages of colonization, leaving it as an isolated mountain village afterward.

The characteristics of Namhansanseong evolved throughout its history. Initially serving as a military and administrative center with the Emergency Palace and administrative offices from 1627 to 1917, it later became a center for civil resistance movements (Uibyeong) during the early 20th century, particularly around the time of the fall of the Joseon Dynasty and the approach of the Japanese colonial period. However, the fortress and temples were forcibly demolished and closed by the Japanese in 1907.

The relocation of the Gwangju County Office in 1917 led to the fortress losing its function as the town center, resulting in its downgrade to a remote mountain village. The Korean War further contributed to population and material losses. In recent times, Namhansanseong has transformed into a tourist attraction. Large-scale wall restorations began in the 1970s, and it was designated as a provincial park. Since the 1980s, the area has seen a significant increase in the number of restaurants and various visitor facilities. The Emergency Palace and the Royal Ancestral Shrine within the fortress have been actively restored based on various studies since the 1990s. In recognition of its historical and cultural significance, Namhansanseong was listed on the World Heritage tentative list in 2010.

Inscription on the UNESCO list 

Namhansanseong satisfies two of the ten selection criteria required to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (criteria 2 and 4):

(ii) Namhansanseong stands as an excellent example illustrating exchanges related to technological progress in armament construction and fortress development in East Asia, particularly in the context of international wars. The city, encircled by a fortress, was designed as an emergency capital to safeguard Joseon’s sovereignty and independence.

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(iv) The walls and facilities integrated into the rugged terrain exemplify the technological progress in fortress architecture carried out in Korea from the 7th to the 19th century.

In light of these values, Gyeonggi Province and Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation have undertaken various projects and research initiatives to advocate for Namhansanseong’s inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Therefore, in February 2011, the Korea Cultural Heritage Administration prioritized Namhansanseong from the properties on the Korean Preliminary List, encouraging its nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status. Namhansanseong’s dossier for inscription on the World Heritage List was submitted in January 2013, and after evaluation, Namhansanseong was successfully inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014.

The haenggung (emergency palace) 

A haenggung is a place where the king stayed temporarily when he left his palace to travel outside the capital. In Namhansanseong, this type of palace was built in 1626 to serve as a refuge in case of emergencies, such as war or civil unrest, replacing the palace in Hanyang, the former capital of Korea. It was intended for use until the arrival of support forces. Notably, during the Qing invasion of Korea in the second year of King Injo (1636), the king sought refuge in Namhansanseong and stayed there for 47 days.

Subsequently, other kings, including Sukjong, Yeongjo, Jeongjo, Cheoljong, and Gojong, utilized this palace during their visits to the ancestor tombs located in Yeoju and Icheon. The haenggung in Namhansanseong played a crucial role in providing a secure retreat for the king during times of uncertainty or external threats.

The tales of Namhansanseong

Namhansanseong: World Heritage in South Korea

Tombstone of Seo Heun-nam

During the Second Manchu–Qing invasion of Korea in 1636, King Injo of the Joseon Dynasty sought refuge at Namhansanseong. On his way to the fortress, most of his vassals deserted him, leaving only a few loyal retainers. These vassals took turns carrying the king on their backs to Namhansanseong, but they became exhausted on a cold winter day. At that critical moment, a woodcutter named Seo Heun-nam appeared and offered to carry the king safely to Namhansanseong on his back. Grateful for his assistance, King Injo later called Seo Heun-nam and asked what he desired in return. Seo Heun-nam expressed his wish to wear the king’s full-dress uniform, and King Injo granted his request as a token of gratitude.

In subsequent times, during wartime, Seo Heun-nam served as a spy, gathering information on the enemy’s movements and making significant contributions. When Seo Heun-nam passed away, he was buried with the king’s full-dress uniform, and the tomb became a site where all passers-by would bow in respect. This story reflects the historical significance of individuals like Seo Heun-nam who played vital roles during times of crisis and their lasting impact on the collective memory.

Cheongryangdang Shaman Shrine and Hawk Rock

During the construction of Namhansanseong, General Yi Hoe was assigned to oversee the southeast section, while the head of the monk army, Beokam, was in charge of the northwest section of the fortress. The construction in the north was completed within the deadline due to its gentle and flat terrain, but the construction in the south faced challenges due to the steep terrain. Upon observing that the construction was not completed in the south, the king considered punishing General Yi Hoe.

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In response to the potential punishment, General Yi Hoe asserted that he had done his best and made a bold claim: a hawk would fly into the sky at his execution, demonstrating his innocence. Surprisingly, when this prediction came true, a thorough review was conducted and found that the section under General Yi Hoe’s responsibility had been properly and strongly constructed.

To honor General Yi Hoe and console his unjust death, the Cheongryangdang Shaman Shrine was built, and sacrificial rites are performed at the shrine. This story reflects the significance of divine interventions and the belief in supernatural occurrences in historical narratives.

King Onjo at Sungryeoljeon Shrine

In a significant event, while King Injo was sleeping, an old man appeared to him in a dream and issued a warning about approaching enemies. Responding promptly to this mysterious guidance, the king ordered an investigation, which revealed that enemies were indeed destroying the fortress walls. Later, it was revealed that the old man in the dream was King Onjo, the founder of the Baekje Kingdom. Grateful for King Onjo’s intervention that averted a national crisis, King Injo decided to construct Sungryeoljeon Shrine in commemoration of the Baekje Kingdom’s founder.

Following this, in another dream, King Onjo appeared to King Injo and requested that one of the king’s vassals be sent to Sungryeoljeon Shrine, where King Onjo resided alone. The next morning, King Injo awoke to the news that General Yi Seo, who had been in charge of the construction of Namhansanseong, had passed away. King Injo perceived this as King Onjo taking away General Yi Seo. As a result, both King Onjo and General Yi Seo are enshrined together at Sungryeoljeon Shrine, where annual sacrificial rites are held to honor their memory and contributions. This story reflects the deep belief in divine intervention and the spiritual connection between historical figures.

Scholars enshrined at Hyeonjeolsa Shrine

Hyeonjeolsa Shrine was built to honor the memory of three patriotic scholars—Hong Ik-han, Yun Jip, and Oh Dal-je—who displayed unwavering loyalty to their nation during the Second Manchu invasion of Korea. These scholars steadfastly opposed surrendering to the enemy, persistently advocating resistance even when Namhansanseong was under complete siege by the Manchu forces. At that time, the Manchus sought to subjugate Korea before launching a full-scale war to conquer Ming China.

Despite the eventual surrender of Joseon, these three scholars refused to yield and were taken captive. Even in captivity, they maintained their resolve and were ultimately beheaded for their unwavering commitment to their principles. Hyeonjeolsa Shrine was constructed in their honor, and annual sacrificial rites are held to commemorate the loyalty and sacrifice of these three patriots. Their story serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who stand firm in defense of their principles and homeland.

By car 

south gate

  • Jamsil → Bokjeong Junction(signboard: Namhansanseong) → Yakjin-ro → South Gate → Sanseong Roundabout
  • Suwon → Singal → Bundang → Moran → Taepyeong Intersection → City Hall → Sinheung Jugong Apartments → South Gate → Sanseong Roundabout

east gate

  • Sheraton Grande Hotel Walkerhill → Cheonho Bridge → Gil-dong → Central Expressway Sangil-dong Interchange → Hwangsan Three-way Junction (National Road 43) → Eommi-ri(Eungogae)(signboard: Namhansanseong) → Gwangjiwon → Gate of East → Sanseong Roundabout
  • Central Highway Gyeongan Interchange(Seoul and Hanam National Road 43) → Gwangjiwon(signboard: Namhansanseong) → East Gate → Sanseong Roundabout
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Mohamed SAKHRI

I am Mohamed SAKHRI, the creator and editor-in-chief of this blog, 'Discover the World – The Blog for Curious Travelers.' Join me as we embark on a journey around the world, uncovering beautiful places, diverse cultures, and captivating stories. Additionally, we will delve into mysterious and, at times, even bizarre destinations.

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