Namhansanseong is a fortress located in South Korea in the East Asian region. This 1,000-year-old fortress dates back to 672 AD during the Three Kingdoms period and has been extended and reconstructed until today. It has been preserved as a national cultural property. In June 2014, its outstanding universal value was recognized by UNESCO and it was added to UNESCO World Heritage list.
Location and Size
Namhansanseong sits 500m above sea level aligning itself with the ridges of the mountain. It is 11.76km long and surrounds 2,120,000㎡ of area. With the palace in the photo as the center, the right part is the outside and the left part is the inside of the fortress. Being one of the largest fortresses in the world, Namhansanseong is so extensive that it is difficult to estimate its size with human eyes.
History and Construction
Namhansanseong was constructed in 1624, and according to historical records, it used the old site of Jujangseong (672) of Silla as its foundation. The fortress also used Han River of Seoul as a natural moat (a deep channel dug around a palace and filled with water for protection purposes) and was constructed at the top of the mountain, aligning itself with rugged ridges.
As a result, the walls were built in a curved shape, which helped Namhansanseong maximize its defensive capacity and protect itself for a long time.
Vegetation around Namhansanseong
Namhansanseong has old pine trees around it that make a beautiful scenery. A pine tree, an evergreen that has green leaves all the year round, is a traditional favorite of Korean people. In Namhansanseong, it is easy to find a concentration of pine trees. As landslides occurred frequently in the region due to excessive logging during the late Joseon Dynasty, residents of the village created a union that prohibits logging and planted pine trees to protect the area.
This led to a 100-year-old concentration of pine trees, which is the one and only in Seoul and the surrounding metropolitan area (Gyeonggi-do Province). Old pine forests as well as some rare and endangered plants are also preserved here.
Namhansanseong has four main gates north, south, east and west and 16 small hidden gates. Among the four gates the most magnificent and the biggest is this South Gate. This is also the gate the king of Chosun Dynasty of Korea (1392–1910) would pass through to enter the inner palaces.
The gate pavilion on top of the fortress was built back in 1779. On the signboard, you can see some Chinese characters (letters). It says Ji-hwa-mun. It means harmony and fellowship among the people and wishes for keeping a good relationship between the king and his subjects. The name for this gate was given by King Jeongjo, the 22nd ruler of Chosun Dynasty of Korea (1776-1800) upon the completion of the gate pavilion.
The South Gate has a rainbow-shaped entrance with a height of 5m and a width of 3.4m. The arched shape structure better endures downward pressure and boasts higher stability than the straight line-shaped one. This entrance structure, the most important element of a fortress, adopted the most cutting-edge technology available of the times.
When you look at both sides of the Gate, you can see stones, big and small, piled up to form the walls. And you can see that the stone size gets smaller and well-processed like kernels of the corn towards the upper part.
You can obviously tell the different stone piling methods section by section, and this shows that people used different construction techniques over a long period of time. This part you see now was constructed with the technique that was common in the early 17th century.
Parapets and Embrasures
Parapets refer to some fences on top of the fortress walls. They are built to protect the defenders from the enemies firing arrows and bullets. The counting unit of parapets is called “ta,” and 1 ta is equivalent to some 3 to 4.5m. What puts Namhansanseong’s parapets apart from others seen in Korea is that they were made of grey bricks and quicklime, and this makes them more effective and resistant to the artillery (cannon) attacks.
Let’s look at the three embrasures or gun-firing holes. At the center of the picture is a close-range embrasure and the two holes at the ends are long-range embrasures. You can see the angles are adjusted in two different directions.
One is angled down and the other two are straight out. If enemies were near, the hole in the middle was used whereas when the enemies were approaching from the distance, the long-range embrasures were used. The parapets evolved from arrow-firing holes to gun-firing holes with the advancement of firearms over time.
West Command Post
West Command Post was built for generals to direct battles and observe the surrounding areas. It was constructed in 1624 during King Injo’s reign along with the main fortresses. It is the only command post that survived among the 5 posts of Namhansanseong. It has a two-story structure, a rarity among traditional buildings of Korea.
The first floor of the West Command Post
Originally, this commander’s post was a one-story building called Sejangdae (the commander’s post in the west). In 1636 (14th year under King Injo’s reign), King Injo for himself directed his military during the war which lasted 47 days, fighting against some 130,000-strong enemy forces of Manchu Qing Empire. This building in particular used a tall foundation stone to prevent wooden pillars from being in direct contact with rainwater and rotting.
The second floor of the West Command Post and Signboard
In 1751, the commander’s post was enlarged to a two-story building upon the King’s order. And in 1836, the building underwent reconstruction and renamed as what it is. We call a wide signboard bearing a name or some information of the building hung under the roof “Hyeonpan” or “Pyeonaek ,” and it is a common feature found in Korea’s traditional wooden building.
Simply put, it serves as a name plate of the building. Usually, the writing on the signboard should read from right to left. The sign reads ‘Sueojangdae (守禦將臺)’, which refers to the 2-story pavilion used as a lookout for commanders to lead the battle.
West Command Post’s roof ornaments (“Yongdu”)
The roof of traditional wooden buildings is piled up with roof tiles made of burned soil. These roof tiles protects the wooden structure from rainwater. West Command Post has two extraordinary pairs of roof ornaments. The final decorative tile pieces at both ends of the roof are called dragon head (Yongdu).
They look like dragons’ intimidating-looking heads. In the oriental culture, dragons are worshiped as the most sacred creature, and the god governing wind and rain. So these imaginary animals were used as a symbol to drive away evil spirits and to protect wooden buildings vulnerable to fire. Dragon heads are usually found in the buildings managed by the state.
A Sad story associated with a rock (named the hawk rock)
There is a huge rock on the right side of the commander’s post. Here’s a sad story about it. It goes back to the times when the Namhansanseong fortress was built. During the fortress construction, different sections were under the supervision of different officials. The Southeast side was assigned to General Yi Hoe while the Northwest side was under control of Monk Byeokam.
As time went by, the progress in construction on the Southeast side was slow due to lack of funding and resources. General Yi Hoe in charge of the area came to be falsely charged for this situation with an allegation of misappropriation of the construction money and in the end got executed. At the time of execution, he was quoted as saying “If I am innocent, a strange thing will happen after I’m gone.”
Upon his execution, where his head was fallen off, a hawk turned up crying sadly and hovering over his body several rounds before sitting on the near rock and flying away. The spot is said to have its claw prints. After a long time, while the Northwestern part of the fortress easily collapsed, the Southeastern part was strong enough to stand. People built a shrine to soothe the poor general’s wrongful death. Now people say that when you make a wish touching the rock, the wish will come true.
In the Namhansanseong fortress, there are five jar shaped walls or outworks called Ongseong, 3 in the southern part, 1 in the eastern part and the western part respectively. Usually Ongseong was additionally installed at places vulnerable to attacks where in times of war, soldiers were dispatched to stand guard and fire cannons.
Yeonjubong Ongseong located in the west was installed in the western part of the fortress in 1624 when the construction of the main fortress walls was in progress. When you pass through the small hidden gate, comes out a narrow path with a length of some 315m and a width of 2.5m that leads to barbettes. At both sides of the path are piled up with parapets.
Emplacements of Yeonjubong Ongseong
On top of Ongseong is installed a round-shaped barbette to platform to mount cannons and square-shaped embrasures. On the barbettes is a highly staged floor to conduct reconnaissance where even presently one can take a view of Seoul and the overall Namhansanseong fortress. The reconnaissance post is surrounded with parapets in which embrasures are installed.
The fortress walls have hidden gates (called “Ammun” in Korean). There are 16 hidden gates in Namhansanseong, and they are placed on secret locations that are difficult to find. When the city was besieged by the enemies during a war, those gates were used to secretly ask for help or deliver food.
Arch-Type Hidden Gate
There are two types of hidden gates in Namhansanseong depending on the period when they were constructed: Arch-type gate, which is in an arched shape like a rainbow; and Flat-type lintel gate, which is in a rectangular shape. This hidden gate is the arch-type. It is half the size of the fortress gate, with the height of 1.5m and width of 2.5m. The arch follows the gate style of early 17th Century.
Looking at the fortress body where Ongseong is built, we can see that some parts protrude from the main fortress wall and have bastions at the end. This is called a turret (or “Chi” in Korean).
They were used to observe the enemies early on and attack the approaching invaders from three directions, not only from the front but also from the both sides. There are 5 turrets in Namhansanseong.
Namhansanseong Emergency Palace
Emergency Palace was for the king to stay temporarily while travelling outside of the main palace (Gyeongbokgung in Hanseong). It is largely divided into 3 sections: the king’s office quarters; the king’s living quarters; and the servants’ area.
Emergency Palace is smaller than the palace in Hanseong (Seoul), but it followed the principles of royal palace layout. This is Royal Administration Hall (called “Oehaengjeon” in Korean), where the king conducted his business.
Juryeon on Royal Administration Hall
What are the writings hanging on the building of Royal Administration Hall? They are called “Juryeon,” which refers to writings related to the building or good verses attached to each pillar to add value to the building.
A common theme of Juryeon is “Good days have come and I stay at the palace. It is truly a peaceful moment when everyone is singing and dancing. Such peaceful atmosphere makes me think that spring has arrived.”
Exhibition Hall - Building Sites of the Unified Silla Period
The building sites of the Joseon Dynasty’s palace were excavated and researched by scientists, and some traces of buildings of the Unified Silla period were discovered. The scientists found large roof tiles that are estimated to be those of the Unified Silla and building sites of a storage.
This supports the historical records that say Namhansanseong used the old site of the Unified Silla’s palace (672) as its foundation. In this exhibition hall, you can see pictures that show some of the building sites and how the excavation was done.
Naehaengjeon is a King’s bedroom. This place is where the King would sleep during his royal visit to Namhansanseong, and it has two rooms and one main hall in the center of the building. Now the building is open to the public with the inside recreated to look just like the times of Joseon dynasty.
A total of 6 Kings made a royal visit to the Namhansanseong fortress. A King would drop by on his way to royal tombs around. Being a king’s residence, this place is very highly regarded among Korea’s traditional wooden buildings.
Japsang, Clay figures
Japsang refers to clay figures (dolls or roofing ornaments) positioned at both ends of the roof (the eaves). The name Japsang came from characters of the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West” including Xuanzang, Monkey King, Monk Pig, Friar Sand, and White Dragon Horse.
Japsang figures are also found in Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. The number of Japsang figures for a building is determined by the length of the eaves and the hierarchy of the building. The characters of the Chinese story were believed to drive away evil spirits.
Dancheong, traditional multicolored paintwork on buildings
Korea’s traditional buildings were mostly made of wood. By nature, wooden buildings are very vulnerable to sunlight, rain, heat/cold and pests. So Dancheong had quite practical purposes of ensuring durability of the buildings and expressing the class of the building’s residents.
Buildings allowed to have Dancheong were limited to royal palaces, shrines and temples. In other words, Dancheong was for preventing rot from rain and wind, protecting the building from pests and decorating the building. It literally means "cinnabar and blue-green" in Korean. Once a building was built, colors from red to green, white and blue were decorated along patterns.
Dancheong had a variety of simplified symbols painted to complete its beauty. Popular colors for Dancheong were blue, yellow, red, white, black and green and widely-used patterns include clouds, flowers, the sun, the moon, stars, mountains, water and other natural objects and persons.
The Main Hall (Irworobongdo)
The painting in the center of the Main Hall is called Irworobongdo, Sun, Moon and five peaks folding screen. This kind of painting is highly portable as a folding screen, and so it always stands behind the king’s throne to symbolize the King’s absolute authority. The sun represents the King, the moon for the Queen and five peaks for the world. This is a decorative painting hoping for a reign of peace and prosperity for the royal family.
Jwajeon, royal Ancestral Shrine and Rear Garden
Namhansanseong Haenggung was built as a shelter in case of emergency like war. To function as a shelter and temporary capital, the emergency palace has special spaces called Jwajeon and Usil that served as Seoul’s Jongmyo and Sajik for memorial service. Jongmyo is a shrine for memorial service to the royal ancestors while Sajik is an altar for memorial service to the land and grain gods.
Jwajeon is a place where royal ancestors were enshrined just like Jongmyo of Seoul. In case of war, Sinwi (symbols used for memorial service) are relocated from Jongmyo to this place. The buildings of Jwajeon are divided to Jeongjeon (right in the picture) and Yeongryeongjeon (left in the picture).
Located in the rear garden of Haenggung, Iwijeong Pavilion is the place for archery, training body and mind and taking a rest. Inside Iwijeong is hung a work containing info related to the structure. Content for this work was made by Shin Sang-gyu, the then high official of Gwangju region and Kim Jeong-hui (penname Chusa) wrote the calligraphy.
Kim was a renowned calligrapher of Joseon whose works are beloved by contemporary Koreans. The plaque of the work is a valuable piece of art that allows a glimpse of the style of his early efforts.
Rear Garden of Haenggung
There is a large garden behind Haenggung. Today, in this garden, various cultural heritage learning programs and events are held to commemorate the meaning of Iwijeong Pavilion. Children and adults alike can have a rare opportunity to learn archery and even can compete in teams.