From its fi rst capital Wiryeseong, later known as Hanseong, Baekje twice relocated the capital
southward. During the Hanseong period (18 B.c.–A.D. 475), before the capital was moved to
ungjin (present-day Gongju), the Baekje people built fortresses to protect their capital along the
hills of the Han River basin. they formed settlements in the adjacent areas and produced crops.
today, the Gangdong and Songpa districts in southeastern Seoul harbor their remains amid rows
of ultramodern buildings and high-rise apartment complexes.
Tomb No. 3 in the Baekje tomb complex in Seokchon-dong,
southeastern Seoul, is believed to be the burial place of King
Geunchogo, who significantly expanded Baekje’s territory and
power. Similar in style to Goguryeo tombs, it indicates the close
ties between the ruling elite of the two ancient kingdoms.
Out of South Korea’s total population of approximately 50 million, around 20 million live in the
nation’s capital, Seoul, and the surrounding metropolitan area. Seoul is a city with a rich history,
the cradle of diverse cultures spread over some 2,000 years from the Baekje period to the 21st
century. Regrettably, the city has not been able to fully express the depth and breadth of its heritage.
Much of the country’s cultural heritage was destroyed during the Khitan and Mongol invasions of
Goryeo (918–1392), and the Japanese and Qing invasions of Joseon (1392–1910). In the 20th century, the
country was ravaged yet again during Japan’s colonial occupation and the Korean War. A significant portion
of the cultural remains that did manage to survive these upheavals were lost later when industrial
and economic development swept the country.
One may say that the remnants of Seoul’s historical and cultural heritage exist as “dots.” Only when
the dots are connected and become lines, the lines become planes, and the planes are reconstructed
into three-dimensional structures, will we be able to fully appreciate the city’s historical and cultural
A State Founded in the Han River Basin
In the East Asian tradition, the life of all living beings is perceived in terms of organic relationships
between heaven, earth, and humans. The land on which people live is largely made up of mountains
and rivers, which are forever interconnected, sharing both mutually inverse and beneficial relationships.
Water that arises from where two mountain ranges meet flows along the valleys and gorges surrounded
by the mountains; from remote ancient times, people settled near these water sources.
During the Three Kingdoms period from the first century B.C. to the seventh century, when Baekje,
Silla, and Goguryeo competed and cooperated with one another as circumstances demanded, they frequently
waged wars to seize the Han River basin at the heart of the Korean peninsula.
Wooden palisades are restored along the northern edge of
the Mongchon Earthen Fortress.
Prior to these
territorial contests, Baekje was the first to occupy the region. There are various views as to the founding
of Baekje, but it is generally believed to have been founded by the brothers Onjo and Biryu, who
left the kingdom of Buyeo in today’s northeastern China and came south
with a small group of vassals. They were the sons of King Dongmyeong, or
Jumong, founder of Goguryeo; the younger brother, Onjo, settled in the Han
River basin, while his older brother, Biryu, settled in Michuhol (presentday
Incheon). Onjo initially named his country Sipje after the ten (sip) vassals
who had followed him. When his brother died, Onjo welcomed Biryu’s
people into his land and renamed his country Baekje, manifesting his now
much larger contingent of vassals, baek meaning one hundred.
Advancing further south, they took 40 kilometers of land ceded by Mokji,
leader of the 54 states comprising the Mahan confederacy that ruled the
area of today’s Gyeonggi, Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces. Eventually,
they annexed Mokji, becoming the leading power in the confederacy and
consolidating the foundations for Baekje. In its early years, Baekje was
divided into five administrative regions; the king only ruled directly over the
capital while the other areas were governed indirectly through local administrative
heads. But it soon established its ruling system as an ancient kingdom
and built fortifications to strengthen its defenses and accommodate
the increasing population.
Thus were built two earthen fortresses, Pungnap and Mongchon, the
former on flat land with residents living inside its walls and the latter on an
adjacent hilly area to be used in times of emergency. The Pungnap Earthen
Fortress was located north of the royal palace, hence called the northern
fortress, while the Mongchon Earthen Fortress was situated south, hence
the southern fortress. This dual fortress system is mirrored in Goguryeo’s
1 Gungnae Fortress and Hwando Mountain Fortress in northeastern China.
The moat surrounding the Mongchon Earthen Fortress has
been turned into a pond.
The royal palace is believed to have been located inside the fortress walls. According to the “History of
the Three Kingdoms” (Samguk sagi), the palace had many buildings that were “modest but not shabby,
magnificent but not extravagant.”
History Gleaned from the Ruins
The Pungnap Earthen Fortress was built on flat land along the Han River. The fortress walls measure
3,470 meters in circumference, 6–13.3 meters in height, and 30–70 meters in width, and were surrounded
by a moat to deter enemy intrusions. The fortress is of a long oval shape stretching north and south;
the east wall stretches over approximately 1,500 meters, the south wall 200 meters, and the north wall
300 meters. The west wall was destroyed by heavy floods in 1925, but has since been restored. The walls
are disconnected in four places, where the city gates are assumed to have been situated.
The cross section of a replica of
the wall of the Pungnap Earthen
Fortress is on display in the lobby
of the Seoul Baekje Museum. It
shows the layers of earth piled up
to build the fortification.
The royal palace is believed to have been located inside the fortress walls. According to the “History
of the Three Kingdoms” (Samguk sagi), the palace had many buildings that were “modest but not shabby,
magnificent but not extravagant.”
Excavations have revealed a three-tier ditch around the village facilities and fortress walls, with various
artifacts found relatively intact. The ruins of roads and water holes indicate that the palace had
many state facilities within its walls.
The Mongchon Earthen Fortress, located some 700 meters southeast of the Pungnap Earthen Fortress,
has a unique structure with outer and inner walls built on hilly land descending from a high
mountain. The walls were made by piling up mud, and steep slopes were cut when necessary.
Wooden palisades were erected along the northern edge of the fortress, with a moat outside providing
additional protection, which has now been turned into a pond. The fortress walls total 2,285 meters
in length when measured from the highest point, and overall, the height is around 30 meters. The northeastern
section of the outer wall was built in a straight line measuring approximately 270 meters.
Traces of wooden palisades on the northern slope and the highest point of the outer wall, a steeper
incline created on the east side, and a moat surrounding the outer wall all suggest that the fortress
served as a base to guard against invasions from the north.
Fortress for a Dual Purpose
Vestiges of a storage pit and military facilities, such as
a stamped dirt mound where a watchtower presumably
stood, support the assumption that the fortress functioned
as a bastion against enemy attacks and a shelter for people
evacuated in times of emergency.
Recent excavations and surveys brought to light an
18.6-meter-wide, two-lane road. It is the largest among
the roads dating from the Baekje period and the oldest
two-lane road discovered in the country to date. Passing
through the north gate of the Mongchon Earthen Fortress,
it was presumably the main road connecting the two fortresses.
After Baekje relocated its capital southward and
this area became Goguryeo territory, the road was repaired
and extended three times. Paved with a mixture of stones,
weathered soil, and clay, the road is so hard that no wagon
wheel impressions are found on it.
Among other important artifacts discovered here are
fragments of a Baekje pottery jar with a short neck and
straight mouth, inscribed with the Chinese character 官
(gwan), meaning a government office. This is the first piece
of earthenware with such an inscription unearthed from the
ruins of the Baekje period, which reaffirms that this fortress
was not just a defensive structure but a fortified city.
Tombs of the Baekje ruling class are scattered around
the present-day Seokchon-dong, Garak-dong, and Bangi-dong areas,
south of the two fortresses.
The Seoul Baekje Museum,
located inside the Seoul Olympic
Park, offers diverse exhibitions
highlighting the prehistoric era before
the founders of Baekje settled
in the Han River basin, as well
as their two neighbors Goguryeo
and Silla, who later occupied the
TIME TRAVEL TO BAEKJE ON FOOT
Surrounding Lotte World, a major recreation and shopping complex
in Jamsil, southeastern Seoul, is Seokchon Lake. It was originally
part of the Han River, but was turned into a lake when the
direction of the river’s flow was altered in the 1970s for protection
against floods. It is divided into the east and west lake, and standing
on the slope of the west lake is the Samjeondo Monument marking
the surrender of Joseon to Qing after the second Manchu invasion
(1636–1637). Starting from here, walk halfway around the west
lake, then down the road running through the densely populated
residential area in the south until you reach the ancient tombs
of Baekje in Bangi-dong. After looking around the stone mound
tombs and other tombs dating back to the Hanseong period (18
B.C.–A.D. 475) of Baekje, head to the Seoul Olympic Park.
The Seoul Olympic Park, built on land that was originally the site
of the Mongchon Earthen Fortress, contains the main indoor stadiums
that were built for the 1988 Summer Olympics. In the front
garden of the Seoul Baekje Museum, also located inside the park,
you can appreciate sculptures by world famous artists. Next, you
can enjoy a leisurely walk along the gentle slopes of the ancient
ramparts and then perhaps make a stop at the Mongchon Museum
of History, a fun place to learn about the history of the Baekje Kingdom.
If you exit the park through North Gate 1, walk past the Gangdong
District Office, and cross the main road, you will find Youngpa
Girls’ High School. Walk along the school wall toward the residential
area, and the gentle curves of another fortification, the imposing
Pungnap Earthen Fortress, will come into view.
This walking tour of the historic sites of Baekje from the first
five centuries of its rule will take a good full day. It can be strenuous
but walking is the best way to truly appreciate this area, where the
modern and ancient intersect.
The third volume of “Illustrated Records of
Historic Sites in Korea” (Joseon gojeok dobo), published in 1916 during
the Japanese colonial era, says that 66 stone mound tombs and 23
earthen mound tombs existed in the area. Currently, only seven large
stone mound tombs as well as 30 or so wooden and pottery coffin
tombs remain. The fact that stone mound tombs, which are associated
with Goguryeo, have been found in this area indicates that the founders
of Baekje had close ties to their northern neighbors. Small wooden coffin
tombs belonging to commoners or officials from different historical
periods have also been found in the area.
Between the third and fifth centuries, tombs belonging to people of
various ranks were constructed in today’s Seokchon-dong area, forming
a tomb complex. Tomb No. 3, the largest among them, is a pyramidshaped
stone mound tomb 4.5 meters high, the longest side measuring
45.5 meters, and the shortest 43.7 meters. Currently, only three stone
tiers remain of the tomb, which is presumed to have been built between
the mid-third and fourth centuries. King Geunchogo (r. 346–375), the
13th ruler of Baekje who significantly expanded its territory and power,
is believed to be buried here.
After the capital was relocated to present-day Gongju in 475, the
tombs of the ruling class changed in style from square stone mounds to
stone burial chambers covered with earthen mounds. The tomb of King
Muryeong (r. 501–523), discovered in 1971, was the first stone chamber
tomb with a horizontal entranceway, which became the prevalent type of
royal tomb in all three kingdoms from around this time.
The Mongchon Earthen Fortress, excavated and surveyed six times in the
1980s, is now parkland for the citizens of Seoul.
Searching for the Remaining Puzzle Pieces
With development of the Jamsil district in the 1970s, the “time capsule”
of Baekje, as this area is known, changed rapidly amid conflict
between urban development and heritage preservation. In the 1980s, it
was chosen as the site of the Seoul Olympic Stadium, and various sports
arenas and facilities were built throughout the area. Thus the 1988
Summer Olympics were held where the ancient capital of Baekje once
stood, bearing witness to history and culture spanning 2,000 years.
The city that was constructed over five centuries with the wisdom
and labor of the Baekje people has disappeared; in its place are rows
of high-rise apartment buildings that are among the most expensive in
Seoul. The urban development and renewal projects, such as the construction
of apartment complexes, roads, and Olympic venues, did yield
some positive results in that they led to the unexpected discovery of
ancient relics buried underground. Efforts are ongoing to restore the
ancient city and the lives of its residents, connecting the dots into lines,
and lines into planes, and planes into three-dimensional structures.