SPECIAL FEATURE

Baekje:
In Search of Traces of the Lost Kingdom
SPECIAL FEATURE 2 Piecing Together the Remnants of an Ancient Kingdom

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 value.

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 region.

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.

Choi Yeon Geographer; Principal of the Seoul School, Center for Humanities Studies
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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