UNESCO World Heritage Series: Part 9 - Namhansanseong

By Matthew Fennell

For the 25 million residents of the Seoul Capital Area, Namhansanseong mountain fortress has long provided an escape from the hustle and bustle of living in the city. While many people visit the area for its hiking trails and scenic views, less is known about Namhanhanseong’s historical and cultural value. Asia Society Korea visited the fortress for this month’s episode of our UNESCO World Heritage Series.

Namhansanseong, a mountainous site 25 km south-east of Seoul, was first constructed in 672 as a military installation during Silla Dynasty’s war with the neighboring Tang Dynasty. Sitting at almost 500 meters above sea level, the fortress became the most strategic of all mountain fortresses in Korea, built to incorporate the natural defenses of the terrain. Over time, the structure underwent numerous expansions, drawing on Chinese and Japanese influences, embodying the latest in engineering knowledge and know-how of the time. In the 13th century, Namhansanseong was used by the Goryeo Dynasty as a stronghold against the Mongol Invasion. 

It was in the 17th century when the fortress evolved greatly in its size and purpose, mainly in anticipation of an attack from the Sino-Manchu Qing Dynasty. Consequently, Namhansanseong became a super-sized mountain fortress, accommodating 4,000 people and fulfilling important administrative and military functions. It also served as an emergency capital for the King of Joseon and his citizens during times of crisis. The idea was to build a city that could provide shelter but was also equipped with features that would enable people to fight off any approaching enemy.

As it was common for traditional villages of the time to be located adjacent to, rather than inside, military fortresses, Namhansanseong was unique in that both the ruling class and common people could take shelter during a war. Along with the Emergency Palace, the walled city contained homes, businesses, as well as religious buildings and has since become a symbol of sovereignty in Korea.

In 1907, the fortress experienced demolition; temples were forced into closure under the Japanese occupation and the town was eventually downgraded to a remote mountain village. Further damage was inflicted on the population and buildings during the Korean War, and it took a large-scale restoration program to bring the fortress back to its former glory. The area is now designated as a provincial park, and Namhansanseong was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2014.