Historical Gyeongju was once the capital of Silla, ancient Korean kingdom that lasted from 57BC to 935AD. As such, it contains many of Silla’s most important cultural heritages, which have been officially recognized and divided into 5 distinct areas by UNESCO. These are Namsan, an area famous for its Buddhist art, Wolseong, containing the palaces of Silla, Daeneongwon, where can be found the burial tombs of Silla’s rulers, Hwangnyongsa, a major Buddhist site, and Sanseong, home to the palace security forces during the Silla Dynasty.
Among Gyeongju’s historic areas, it is Myeonghwalsanseong of the Sanseong (Fortress) Belt that is the least known, as it is seldom mentioned in Korean history books and has not been developed into a tourist destination. Myeonghwalsanseong is therefore frequently overlooked when compared with other belts that receive frequent visitors.
A fortress is a big wall piled high with dirt or stone that has been built in order to prepare for an invasion from a foreign enemy. However, there is more to it than simply providing defense from the outside. It also serves to administer and regulate neighboring communities as well as protect lives and livelihoods. Because of the prominence of mountains in Korea, many mountain fortresses were built incorporating the country’s particular topography.
Taking a look at Silla’s geopolitical location, one can see that the kingdom was landlocked by Goguryeo and Baekje, and was close to Tsushima Island on the sea, the latter being a den for Japanese pirates. The Silla kings built mountain fortresses all over the kingdom in order to defend it against unforeseen invasions from Goguryeo and Baekje, as well as from the pirates who were always on alert for the right opportunity to strike. Six were built to protect Gyeongju, the capital. The Myeonghwalsanseong Fortress was constructed at the eastern gate of Gyeongju, and along with Namsanseong, Seondosanseong, Bukhyeongsanseong, and Busanseong, had the responsibility of defending the city.
Myeonghwalsanseong is a pogokhyeong, a type of fortress constructed up around valleys and mountains, and which encircles the Myeonghwalsan Mountain valley. Although it remains unknown when or for whom the fortress was built, the earthen ramparts measure 5km, and the stone walls measure 4.5km, making it considerably long. The Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) records that Japanese invaders were defeated at Myeonghwalseong Fortress in 405 AD, or in the fourth year of King Silseong (? - 417 AD), the 18th king of Silla. It can therefore be presumed that the fortress was constructed before then. Today, the fortress is undergoing restoration, with and a little more than 50m of having been completed at the time of writing.
Myeonghwalsanseong is part earth and part stone, so it was probably built first with earth then later added to with stone. Since the stones are undressed, the fortress is believed to have been built during the early Silla period. Only stones have been used along the walls’ exterior, giving rise to a steep slope, while both earth and stone were packed together to create a flat interior. Constructing walls this way is known as naetagbeop. Fortresses with naetagbeop-style walls were effective at defending the castle from enemies. When both the inner and outer walls have been constructed vertically, this is known as hyeobchugbeop.
Through historical records, we know that Myeonghwalsanseong’s strategic location played a key role in Gyeongju’s defense. According to the Samguk Sagi, there is a reference to "Myeonghwaljeon,” an administrative office in charge of the fortress. The fact that this office existed separately to take care of its administrative duties is an important clue as to the critical role that Myeonghwalsanseong must have had.
There have also been many important historical incidents connected with the fortress. In the year 431 AD, or the 15th year of the reign of King Nulji (? - 458 AD), Silla’s 19th monarch, there was a siege by Japanese invaders in an attempt to occupy the fortress. In 473 AD, the 16th year of King Jabi, the 20th ruler of Silla, the fortress underwent repairs to strengthen the defense of the capital as a result of an invasion from Japanese invaders from the East Sea who went as far as Gyeongju and laid siege to Wolseong. From 475 AD until 488 AD, the 10th year of King Soji, the 21st ruler of Silla, the king himself went to Myeonghwalsanseong in order to reside there. This period marked the high point of Goguryeo during the Three Kingdoms period. Hanseong (present-day Seoul), Baekje’s capital, was moved to Ungjin (present day Gongju) when King Gaero died at Acha Mountain Fortress during King Gwanggaeto’s territorial expansion of Goguryeo. Silla too, could not escape Goguryeo’s widening sphere of influence, and it received continual threats from Jungnyeong and the East Sea. When seen through this context, it may be understandable why King Jabi decided to go to Myeonghwalsanseong, seeing it as necessary in order to prepare for Goguryeo’s southward advance.
In August 1988, an extraordinary event occurred at Myeonghwalsanseong: a grape grower in the area noticed a stele that had become exposed due to rainwater on a section of the fortress walls. 66.5cm tall and 16.5cm thick, the clearly marked inscription left no empty space on the rectangular stone. It was confirmed that the stone had been inscribed during the period of the fortress’s construction. There is a total of nine lines and 148 characters on the inscription.
The fortress was constructed in the eleventh month of the year Sinmi. Yipiyiri from Bonpabu was the Sangin Nadu (Chief of Construction) and was of the rank gilji. Gujiji from Odaegok was the Gunjung Sangin (Vice Chief of Construction) and was of the rank haganji. Bijihue, Jangin of pail rank, and Chuhae, Gongin of rank haganji, were responsible for 4 bo, 5 cheok, and 3 chon (measure of length) of the fortress. ■ Jilhae, of ilbeol rank, was responsible for 4 bo, 5 cheok and 1 chon. ■ Ri of the rank pail took responsibility for 4 bo, 5 cheok and 1 chon. Together, it was 10 bo tall and 14 bo, 3 cheok, and 3 chon long. This record was written on a dressed stone after having left from Gotamun and returning from the southwest. There were many people who came and construction began on November 15 and ended on December 20 for a total of 35 days. The transcriber is Ahcheok of Wonheunri.
The year of Sinmi could be 555 AD, or the 12th year of the rule of King Jinheung (534 - 576), or it may be 611 AD, the 33rd year of the reign of King Jinpyeong (? - 632). However, the general view is that the memorial was constructed during the rule of King Jinheung due to the names of the mobilized workers that are cited, as well as the mention of “nadusangin,” which makes the memorial similar in style to the Namsan Sinseongbi. This is a monument dedicated to the people who had participated in the construction of Gyeongju’s sacred site on Namsan Mountain, and lists their names, birthplaces, and relations.
The monument mentions the following details in this order: the beginning mentions when the inscription was made, following the Chinese sexagenary cycle; the name of the project chief; the names of those responsible for the construction and the distance that each was in charge of; the locations of which they were in charge; the total number of people who were involved in the project; length of time for the overall construction; and the name of the scribe. The monument clearly records who was responsible for what, and commemorates those who partook in the construction.
As a result of the inscription on the monument which includes information on public posts and their titles during the period of King Jinheung, it is possible to understand that mobilized labor was organized from one large group into a three-pronged structure assigning various roles.
Mountain fortresses can be either temoe or pogok depending on the geographic conditions and topography of the location. A temoe fortress puts the peak of the mountain at the center and envelops it like a headband. The scale of temoe fortresses are generally small. A pogok fortress meanwhile is constructed of walls that follow the geography of mountains and hills and includes wide valleys inside its boundaries. In general, the length of the fortresses measures 2,000m inside and out, however there are numerous fortresses measuring more than 6,000 meters.