“Seoul City Wall” is a name unfamiliar to many Seoul citizens, but it is a cultural heritage that has long protected the city of Seoul and served as a resting place and refuge for citizens.
Many major historical cities around the world contain some symbolic structures that represent them, but city walls are rarely counted among them. In cities with long legacies, such as Paris or London, traces of their city walls still remain here and there, but few cities have preserved their city walls as well as Seoul has. Many of the sites of old city walls in European countries and in China have been overdeveloped, with roads encircling them or parks built nearby.
Unlike such cities, Seoul City Wall has retained its integrity to this day. While most foreign city walls were built on plains, Seoul City Wall was built along the ridges of the four mountains surrounding Seoul—Baekaksan Mountain, Naksan Mountain, Namsan Mountain, and Inwangsan Mountain. As a result, the original form of the wall has been preserved, even during Seoul’s rapid development into the modern city it is today.
This was possible thanks to the tradition that has been passed down since the founding of Goguryeo, when cities were always built near mountains. For over 6,000 years, Seoul has served as the capital of Korea, and continues to play the same role today. Seoul might be the only city in the world that has served its country in this capacity for so long. Therefore, it is only natural that even foreigners who see Seoul City Wall for the first time feel a sense of wonder.
Seoul City Wall wasn’t built in preparation for war. In early Joseon, the wall was built to express the pride of the nation and maintain public order within the city. Also, it might sound strange to Europeans, who fought battles inside and outside of their cities for ages, but the kings of Joseon believed that the nation would come to an end if any enemy were to reach Seoul. They were convinced that it was useless to fight against an enemy inside the city. Therefore, rather than daunting defensive structures, Seoul City Wall was built with ornate gatehouses around the city intended to symbolize the king’s authority.
Bells installed in the four main gates (Sadaemun) of the city, as well as the four small gates (Sasomun), were rung to signal the beginning of curfew, and the doors of the gates were opened and closed according to the ringing of the bells. Therefore, the rhythm of the everyday lives of citizens in the city followed the pace set by the bells.
Having been a national symbol throughout the 600-year history of the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul City Wall was gradually forgotten during the Japanese colonial period and the harsh difficulties of Seoul’s modern history. The parts of the city wall around the gates were destroyed, leaving only the doors standing, and access to the four mountains had been banned for a long time for reasons of national security.
When Namsan Mountain, Inwangsan Mountain, and Baekaksan Mountain were finally reopened to the public in 1994, 1996, and 2006, respectively, Seoul citizens were once again able to walk along Seoul City Wall, learn about Seoul’s history, and take in the beautiful view of the city. On top of Baekaksan Mountain, the highest mountain of Seoul, you can look back into the 600 years of Seoul’s past with a view that includes the palaces of Seoul and Yukjo Street, the main street of old Seoul.
As Baekaksan Mountain is an area crucial to the security of Seoul and the country, Korean soldiers are stationed here to protect facilities of national importance. Therefore, it is a place where people keenly feel the tension caused by the division of North and South Korea. In Ihwa Village, once known as a “mural village,” on Naksan Mountain, small museums and workshops have begun to open up one by one, catching the attention of passersby.
When you climb up Namsan Mountain, following Jangchungdong-gil, you will witness the remarkable harmony that has been achieved between the natural surroundings and the old city wall, built over 600 years ago during the reign of Taejo, the first king of Joseon. As it offers a view of the Hangang River, Gangnam, and the historic center of the city spread out below your feet, the city wall path on Namsan Mountain is a place that everyone should visit to gain a better understanding of Seoul. After walking back down from Namsan Mountain, Sungnyemun Gate will stand dignified before you, having been restored to its original state after a tragic fire.
Carrying on through the center of the city and then climbing up Inwangsan Mountain, you can enjoy the charm of the rocky mountain as well as the view of present-day Seochon (called “Utdae” in the Joseon Dynasty), Gyeongbokgung Palace, and Bukchon, all of which are steeped in the historical atmosphere of the city.
Seoul City Wall is more than just a city wall. Walking up the wall provides you an opportunity to physically feel and learn about the geographical features of Seoul, the history of the founding of Seoul, and the history of Seoul as engraved in the numerous stones around the city. A variety of tour programs offered at Jongno-gu and Jung-gu are a great help to visitors who want to gain a more in-depth understanding of Seoul.
Seoul City Wall is, in essence, a historical tour of Seoul that is open to everyone at any time. During the Joseon Dynasty, Seoul residents walked on the city wall all around the city to get predictions about their fortunes for the year and make wishes. Now, just as then, Koreans are full of passionate hope and dreams. While you take your walk around Seoul City Wall, some of the energy that flows through Seoul, and changes with the seasons, will be imparted to you, allowing you to enjoy the marvelous scenery with your entire body and soul.