A realm built on a blacksmith's forge

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A realm built on a blacksmith's forge

Iron changed civilization 3,000 years ago. And it still is changing the world today. Look around you, in downtown Seoul, and you will see iron and glass.

Iron is the strongest substance readily available to man. It is easy to work and can be readily twisted, hammered and rolled into shape. Iron tools are cheaper than bronze, and they are stronger, too. Weapons made from iron can pierce bronze armor. Weapons made from bronze cannot pierce iron armor.

That is why the civilizations and cultures we know today are essentially the ones that first discovered iron. In the West, iron-clad Dorians founded classical Greece; the Italics took Italy and founded Rome.

In Korea, early foundries forged three great ancient kingdoms: the Goguryeo, supreme on land; the Baekje, victorious at sea; and the Silla, which conquered through diplomacy.

Ironically, we have little iron to show from this period. The three kingdoms were also built on intensive rice cultivation. Rice requires low, swampy ground and this determined where the people lived. Iron rusts; most of the glory of the Three Kingdoms is now but a red runoff.

Nonetheless, there can be little doubt of their mastery. Witness the gold, impervious to corrosion, that survived; observe the intricacy and delicacy of the Baekje and the Silla funeral crowns.

Iron is important to both Eastern and Western legends. Western civilizations had a blacksmith god: the Greek Hephaestos, the Roman Vulcan. Ironworkers were feared by the ancient Hebrews as descendants of Cain.

The magical importance of iron persists in the West in the tradition of hanging a horseshoe, that is, a bit of curved iron, over a door for good luck. Iron is protection against witches. In Russia, people once swore their contracts upon anvils.

So it was in Korea. In Silla a wanderer appeared one day, a man named Sok. He claimed his ancestral home was on Half Moon Hill. His only evidence was the claim that his grandfather was a blacksmith and that he had a forge there. Excavation revealed iron and charcoal under the house's doorstep.

Mysteriously, his ancestry gave him a claim to the throne; such was the prestige of a blacksmith. He became King Talhae, founder of the Sok dynasty. And his home, the foundry on Half Moon Hill, became and remained the Silla royal palace. The kingdom of Silla, according to legend, was built on a blacksmith's forge.

The blacksmith was the high-tech wizard of his day. He had the prestige that today we give rocket scientists and Teheran Street entrepreneurs. Yet he was no sedentary nerd.

He also needed, and developed, great physical strength. Talhae was said to be three meters tall, with bones like fine jade. Iron was the strongest, hardest substance known, and yet he could bend and twist it as he pleased. Here art, or science, conquered nature.

Sok retired, or perhaps was buried, in the eastern mountains, where he lived as a god in a domed cave. He eventually returned to his source, an iron mine; presumably the origin of the Silla's iron supply.

We have fewer legends of the Baekje, for the Silla conquered them, and history is written by the victors. The original Baekje capital was apparently in Gangnam, south of the Han River in Seoul, and one of the sites where the Iron Age was born.

It remained, throughout the Three Kingdoms period, a great prize, the scrap of land most contested in the peninsula. And with good reason. The Han River led into the country's interior and its upper reaches held rich deposits of iron ore. For this reason, Seoul is in every sense built of iron.

What is left of the Baekje capital is visible today as Mongchontoseong, a partly man-made earthen mound surrounding the site of the 1988 Olympics.

Take the pink line No 8 to Mongchontoseong station for a visit.

Stephen Roney is at University College of the Cariboo, Canada. Visit his Web site at www.seoulmysterytours.com.

by Stephen K. Roney

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