After my morning visit to City Hall and Deoksugung, I headed south towards one of the Korean capital’s ancient gates – a prominent relic of the long centuries that Seoul spent nestled behind the protection of its formidable walls.
Much of that defensive curtain is long gone, at least in the downtown area, with some of the best-preserved stretches located in the hills outside the city’s densely developed core. (One might surmise that their relative isolation was probably the main reason why those surviving remnants were spared from demolition in the first place.) Despite the loss of some of the walls themselves, six of the eight monumental gates that once pierced those barriers still stand, one of which was important enough to be the very first cultural asset designated as a National Treasure of Korea.
As I walked towards that landmark, I passed many gleaming examples of the modern structures that have taken over much of Seoul’s historic centre. Some of them, for all I knew, might have been built on top of the void left behind by the long-vanished city walls.
In due course, I arrived at a small clearing surrounded by busy streets and towering buildings. It seemed like a small island detached from the rest of Seoul, an oasis of calm hemmed in by roaring rivers of asphalt and automobiles, isolated not merely in space but also in time.
This urban island was dominated by the mighty portal of stone, iron, and wood known as Sungnyemun, also called (perhaps more widely so) by its unofficial name Namdaemun. Begun in the late 14th century and rebuilt or renovated several times over the course of its long history, the gate survived more or less intact – eventually becoming the oldest wooden structure still standing in Seoul – until a catastrophic arson attack in 2008 reduced the gatehouse to cinders. In 2013, after years of painstaking reconstruction work, a newly reborn Sungnyemun was finally returned to the citizens of Korea – as well as to the many foreign guests seeking to memorialise their visit with a picture of one of Seoul’s most iconic landmarks.
The restoration programme also became an opportunity to reverse, in a small but significant way, some of the losses that took place during the early 20th century. Compare the photographs above with this snapshot of the gate taken before the 2008 fire. Whilst one might argue – and not entirely without reason – that the pre-2008 Sungnyemun looked more balanced and perhaps somewhat more attractive, this was an artificial scene brought about by the destruction of the city walls that once flanked the central portal. Short sections of the lost walls have now been rebuilt and reconnected to the formerly isolated gatehouse, giving the monument an admittedly lopsided form that nonetheless more accurately reflects how it originally appeared.
As a further basis for comparison, here’s a photograph taken at around the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is). Observe how Sungnyemun was once an integral part of Seoul’s defensive walls, not the forcibly isolated relic stranded in the middle of a traffic circle that it was for many of the past hundred years.
Now let’s move in for a closer look at the gate. The original, age-darkened stonework is easily discernible against the lighter backdrop of the new masonry brought in to recreate the missing sections of wall on either side. Note also how the scars of past conflicts – bullet holes in this case – have been left untouched in some of the older blocks, a visible reminder of the wars that have ravaged Seoul through the centuries.
Standing beneath the central archway, I looked northwards and tried to imagine how Seoul must have looked to someone in the Joseon period, passing through Sungnyemun and beholding the capital for the very first time. Whatever the vista might have been, it certainly wouldn’t have appeared even remotely like the skyline I saw today.
The scene must have also been unimaginably different looking the other way, towards the south, outside the city walls.
(If anyone from the Seoul city government is reading this, I would humbly suggest adding small plaques or information boards containing CGI images of what the capital once looked like from this vantage point – that is, from the perspective of a Joseon-era traveller entering or leaving the city through Sungnyemun.)
After getting a good look at the gate, I resumed my southerly walk and eventually reached a rather grand-looking, brick-faced edifice – the former main building of Seoul Station.
Completed in 1925, this served as the central railway hub for the Korean capital until 2004, when a modern replacement was opened a short distance away. After several years of restoration work, the old Seoul Station building reopened in 2011 as a cultural venue.
After a short break for rest (and lunch), I continued my walking tour in an area north of Seoul Station … quite far to the north of it, actually. Far enough to make me question now, as of this writing, how I got there in the first place: whether I walked (possible but quite a feat after all the walking I’d already done that morning) or took a train (more convenient but unlikely given the insane layout of Seoul’s subway lines, which would have required a very long detour). Either way, I was plodding along a stretch of road that extended northeast of Seodaemun Station when I came across the following monument.
Let’s orient ourselves with a quick glance at the map.
It’s not much to look at, but this very simple marker stands at the place once occupied by Donuimun (also known as Seodaemun), one of Seoul’s main city gates. The portal was demolished in 1915 and never rebuilt, although there are plans to resurrect it within the next decade or so. It’s hard to imagine how such a project can be carried out, given the extent of urban development in the area, but it’s certainly something I’d hope to see accomplished someday.
For the moment, all we have left are old photographs that show what Donuimun once looked like.
My walking tour was far from over at this point, and I was able to see more of Seoul’s rich history before the sun went down … but that’s all for another post.
To be continued.