Much has been sacrificed – unwillingly or otherwise – in the name of Seoul’s rapid development, with sacred grounds and historic sites that have survived war or occupation unable to withstand the Korean capital’s virtually unstoppable drive to expand. Yet here and there, one finds pockets of seemingly untouched architectural treasures and natural beauty in the midst of an ocean of concrete: islands of history that have managed to hang on, perhaps even thrive, as the explosive growth of the modern metropolis gnaws away at their boundaries.
One such survivor sits right within the borders of Gangnam-gu, and it was the first stop of the last day of this winter holiday in Seoul.
This was the sight that greeted me as I walked towards my destination from Seolleung Station (Seoul Subway Line 2 / Bundang Line).
Not a single soul on the pavements (apart from myself), and hardly any cars on the street. I’ve mentioned on previous occasions how I love to visit Seoul during the long holiday periods – specifically Seollal and Chuseok – when, the trifling inconvenience of shuttered establishments aside, and not counting major attractions which will be packed with vacationing crowds, I can enjoy at least some parts of one of the world’s busiest cities in an atmosphere of relative peace and calm.
Quite an appropriate atmosphere, I might add, in view of today’s first stop: the Joseon royal tombs of Seonjeongneung.
I’ve written earlier of islands and pockets, drawing upon images of isolation in the midst of modernity, and whilst the comparison is imperfect it nonetheless captures something of what Seonjeongneung is in relation to its surroundings. Long ago, at the time it was built, this exalted burial ground lay well beyond the walls of the Joseon royal capital. In the centuries that have passed since then, the city has far overrun its ancient boundaries, broken past the River Han along what was its southern edge, and spread out into the hilly regions and valleys beyond. A view from the sky (such as that I’ve posted above) shows just how tightly the marbled congestion of Seoul has encroached upon this resting place of kings, which has been pared down almost to the bare minimum necessary to preserve what has remained of it to the present day.
This area was first transformed into a consecrated precinct near the end of the 15th century, when a tomb was constructed to hold the mortal remains of King Seongjong (1457-1494, reigned 1469-1494), the ninth monarch of Joseon. It became a double tomb more than three decades later when his royal consort, Queen Jeonghyeon, was buried on a hill just to the east of her husband’s grave. The two sites are regarded as one, and bear the single name Seolleung.
I walked to King Seongjong’s tomb first, encountering as I did so the tall wooden gate marking the start of the path towards its memorial hall.
If you’ve been to Seoul’s royal palaces, you’ll have noticed the split-level walkways in front of the main halls: a raised central path for the king (though he would have more often been carried over it in a litter rather than actually walking upon it), flanked by a lower path on either side for lesser officials. A similar policy of segregation was observed at royal tombs, except here…
…the higher level was reserved for the spirits of the deceased, with the king relegated to the narrower, lower pavement running alongside it. Even now, visitors are advised not to tread upon the sacred path, though perhaps as a concession to modern-day egalitarianism, they are permitted to use the king’s walkway.
The wooden memorial hall is where offerings were once made in honour of the dead king and queen. A large window in the back opens up directly to neither tomb, but to a point in between, though the hall itself stands closer to the king’s grave and is more specifically associated with it.
King Seongjong’s burial hill stands just north and west of the hall. Alas, the grave site itself on top of the hill – a circular mound surrounded by stone carvings of animals and guardians – was closed off for restoration work during my visit.
As I walked to the nearby tomb of the king’s wife, I observed a long “spirit road” cutting across the grounds … another avenue reserved for the exclusive use of the dead. Rope barriers and signs prevented access by visitors who were not quite so dead, and at one crossing point, there was even a wooden bridge constructed over the path to ensure that living feet did not come into contact with the sacred pavement.
Unlike that of her husband, Queen Jeonghyeon’s tomb could be viewed from up close – though a barrier keeps visitors from straying too close. Simpler in design than that of the king, the rich stonework surrounding her resting place nonetheless hints at her exalted status.
Reunited after death, the king and queen shared this quiet spot outside their former capital between themselves … but not for very long. A few decades later, the royal couple were joined by another deceased monarch, more specifically their son, whose deathly abode was constructed not far to the east.
Getting there from Seolleung requires a light hike over and down the hilly terrain that lies in between. (Note that the tombs are located within the walls of one sprawling park-like compound, and to see both a visitor only needs to pay a single entrance fee at the main gate.) Walking across the forest in the midst of Seonjeongneung, I felt as if I were somewhere out in the countryside rather than deep within the urban congestion of Seoul, and if I were a local resident I’d have probably made a weekly habit of going on a refreshing morning stroll along the royal cemetery’s winding paths.
In due course, I arrived at a clearing in the far eastern section of Seonjeongneung. Here lies the eleventh monarch of Joseon, King Jungjong (1488-1544, reigned 1506-1544), son of King Seongjong and Queen Jeonghyeon, who assumed the throne after his half-brother was forced out of power in a coup. This grave – known as Jeongneung – is actually the king’s second posthumous home, which received his remains 18 years after death and initial burial at another site.
Note the double stairs built into the side of the memorial hall’s stone platform. Mirroring the double entrance path, here we find separate facilities for the dead and the living, with the decorated steps reserved for the deceased king’s spirit.
Walking back to the main gate, I passed the so-called jaesil: a “house of purification” where participants in ancestral rites prepared themselves to render the sacred services. Ritual implements, incense, and other supplies were also stored here – and with two large royal tombs in close proximity, one can well imagine why nothing less than a house-sized facility would be required.
Not long afterwards, I bade farewell to this realm of the dead and rejoined the world of the living, there to savour a delicious meal before my flight back home…
…but we’ll speak of that in the next post.