Namdaemun. Fortress in Seoul, South Korea


Fortress in Seoul, South Korea

Namdaemun (숭례문), Southern Gate, Seoul Korea Photo © Andy Eick

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Sungnyemun, known also by its more common name Namdaemun, had the distinction of being designated the first National Treasure of South Korea. It, along with many remnants of Seoul’s history, was first built in 1398 under the reign of the first king of the Joseon dynasty.
After over six centuries of wear and tear, the current incarnation of Namdaemun was built in 2013. Although it survived six centuries of war, invasions, and daily life, it was a fire in 2008 that finally dominated the historical structure.
Like its sister gate of Dongdaemun the surrounding district around Namdaemun is full of marketplaces and shops. On weekdays and weekends, the markets are filled with tourists and locals looking for deals on all sorts of things.

A History of Fire

Like the other seven gates in Seoul, Sungneymun has two names. Historically, it has been known as Sungnyemun or the Gate of Exalted Ceremonies. The name of Namdaemun is a holdover from a bygone era of Japanese colonialism when the name Sungnyemun wasn’t as commonly used on official documentation. In a current push to reclaim its heritage, the gate has commonly come to be referred to as Sungnyemun.
Also in line with the other seven gates, Sungnyemun was designed in accordance with the principles of feng-sui. In traditional Chinese Hanja, Sungnyemun’s name means “fire.” It was designated as such to protect the palace and the capital from fire.
Unlike many of the other gates and palatial structures in Seoul, Sungnyemun had survived much of history relying primarily on renovations. Also specific to Sungnyemun, many of the structures and design elements are original to the structure from the two tiered pagoda roof to the reinforced walls whereas most other gates saw improvements added on in the 15th and 19th centuries.
Sungnyemun did see significant damage to its core wooden support structures during the Korean War (Wikipedia Article). The surrounding area, including Namdaemun Market, was burned to ruin but Sungnyemun survived mostly intact. After it was restored in 1961, it was designated as South Korea’s first National Treasure.
Unfortunately, Sungnyemun would not survive for long. On February 10th 2008, an arsonist set a small portion of Sungnyemun on fire. Over 360 firefighters responded to the scene while crowds of Seoulites watched on in horror as the oldest surviving structure in Seoul’s history was eventually consumed by the blaze. At 10 pm, a little less than two hours after the fire started, firefighters seemed to gain control over the fire before it blazed once again out of control shortly after midnight. The stone walls and façade seemed relatively undamaged but the supporting wooden framework was completely destroyed. By the time the sun rose in the morning, it was obvious to everyone that the six century old structure was beyond repair.
The culprit was a 69 year old citizen who had run into a dispute with the Seoul City Government. Most disturbingly, the arsonist had previously been arrested and jailed following a similar crime at Changgyeonggung Palace which is only 20 minutes away from Sungnyemun. The arsonist was serving and suspended prison sentence at the time of the fire and was later sentenced to 10 years to be served in prison.
The Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea has since commissioned the restoration of Sungnyemun using funds gathered from a private donation campaign. The restoration took five years and nearly $14 million dollars, but on May 2013 the gate was finally reopened to the public.

Markets, Food, and So Much More

Sungnyemun has a rich history, but unfortunately, most of that history isn’t apparent when visiting the gate. Most tourists and visitors spend their time in the surrounding area which has a significant amount to things to do and places to go.
Similar to Dongdaemun, Namdaemun Market offers a large selection of goods for patrons to go through. Whereas Dongdaemun is a heaven for fashion-conscious shoppers, Namdaemun caters to tourists looking for a little bit of everything. There are shops full of children’s clothes, from traditional hanboks to pajamas and cute outer wear, as well as enough women’s clothing shops to max out the shiniest of credit cards.
Locals, however, flock to Namdaemun for the Namdo Import Market and the underground Doggaebi Market. Both marketplaces specialize in import goods like furniture, medicine, kitchenware, and electronics. The advent of online shopping sites has slowed the tide but both marketplaces remain popular.
Expats living in Korea have a whole other reason to make their way to Namdaemun Market. On a street just south of Sungnyemun is a thriving camera marketplace. The shops carry a variety of lenses, bags, and cameras for patrons to test out on site.
Also nearby is Seoul’s ultramodern City Hall. The newly designed city hall sits like a reflective monster behind Seoul’s historic city hall, which has been turned into a public library free for anyone to use.

How to Get There

Sungnyemun is located in between three different subway stations, which makes it very easy to get to. Visitors can either take Exit No. 4 out of Seoul Station (Line No. 1 and Line No. 4) or Exit No. 8 out of City Hall Station (Line No. 2 and Line No. 1). Both options will require visitors to take a five minute walk in order to reach the gate.
For visitors with a map or good sense of direction, there is also Exit No. 5 out of Hoehyeon Station (Line No. 4). This exit is the closest to the gate but the path leading there winds through Namdaemun Market. This offers visitors the chance to eat some of the food, look at some shops, and get irretrievably lost in the back alleys; it is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak sense of direction.

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Author: bludreamers. Last updated: Apr 11, 2015

Pictures of Namdaemun

Namdaemun - Namdaemun
Namdaemun - Photo by LWYang

namdaemun - Namdaemun
namdaemun - Photo by eric niu

Namdaemun - Namdaemun
Namdaemun - Photo by Gwonie S. Nam

Namdaemun (숭례문), Southern Gate, Seoul Korea - Namdaemun
Namdaemun (숭례문), Southern Gate, Seoul Korea - Photo by Andy Eick


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