Namdaemun, The Great South Gate

Layout of the Fortress Wall of Seoul and Gates

Layout of the Fortress Wall of Seoul and Gates

In 1392, King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty made Seoul the center of government. National security was prioritized, resulting in the construction of a fortress wall spanning 11.3 miles to encompass the city. The wall has eight gates of entry with four great gates being on the points of the compass and four gates in between. The wall is about 20 ft at the base and ranges between 3m and 7m in height. The wall was built in 98 sections of 600 paces each and each section is given a label according to the 90 characters of the Chinese primer.

After its construction in 1398, the wall underwent extensive repairs in 1422. Shortly before the Japanese colonial occupation in 1907, portions of the wall were torn down by Prince Yoshihito who refused to honor the tradition of passing through the gate itself reserved for visiting dignitaries.

Although the wall in impressive, once described by Percival Lowell in his 1886 book, Choson: Land of the Morning Calm as “some great python, it lies coiled about the city, stretched in lazy slumber along the very highest points—over peaks where it can, along passes it must,” it is actually the gates that are more admired because of their architecture, history and origins.

Of the eight gates, the south gate Namdaemun or “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies” was declared the first National Treasure of South Korea and is probably the most celebrated. Construction on the gate began in 1365 and it was completed in 1398. In ancient times, every foreign visitor had to pass through the gate and adjacent to the gate is the Namdaemun market which continues to operate today. Today, the gate stands in the middle of a busy intersection of streets with no connecting walls.

The architecture of the gate began with much simpler designs through the influence by the Neo-Confucianism beliefs of early Joseon leaders who favored practicality, frugality, and harmony with natures. However, these beliefs began to fall out of favor by mid 16th century so more ornamentation is observed on gates built at a later time. Namdaemun is the largest gate built in the pagoda style. The ornate, dark grey roof tiles and sweeping upward curve of the roof distinguishes the style from Chinese architecture.

In 2008, the pagoda sitting atop the gate was destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist in 2008. Before the 2008 fire, Namdaemun was the oldest wooden structure in Seoul. The gate was reopened in May 2013.