National Tragedy – 南大門 burns down

By greenteapanda

February 11, 2008

Category: Living


Last night an arsonist apparently set fire to Namdaemun/Sungyemun. It is known as Korean Treasure Number 1. Originally built in 1398, it was apparently destroyed in the Korean War. Some people I talked to say that the damage is worse this time around – that only the stone foundation is intact. There is also some irony – since the name on the gate, Sungyemun, is written such that it looks like a great fire. The purpose of the characters written that way was to ward off fire in olden times when leaders thought Seoul was vulnerable from a fire coming from the south. By symbolically having  a stronger fire, the gate would supposedly be able to ward off actual fires. In other words, Sungyemun is Seoul’s Fire Gate.

I will have to go later to look for myself.

In the meantime, some pictures of the fire on Flickr. Note that the title translation is incorrect – Namdaemun translates into English as Great SOUTH Gate, not East Gate. As far as I know, Dongdaemun, the Great East Gate, is still standing. Out of the different gates, Namdaemun was the largest gate and had some special architectural features not shared by the other major gates within Seoul. The loss of the gate would be something like the loss of the pyramids or Sphinx in Egypt, the loss of the Statue of Liberty in the USA, etc.

All I will be able to see is the burnt out gate if I go to take a picture. It is a shame, since they had guard-changing ceremonies there everyday. Every single time I passed by on a bus, I did not have one of my cameras to capture a picture of it. Now it looks like I will have to wait for a time far in the future to have the opportunity to photograph that guard changing ceremony.

I wonder what would make somebody want to burn down a beautiful gate…

1. Namdaemun prior to the fire, from a Seoul planning page circa 2006:

2. Namdaemun today, after the fire, from various Korean news sources:

There are a lot of people blaming the firefighters – after initially extinguishing the blaze, the firefighters started to leave. They did not continue to cover the structure with water, inside or out. The fire reignited, and the wooden part of the structure collapsed early this morning.

Update 2 2008/02/12: the arsonist has been caught. The arsonist previously burned another Korean historical site down in the past because he was angry his land was taken from him without just compensation (for development). He did prison time. Because he was pissed about the prison time and the fact he has yet to be compensated fairly for his land, he started this fire. According to him, Namdaemun had the benefit of being close to public transportation, uninhabited so bystanders would not get killed, and was poorly guarded.

I don’t think he will get that compensation ever at this rate…


2 Responses to “National Tragedy – 南大門 burns down”

  1. I was very affected by the burning of Sungyemun. I am Chilean but I learned a lot of Korea thanks to a Korean professor. Was very sad to me because was my favourite monument in Korea, for its history and traditions. Really a pity, I don\’t know how to compare the magnitude of that disgrace with our national monuments (maybe the Casa Colorada, or the Iglesia San Francisco, a colonial buildings in Chile, but less valued by my compatriots compared with your valuation of your building). All my strength for you, friends!

  2. I can think of other buildings that I value more than Namdaemun/Sungyemun, such as La Sagrada Familia in Spain. Almost makes me wish it never gets finished, because if something bad happens, that part would just get reconstructed. Maybe I like La Sagrada Familia because it never seems like it will be finished – and hence will never be mourned because of its age. It is beautiful because of its design.
    A lot of the people lamenting that a rebuilt Sungyemun will not be the same forget that fact. Even before it burned down, the paint on Sungyemun was most certainly not from 1398. The land around Sungyemun is also quite different. The wall of which Sungyemun was a part was taken down under Japanese occupation. The design of the gate is not going to change, and the fact that people care about it seems more important than how old it was when it burned.

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