Friday, April 04, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

Gate of Exalted Ceremonies

Before [Enlarge]

Namdaemun (Great South Gate), also known as Sungnyemun (Gate of Exalted Ceremonies), is one of the four original gates that protected Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty. It stands at the heart of the modern downtown district and has served as the city's ceremonial gateway since it was built in 1398. It also happens to be our favourite building in Seoul.

Our bus drives past Namdaemun once every morning and twice every evening, so we see it a lot. We don't usually pay much attention to it, but as we hurtled down the hill 'Seoul-style' on the morning of Monday 11th February at 06:15, something was clearly wrong. The streets were full of firetrucks, their flashing lights lighting up the pre-dawn cityscape. As the bus picked its way through the parked trucks, we could see in the darkness that the entire wooden structure on top of the gate had collapsed, blackened beams and ancient tiles were strewn down the sloping sides of the base and onto the road. We couldn't believe it. Our favourite landmark in Seoul had burnt down.

After [Enlarge]

We both had to teach until 08:15, but had some free time after that. As soon as class was finished, we met up at the site of the former National Treasure Number 1. It had basically gone. The entire upper storey was now a pile of rubble on the ground around the base, and little remained of the lower storey. The huge timbers had even caused part of the stone base to collapse as they came down. In places, the ruins were still smoking a little.

A small crowd had started to gather, but at this stage the onlookers were outnumbered by the journalists. As the only foreigners there at that stage, we were hot property for the journos who wanted the foreigner angle. Isla was interviewed by a TV station and Glenn by a news agency reporter with a pencil and notebook. We felt a bit like tourists at a funeral, but we were both really sad about the Koreans' loss. They have so little of their history left in Seoul after the city was flattened in the Korean War, but this was one piece of the old Seoul which was left. We loved it because it was slapped right in the middle of the Seoul financial district, surrounded by modern tower blocks, the traffic flowing around it in a constant stream.

Even as we were watching workers had already begun to build a temporary scaffolding fence, hung with blankets to screen the ruins. By the end of the day they had put up a more permanent screen. Within a week or so, a solid metal wall, almost as high as the gate itself, had hidden the gate completely. This is not going to be a quick restoration—they are talking about four to five years.

It's being well guarded now... but where the hell were the guards before? Oh yes, they only protected Korean National Treasure Number 1 between 10 am and 8 pm. [IMG_3338]
Now they guard it [Enlarge]

Of course it turned out to be arson. The guy responsible, a crazy old bastard who had a gripe against the government, was quickly found (he set fire to an old palace a few years ago, apparently). He confessed and is expected to get ten years. Personally, we would have him chained to the gate restoring it single handedly with a toothpick, but luckily for him we're not in charge.

We were left questioning the unbelievable naivety of the Koreans in matters like this. The problem is, they just don't have crime here, certainly not mindless vandalism like this. They seem to have no concept of guarding things. The gate's CCTV was inadequate, and because of the ancient design it had been deemed impossible to install a sprinkler system. The gate was guarded, but only during office hours! The guards had ended their shift and gone home at something like 20:00 on Sunday night, as they did every night. In any other city in the world that is precisely the time when the guards would have been coming on duty!

In the days that followed there was all sorts of strange navel gazing going on in Korea, including resorting to bizarre feng shui arguments about how the original architects had always intended for the gate to burn down eventually: it had been deliberately sited at a point of 'high energy' so that it would act as a fire break for the rest of the city. That may indeed have been their fourteenth-century intention, but it doesn't excuse such fatalism now. There has been a massive backlash and most Koreans now support putting a fence around the thing when it reopens so that nobody can get near it. To us this seems completely ridiculous. The people must be able to enjoy their historical architecture—you can't spoil it for everyone because of a few loonies. The answer is not to lock it away, just guard it properly!

For 49 days candles were kept burning on an altar in front of the wall, but now these too are gone. Namdaemun will be rebuilt, as it has been many times before. And as in previous reconstructions and renovations some of the original timbers will go back into the structure. City planners will take this opportunity to remodel the area. Lessons will, of course, be learned—about security, safety, firefighting, and archaeology. A catalogue of mistakes were made, ranging from ministry officials preventing the firefighters from removing part of the roof, in case they damaged it (!), to government workers throwing away some of the damaged timbers and tiles as waste! Heads will roll, and they should.

All our photos of the gate before and after the fire are here.

A couple of great videos from storycubic are below. The first is a still movie from shortly after the gate was reopened to the public in 2006 (it was closed off in the middle of a traffic island for many decades).

The second video is called "다시 되돌릴 수 있다면" (Dasi doe-dollil su iss-damyeon / If only we could go back in time).