National Treasure no. 1


It survived centuries of invasion, occupation, and civil war. It burned down in a few hours last night. Korea’s National Treasure no. 1, Namdaemun, or the Great South Gate, was the oldest surviving wooden structure in Seoul. It was built in 1398, by the first King of the Yi Dynasty. Although it had been given three major renovations during its lifetime, it had never been burned down. It will have to be rebuilt completely. I did notice in some of the wire photos that many of the largest beams seemed to be intact. The signboard was also saved.

But it’s just tragic. I was in shock when I heard the news. It had only been open to the public just two years ago. It had been closed to the public for almost a century before that. T and I were fortunate to have been able to visit it in 2006. It’s inexplicable that this happened. Though Namdaemun marked the southern boundary of the original Seoul, it now lies in the center, surrounded by a wide, busy intersection. During our visit, there were intimidating plain-clothes guards and security cameras everywhere. It’s unbelievable that the fire could have escalated so much. Apparently the 100+ firefighters thought the fire was extinguished only to flare back up with a vengeance.


Above is a picture that I took when it was newly opened to the public. Namdaemun is so closely identified with Korea that you’ll find it prominently displayed in textbooks and tourism literature. The equivalent of such a tragedy in the U.S. would be if the Statue of Liberty collapsed, or if the Declaration of Independence went up in flames. Except Namdaemun is centuries older.

It’s amazing that a wooden structure survived for so long. Perhaps we should be grateful that it’s been with us for such a long period. But if an arsonist is indeed responsible, as some reports suggest, what possible motive could that person have? And how did he get through all the security undetected?

Originally, the gate, and wall (long ago demolished by Japanese imperialists), were constructed to keep out tigers at night. Now, of course, tigers exist on the peninsula only in remote mountain areas. Perhaps, now that the gate is open, the tigers can come back.

Photo credits. Top: from Reuters. Middle: by Wind