We start our tour of Seoul from when it was called Hanseong 漢城, and ruled by the Joseon Dynasty (also transliterated as “Chosun”).
The architectural heritage of the period remains in the form of five imperial palaces within the city limits, and the impressive Royal Shrine of Jongmyo, where (almost) ALL of the Joseon Emperors and their wives are interred.
Many of the palaces were desecrated by the Japanese when they exerted colonial rule the city. In one case – the Gyeongbukgong Palace, the most important palace of all – the Japanese actually demolished much of the complex, and built their very own Government-General office building on the site.
This gallery takes in three of the five imperial palaces and the Jongmyo Shrine.
Gyeongbok Palace 景福宮
The first palace – the Gyeongbokgung, or Gyeongbok Palace – was the primary palace of the Joseon Emperors, and also the city of Hanseong’s largest palace. It sits at the foot of Bugaksan mountain and along a north-south axis much like its counterpart, the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Architecturally, the palace – and many of the other Imperial Palaces in Seoul – draws much from Ming Dynasty palace architecture, complete upward swooping roof edges, adorned with mini-gargoyles.
Interestingly for Gyeongbokgung, however, there is a specific section of the palace grounds where orange brick has been used in the construction of a series of walls and ornamental pillars, adorned with Korean design motifs. The palace is also known for the one of its kind Royal Banquet Hall known as the Gyeonghoeru 慶會樓 – a traditional wooden pavilion sitting on 24 pairs of stone pillars.
The palace was destroyed twice by the Japanese – the first time in 1592 when Joseon was invaded from the East, and the second time in the early 1900s, during Japanese Colonial Rule. The first time it was laid waste, it sat ruined for 273 years until the King finally decided to restore it in 1867. The second restoration of the Palace is taking place even as I write with most of the “traditional” structures the tourist is likely to see, being modern day reconstructions of the original.
That said, notwithstanding the fact that most of the palace complex today is a contemporary restoration, it is, quite arguably the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place in Seoul.
Changdeok Palace 昌德宮
The Changdeokgung is at least as old as the Gyeogbokgung, having been built in between 1405 and 1412. It was the seat of the Royal Government until 1868 when the Gyeongbokgung was restored. Notably, it was also home to the very last Korean monarch – the Emperor Sunjong of the Daehan Jaeguk era.
Unlike Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung survived the Japanese colonial era mostly intact, with many of its original buildings still standing. Also unlike Gyeongbukgung, which was heavily influenced by Ming architecture, Changdeokgung maintains an older and more restrained form of indigenous architecture from earlier Korean dynastic periods. The palace was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997.
The palace is known for its Secret Garden, once known as the Biwon 秘園, or Forbidden Garden and open only to the Royal Family. Today of course, it is open to the public, though only if one takes a guided tour.
The other interestingly architectural landmark in the palace is the spectacular Injeongjeon Hall, which was the main throne hall of the Joseon Kings; and also the Seongjeongjeon Hall with its unique cobalt blue tiled roof.
Next to the Changdeokgung sits the Jongmyo, or Jong Shrine, built in 1394. It is built to Confucian principles and houses the memorial tablets of the Joseon kings and their queens. In total, 19 kings and 30 queens and memorialised here, with only two kings missing from the whole of the Joseon era. And a memorial service is still conducted each year by the descendants of the Joseon emperors in accordance with ritual, and accompanied by traditional Korean court music.
The shrine itself is one of the longest buildings in Seoul, and it was inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1995. The Royal Rites and accompanying Royal Court Music, called the Jongmyo Jerye 宗廟祭禮 and Jongmyo jeryeak 宗廟祭禮樂 respectively, were inscribed onto UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage in 2001.
Deoksu Palace 德壽宮
The final Joseon era site on this visit is the Deoksugung, which became a royal palace by default after the Japanese invasion of 1592, when the Gyeongbokgung and the Changdeokgung were burned down. It is significant in being the residence of Emperor Gojong, who was the last King of the Joseon era, and, after proclaiming Korean independence from the Chinese, became the first Emperor of the Daehan Jaeguk era.
The palace is unique architecturally in that it houses instances of European architecture alongside traditional Korean architecture. Like the Gyeongbokgung, much of it was deliberately demolished by the Japanese during the colonial era; though unlike the former, many of these structures have not been restored.
Interestingly, along the walls of the palace sits Jeong-dong, which served as the Foreign Legation quarter of the city of Hanseong (and the subject of the next post). Palace and Legation Quarter would be inextricably linked to each other during the tumultuous years between the Joseon and the Daehan eras, with the latter playing a pivotal role in the preservation of King Gojong’s life, and his subsequent return to declare his kingdom’s independence.