A Walk Among the Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs

When I went to the National Museum of Korea last month, I remember reading about some of the excavation sites at the Goryeo Dynasty royal tombs in Gaeseong. Of course, because they had artifacts from those excavations on display. I saw a photo of these huge grassy mounds, and my guide kept telling me I needed to go see them in person.

It turns out, most of the 40 Joseon Dynasty royal tombs are located within 40 km of Gyeongbokgung Palace in the heart of Seoul. Nice! I didn’t know I had royal tombs so nearby.  So, I decided to visit the Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tomb site in Gangnam. I knew the grass wouldn’t be green yet — it is still March, and cold — but, why wait? I have so many things on my to-do list for when the weather warms up and trees and flowers bloom. Better check this one off my list now.

The Seolleung and Jeongneung Royal Tomb site (and all Joseon-era royal tombs, in fact) is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, like many of the palaces in Seoul.

It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site

Fascinatingly enough, the entire lineage of the Joseon kingdom from 1392 to 1910 is accounted for among the tombs. This particular site in Gangnam houses the royal tombs of King Seongjong (9th ruler,1457-1494), his third wife Queen Jeonghyeon (1462-1530), and King Jungjong (11th ruler, 1488-1544).

Long before you reach each king’s tomb, you’re greeted by a large, red, spiked gate, led down a narrow stone road — the higher side is for the spirits and visitors cannot step on it, the lower side is for the king — and you arrive at a T-shaped shrine, which is where sacrificial rites take place.

Spiked gate leading to the tombs of King Seongjong & Queen Jeonghyeon

Spirit stairs (left)

Then, you walk a bit further until you reach the burial mound. Pretty cool-looking. They are big! Numerous stone monuments surrounding the mound represent military and civilian officials, as well as various animals like sheep and tigers, all guarding the dead king.

King Seongjong's tomb

Stone figures around the burial mound

One characteristic of the Joseon royal tombs is that their layout is influenced by Confucianism (Korean Confucianism reached its height during the Joseon Dynasty). For instance, each tomb is divided into three spaces like I mentioned earlier — the red gate and a stone bridge, a T-shaped building for conducting rites, and the burial place. The burial mound itself is typically located on a hillside with mountains to the rear for protection and streams nearby for energy flow. Lastly, the landscaping usually consists of surrounding forests of pine and oak.

It's a pretty forested "park"

Queen Jeonghyeon's tomb

View from the T-shaped shrine

As close as you can get to King Jungjong's tomb

Trying to get a good look

I can see why this particular royal tomb site is so popular. It’s close to downtown Seoul, it’s located in a nice area (Gangnam), and it’s a decently sized park for walking around or “hiking,” as some people I’m sure think they are doing. Hehe. Plenty of benches for relaxing, too. I enjoyed my stroll, even though most everything’s brown. It was a nice, sunny day. You can also check out the 500-year-old gingko tree next to the jaesil (“house of purification,” where ritual presiders stay), and after you’re done in the park, explore the surrounding Gangnam neighborhood. Who knows, you might see an exotic car or two.

Map of the Seolleung & Jeongneung Royal Tombs site

Spirit road

Dirt paths throughout the park

View from atop the hill

Smack in the middle of the city


500-year-old gingko tree

Entrance to the Royal Tombs site

Just another Ferrari in Gangnam

For more pics, check out my Flickr gallery from this trip. Thanks!

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