UNESCO World Heritage Series: Part 7 - Jongmyo Shrine


By Matthew Fennell, Contributing Writer

July 2017 - While many tourists visit Changdeokgung and Gyeungbokgung to experience the splendor of Seoul’s royal palaces, the atmosphere at the nearby Jongmyo Shrine is more solemn and sacred. Jongmyo, the next stop on our UNESCO World Heritage Site tour, is the royal shrine for performing ancestral rites for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty.

The shrine was originally built in 1394 by King Taejo, and was thought to be one of the longest buildings in Asia at the time. The complex underwent many more expansions over the following years, most notably under the guidance of the legendary King Sejong. However, like many other structures and buildings of the period, Jongmyo was burned to the ground by Japanese invaders during the during the Seven-Year War (1592–98). A new complex was constructed in 1601 and has remarkably kept its original form until the present day, making Jongmyo the oldest and most authentic of the Confucian royal shrines that has been preserved.

Dedicated to the ancestors of the Joseon dynasty, the buildings of Jongmyo contain the 'spirit tablets' of the kings and queens of this period and some of their most loyal government officials. Their spirits are believed to reside in special holes bored into the wooden tablets. There are 49 memorial tablets for the various kings and queens alongside a panel that lists each king’s accomplishments.

Ritual services involving music, song, and dance still take place at Jongmyo, continuing traditions that go back to the 14th century. One of these ceremonies, Sajik Daeje, is one of Korea’s most significant cultural traditions involving hundreds of participants who visit the shrine to give their offerings while royally-orchestrated music is played. The ceremony is held once a year in May and people who attend look spectacular in their black, white, red, blue, and yellow hanboks. The service has kept the original procedures from more than 600 years ago, by offering sacrificial gifts of food and drink using authentic ritual tableware.