Itaewon: The Unlikely Capital of Muslim Korea

Itaewon-ro - Itaewon's high street.

Itaewon-ro – Itaewon’s high street.

Itaewon (이태원) is a popular district in Seoul, just north of the Han River (한강) and south of Namsan Park (남산공원) and its iconic N Seoul Tower (which I already wrote about in Namsan and the N Tower post). It is a popular tourist destination with its many bars, pubs, and restaurants serving international cuisine and beverages. Tourists who decide to stay in the landmark Hyatt Hotel or Hotel Hamilton have plenty of shops to go through here while some of the lonelier soldiers stationed in the nearby American Military Base can perhaps shop around on the (in)famous Hooker Hill, Seoul’s own Red Light District located just south of Itaweon-ro (이태원로).

The more seedy side of Itaewon. Here, the backstreets near Hooker Hill.

The more seedy side of Itaewon. Here, the backstreets round Hooker Hill.

The district is quite possibly the most liberal area in the whole of Korea where one can be openly gay or transgender. Of course, this is still Asia, so we can’t really say that Itaewon is just like any other liberal Western city. Also Korea is a particularly orthodox country where even straight couples found kissing in a public place can easily find themselves frowned upon.

With all the Korean liberalism and American soldiers patrolling the streets after dark side by side with Korean prostitutes, Itaewon can be thought a rather unlikely home to Korea’s main Muslim place of worship: the Seoul Central Mosque (서울 중앙 성원) that’s located just next to Hooker Hill. Yet I believe this just goes to show how open and accepting Itaewon is, also when it comes to foreign cultures and their fashions, cuisines, ideas, beliefs.

Notice over the outer entrance to the mosque. The entrance itself styled after traditional Islamic pattern design.

Notice above the outer entrance of the mosque. The entrance itself is styled after traditional Islamic pattern design.

Me in front of the Seoul Central Mosque.

Me in front of the Seoul Central Mosque.

I meet my Korean friends in Itaewon late in the afternoon and after some browsing in a number of shops on the high street, we make our way through the seedy backstreets surrounding Hooker Hill towards Seoul Central Mosque. If you’re a newcomer, this really doesn’t seem like a place you’d like to find yourself in after dark. It is really quite surprising to find an important temple like this one within such an area, not only due to this area’s reputation but also because of the dilapidation of the backstreets. Nonetheless, the outer entrance as well as the inner buildings of the whole Islamic complex have not fallen into the shabby state of disrepair. The outer entrance, the mosque walls as well as the interior are decorated with complex mosaic patterns so familiar to those who at some point visited any of the Arab countries. The mosque itself is quite large and sports two tall minarets. Owing to the fact that it is built on top of a hill, those minarets can be seen from quite far away.

Sunset over Itaewon. On far left, the 2 minarets of the Central Seoul Mosque

Sunset over Itaewon. On far left, the 2 minarets of the Seoul Central Mosque are clearly silhouetted against the orange sky.

The Seoul Central Mosque has quite a recent history. It was raised in 1976 primarily with the financial help of the Malaysian Islamic Mission and is now the heart of the Muslim community of South Korea which nowadays amounts to circa 35,000 people.

Seoul Central Mosque.

Seoul Central Mosque.

The community itself also dates back only to the recent 20th century. In fact, one might say it started with the Korean War as it was during that time, in the year 1950, that Turkey sent its soldiers to aid the United States and South Korea’s military. After the war ground to a halt some of the troops of the Turkish Brigade remained in the country in the character of peacekeepers, aiding humanitarian efforts while at the same time introducing Koreans to the tenets of Islam. Shortly a new Muslim community was born in Korea.

I guess this little bit of history wraps up what I wanted to say and write here. Hope you all enjoyed what you read and perhaps learnt a thing or two. Thanks!

Oh and if you fancy reading a bit more about the Turkish Brigade click on the link below:

The Turkish Brigade on Wikipedia

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2 thoughts on “Itaewon: The Unlikely Capital of Muslim Korea

  1. Me and Cez are already planning our next adventure and we were thinking of South Korea and Japan, maybe cycling or hiking somewhere. Itaewon seems like a cool and interesting place to explore. We are not that into Muslim culture and religion, but would love to visit local mosques.

  2. Yeah well you can’t miss Itaewon once you’re in Seoul. So many cool bars in there! 🙂
    As for hiking, Korea is peppered with hills that appear to have been made for that sole purpose! 😀 Do go!

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