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World Heritage

World Heritage- Republic of Korea
Gyeongju Historic Areas

Legacies of a Brilliant Cultural Flowering

Gyeongju is a marvelous city, the cradle of precious vestiges that embody the history and culture of Silla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935), the golden age of ancient Korean civilization. Now a modest city with a population of 270,000 (as of 2010), the old capital of Silla sustains the vibrant spirit and aura of the millennium-long kingdom which attained a brilliant cultural flowering through the reigns of its 56 kings.

Silla began as a small tribal state named Saroguk in the southeastern edge of the Korean peninsula. Yet, it eventually overwhelmed its two stronger rival states, Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) and Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D. 660), to assemble a unified kingdom. Science, culture and the arts blossomed on a foundation of political stability and economic strength. With its doors opened wide to the outside world, Silla actively interacted with China and Japan and the Islamic world in West Asia. Gyeongju became an international city a millennium ago.

At its peak in the eighth century, Gyeongju had as many as 178,936 households (some 900,000 residents), suggesting that it was as prosperous as Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, Baghdad (present-day Iraq) of the Islam Empire, and Changan (Xian) of the Tang Dynasty in China.

Though its glorious era has long past and the city has recently underwent sudden changes in its urban environment due to road construction and housing development, Gyeongju has preserved its rich cultural heritage and ambience remarkably intact. The city boasts numerous historical monuments scattered all around like a huge museum; archaeologists can still be found digging here and there in search of resplendent cultural remains buried underground.

In recognition of the city’s value as a cultural asset worthy of humanity’s common effort for preservation, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed “Gyeongju Historic Areas” on the World Heritage List in 2000. The areas are grouped in accordance with the nature of their historic remains - Mt. Nam, a renowned treasure trove of Buddhist art; the Moon Fortress, a royal palace site; the Great Tumuli Park, a cluster of burial mounds; the ruins of Hwangnyongsa, a state temple; and the Mountain Fortress that served as the capital’s defense structure. The listed cultural properties within the five locales amount to 52 items.

Mt. Nam Area: The World of Buddhas

Mt. Nam, or Namsan, meaning “South Mountain,” lies south of Gyeongju. Spanning some 10 kilometers, Mt. Nam actually has two prominent peaks, Gowibong (494 meters) and Geumobong (468 meters). Though it is not towering, the mountain looks impressive with deep valleys and clear ridges that have interesting shapes when viewed from different directions.

The mountain embraces hundreds of Buddhist treasures, including temple sites with Buddha images, stone pagodas, lanterns and lotus pedestals, most of them dated from the seventh to the tenth century, hence it is called an “outdoor museum.” Considered individually, most of the sites do not stand out because they were seamlessly harmonized with their natural surroundings. For example, images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are carved into rocks and the ruins of Yongjangsa temple has a three-story stone pagoda erected directly on a natural rock instead of a man-made foundation.

Important historic sites are also found around the foot of this mountain. They include Najeong, or “Ivy Well,” famed as the birthplace of the founding monarch of Silla; and the site of Poseokjeong, or “Abalone Stone Pavilion,” where an “abalone-shaped” water channel for floating wine cups remains as a reminder of the kingdom’s tragic last days.

Some stone terraces are all that remain of Yongjangsa today. Yet the temple is famous because the 15th-century genius writer Kim Si-seup wrote New Stories of the Golden Turtle (Geumo sinhwa), the precursor of the Korean novel, while staying here. A three-story granite pagoda stands on a rocky summit stretching to the east as if it were embracing the temple site. While most other stone pagodas of Silla have a two-tier foundation, this pagoda rests on a single-tier foundation; whoever designed the pagoda might have wanted the mountain to serve as its natural base.

Similarly astounding is the bodhisattva image of the Sinseonam hermitage, carved in high relief on a south-facing rock overlooking Gyeongju. Stylistically rare for a Unified Silla stone image, this 1.4-meter-high bodhisattva is sitting in a playful posture, or lalita, with one leg pendant. In contrast, the full round face is rather solemn looking, as if immersed in deep thought. Unlike its clean-cut facial features, the folds in the bodhisattva’s robe are shallow and seem to vanish into the clouds carved under the pedestal, giving the impression that the image is floating on air.

Moon Fortress Area: Memories of Glory over Millennium

Only a few dynasties have lasted a thousand years throughout human history. Silla ruled for a millennium from one royal capital, Gyeongju, which was ideally located, carefully designed and well-defended.

The old city of Gyeongju was meticulously laid out in square blocks that were bordered by 15-meter-wide lanes, equivalent to today’s four-lane streets, divided for horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Drainage ditches ran parallel, beyond which houses stood. The houses had tile roofs and were heated with charcoal. The atmosphere was clean and pleasant around the city as charcoal produced no smoky smell or soot. The roofs of temples were said to have “glittered against the sky like the Milky Way” and the lotus-crowned pagodas “stood in unending lines like flights of wild geese.” The city had 35 “golden mansions” of aristocrats. Given these affluent cityscapes, the royal palaces must have been even more luxurious.

It is not known exactly where the early rulers of Silla lived. However, historical records such as Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) suggest their palace was near Najeong, where Bak Hyeokgeose, the founder of the kingdom, was born, or the Five Royal Tombs (Oreung) located northwest of Mt. Nam, where the founding king is said to have been buried. According to Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), “Walls were built and named Wolseong in the 22nd year of King Pasa (r. 80-112), and the king moved in to live there in the seventh month of the year.”

Gyeongju has two famous palace sites - Wolseong (Moon Fortress) which is also called Banwolseong (Half Moon Fortress), and the Palace of Crown Prince, or Imhaejeon (Pavilion on the Sea), and the adjacent royal resort, Anapji (Pond of Geese and Ducks). The Moon Fortress surrounded the main palace where most of the Silla kings lived. Encircling the palace compounds, walls were built of stone and mud to the north, east and west, while natural cliffs and a flowing stream formed the southern border. Stone terraces and moats were built along the northern and western borders, and a gate on the eastern border led to the Palace of the Crown Prince.

Large-scale building sites have recently been discovered north of Gyerim (Cock Grove) and around Seongdong-dong. These impressive underground remains with cloisters and hallways are believed to be additional palace sites. Continued efforts are needed to uncover the original appearance of the ancient royal capital from its deep layers of time.

Great Tumuli Park Area: Enigma Beyond Description

Many ancient burial mounds scattered around the city center form Gyeongju’s unique cultural topography exuding an enigmatic atmosphere. There are some 150 tombs of the Silla period in the central district of Gyeongju, some as high as 23 meters, others flattened so much that they can hardly be discerned. The earthen mounds are the tombs of kings, queens and other members of the nobility of Silla.
Particularly, the huge mounds in the present downtown area were built during the fifth to the sixth centuries, when Silla’s royal power was swelling. These tombs are clustered in a few prominent groups, including the Tumuli Group of Hwangnam-dong, which has been made into Great Tumuli Park, the Tumuli Group of Nodong-ri and the Tumuli Group of Noseo-ri. They represent the Silla tombs in terms of the scale of burial grounds and the quality of excavated relics.
A small number of these tombs have been excavated and their interiors surveyed, but none of the tomb occupants have been identified. Instead, the tombs have yielded myriad artifacts, including gold crowns and other gold accessories, glass cups, stoneware and paintings of flying horses on tree barks, providing vivid glimpses into lifestyles of the time. Most of the artifacts are housed at the Gyeongju National Museum.
The Heavenly Horse Tomb (Cheonmachong), one of some 20 tombs on the grounds of Great Tumuli Park, is the only Silla burial mound which has been excavated and opened to the public. The burial chamber is not a subterranean space because the coffin was not buried but placed above ground and covered with piles of stone and mud. The tomb’s name comes from the birch bark saddle flaps painted with flying horses found inside. The tomb also yielded a gold crown recognized as the largest and most ornate royal headpiece of Silla ever found.
The Great Tomb of Hwangnam (Hwangnam Daechong), also in the Great Tumuli Park, is the largest among all extant Silla tombs. The gourd-shaped twin mounds are 80 meters from east to west, 120 meters from north to south, and 23 meters high. Excavations have found that a man was interred in the northern mound and a woman in the southern mound. The man’s burial chamber contained remains of a young woman believed to have been buried for her master. Hence the tomb is assumed to have been made before King Jijeung (r. 500-514) banned sacrificial burials.

Hwangnyongsa Temple Area: Symbol of National Strength

Hwangnyongsa (Temple of Imperial Dragon), the largest and most splendid state temple of Silla, was burned down when Mongols invaded in 1238, leaving only the foundation stones of buildings and statues. Although the temple no longer exists, the vast ruins have drawn enormous attention. The estate thus far surveyed amounts to 380,086 square meters and more than 40,000 antique objects were unearthed from the ruins. The temple began to be built in 553, the 14th year of the reign of King Jinheung, and continued through many reigns. It was completed with the casting of a giant bell in 754, the 13th year of King Gyeongdeok’s reign.
Historical records say Hwangnyongsa housed a huge ritual bell four times taller than the Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok (3.75 meters tall), which is one of the largest and most beautiful bells in the world. More famously, an 80-meter-tall nine-story wooden pagoda stood on the temple grounds, rising as high as 20-story buildings today.
Legend also has it that the temple had a five-meter-tall golden statue of the Buddha and two attendant bodhisattvas, which were cast with 55,000 geun of iron and 30,000 pun of gold sent by King Asoka of India. The Indian king is said to have sent the material and scale models for the images after repeated attempts had failed in his country. A 1.82-meter-tall decorative tile for the end of a roof ridge attests to the temple’s legendary scale and grand architectural style. The nine-story wooden pagoda, which could be seen from anywhere in Gyeongju, is said to have been erected to show off Silla’s growing power to its nine neighbors.

Mountain Fortress Area: The Royal Capital’s Defense Strongholds

A basin surrounded by mountains, Gyeongju had military fortifications built along its natural defense line. Myeonghwal Mountain Fortress (Myeonghwal Sanseong) is the only mountain fortress of Silla included in the World Heritage areas. Built with undressed stone during the early years of Silla, this fortress on Mt. Myeonghwal east of Gyeongju greatly contributed to the defense of the royal capital along with fortresses on Mt. Nam and Mt. Seondo. King Jabi temporarily resided in Myeonghwal in 475, which suggests the fortress was of considerable scale.
Gyeongju has an unusual history as the capital of a kingdom that lasted over a thousand years. It is a historic city with rare records stretching from the ancient to medieval and modern ages. The history of Gyeongju spanning two millennia has incomparable historical and cultural value as the birthplace of Korean culture. This is the reason why Gyeongju is admired and has to be developed into a city of global renown where antiquity and modernity are happily harmonized.