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Gyeongju, Korea’s treasure house

The RAS usually organizes at least two excursions to Gyeongju every year. It is the single most important ancient cultural site in Korea and everyone who spends some time in the country should visit it. It is one of my personal favorite places, and it is a great pleasure for me to be working here again (the first time was in 1986).

Every year, more than two million tourists visit the relatively small but 1,600-year-old city of Gyeongju to marvel at its unparalleled treasures and experience its noble cultural atmosphere. They enjoy the hundreds of amazing ancient sacred sites and artworks found all around the area, many of them with colorful legends that enhance their significance, and the equally excellent resort, lodging, and restaurant options. There is a nearly endless depth to explore, learn about, and appreciate here, if you take an interest in traditional Korean culture, Buddhism and its artworks, architecture, and such matters.

A group of ancient tombs in Nodong-dong, Gyeongju (photo: Yonhap News)

A group of ancient tombs in Nodong-dong, Gyeongju (photo: Yonhap News)

This town was known throughout Korea’s early history as Saro, Silla, Seorabeol, Gyerim (Rooster Forest), and Geumseong (Golden Fortress), and it was the capital city of the Silla Kingdom for almost 1,000 years. It is both a coastal and inland area in the southeastern corner of what is now Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang Province), and is Korea’s third-most popular tourism city, after Seoul and Busan.

The foundation myth recorded in medieval times told that it was established in 57 BCE, when six village chieftains recognized the supernatural Park Hyeokgeose as the first king, but the era when such a person may actually have lived was somewhat later. In reality we think that there was a significant tribal village here by 200 CE, something of a walled city-state by 300 CE.

David A. Mason (photo courtesy of Mason)

David A. Mason (photo courtesy of Mason)

Between the first and second centuries, iron-age culture was formed, with the beginnings of a centralized hereditary kingdom by 400, and a flourishing, expanding kingdom named Silla that had fully accepted Buddhism in the 500s. It is remarkable that that acceptance, attributed to 527, was about 150 years after its neighboring and rival kingdoms Baekje and Goguryeo.

It attained its “golden age” from about 600 to 800 when it became very wealthy and strong, defeating the other proto-Korean kingdoms on this peninsula and unifying about three-quarters of it. During this glorious period it reached an estimated population of one million, possibly the fourth-largest city in the world by 750 (after Xi’an, Rome, and Constantinople). This resulted in a remaining collection of unsurpassed artistic and architectural treasures that now fill it, including a few items that can be called some of the best Buddhist artworks in all the world.

We know for sure that this city steeply declined during the 800s and was ravaged by civil wars in the early 900s, and the Silla Dynasty came to a tragic formal end in 935. The two later Korean dynasties, Goryeo and Joseon, left this town as an aristocratic backwater, honored but ignored. They gave it the name Gyeongju, which you may be interested to know actually means Congratulation or Celebration -- but Koreans just think of it as a place-name, with no significance to that meaning.

Gyeongju is one of the key locations of Korean Buddhist history, and hosts the nation’s highest concentration of Buddhist and ancient-historical sites, relics, and cultural treasures that amply demonstrate the artistic creativity and scientific achievements of the Silla people. Silla’s greatest Buddhist masters such as Won-gwang, Jajang, Wonhyo, and Uisang lived here for key parts of their careers.

Gyeongju’s most significant areas were designated as the Gyeongju National Park in 1970; that park now includes eight sectors -- some are heavily-visited, whilst others are charmingly quiet. The superstar attractions, Bulguk-sa the “Buddha-Nation Temple” and its subsidiary Seokgul-am the “Stone Grotto Hermitage,” both on eastern Mt. Toham-san (Earth Cherish Mountain), were designated as Korea’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Together they contain seven National Treasures, the country’s greatest concentration of those highest-designated antiquities outside of the National Museum of Korea.

Bulguk-sa is close to National Highway 7 as it runs south towards Ulsan, and is easy to get to by tourist coach, city bus, taxi, or car. Seokgul-am is perched east of Bulguk-sa, up near the peak of Mt. Toham-san, facing east at about 750 meters above sea level within Gyeongju National Park. You can take a bus, taxi, or car up there from Bulguk-sa, taking about 20 minutes, or hike up the four kilometers in about one hour. They were both built between 751 and 774 during the reign of King Gyeongdeok of the Unified Silla Dynasty, under the inspiration and direction of high-ranking Minister Kim Dae-seong.

The “Gyeongju Historic Areas” were designated as another World Heritage Site in 2000, including the Mt. Namsan Belt, the Wolseong Belt, the Royal Tombs Belt, the Hwangnyong-sa and Bunhwang-sa temple-sites, and Sanseong Fortress. In particular, Namsan (South Mountain) contains hundreds of stone relics from former Buddhist temples, including a dozen of the highest artistic value. Yangdong Historic Village in northern Gyeongju was added to the UNESCO list in 2010, reflecting the city’s rich post-Silla neo-Confucian aristocratic heritage.

A half-dozen highly sacred mountain groups form Gyeongju’s topography and most of the greatest Buddhist treasures are found on their slopes, still in their original locations. Therefore this city is often called “an outdoor museum without walls” with a very high reputation among researchers, culture-lovers, and tourists. Its actual National Museum contains many more great treasures. It hosts several large cultural festivals every year, and is consistently one of Korea’s top tourist destinations and repositories of historic cultural heritage items.

By David A. Mason
Professor at Gyeongju University

Discover Korea with the RAS
[The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, founded in 1900, is an association of people, Koreans and non-Koreans alike, who wish to deepen their knowledge of Korean life, culture and history, and share that knowledge with others in English. ]


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