Gyeongju (경주) — the ancient capital
Near the end of 2017, I visited the South Korean coastal city of Gyeongju for two days, following an itinerary guide for the country I found on the Internet. Beyond knowing a few cursory details about the place (I knew it had some ruins from an ancient kingdom), I’m not really sure why I ultimately decided to visit Gyeongju and see its attractions. I don’t think I was able to appreciate the city during my stay and I’m even willing to admit that, at the time, I felt like the visit was a “boring waste of time”.
Reflecting back on my experiences, I’m bothered by this attitude I held. Deep down, I know that an inner value can be gleaned from almost any place you visit. It all depends on your perceptiveness and willingness to learn. So here I am, going back to my old photographs, looking up history articles, and retracing my steps in an attempt to reappreciate Gyeongju all over again. Call this a travelogue-cum-personal research project if you will. I’m rewiring my old travel memories here.
Silla: An introduction
Gyeongju is a relatively small city (pop: ~264,000) less than an hour’s bus ride from the bustling port city of Busan and it is a place steeped in deep, rich history. It was once the capital of Silla, an ancient and prosperous kingdom that began over two millennia ago (57 BC) and lasted for an extraordinarily long time — nearly 1,000 years (till 935 AD). Certainly longer than many empires and dynasties throughout human history.
In the beginning, Silla was the smallest and weakest of three states vying for control over the Korean Peninsula, but through cunning diplomacy and a close relationship with the powerful Tang Dynasty of China, it was able to crush its rivals and effectively dominate the peninsula. Over the centuries, Silla grew in wealth and power and developed a reputation for being a country of gold and silver.
These days, many of the major Silla related attractions can be found in the Gyeongju Historic Areas, designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Dubbed a “the museum without walls”, it remains a place that few international tourists visit.
The Royal Tumuli
It didn’t take long on my first day of exploration to stumble across the ancient burial mounds of Silla. They seemed to be almost everywhere — big, eerie, grassy mounds that contain the tombs of Silla royalty. A cluster of them can be found Tumuli Park in the centre of the old capital, only a short walk from the main train station. And it would make sense that there would be quite a few mounds around the place: over its long life, the kingdom saw a total of 56 monarchs, 3 of whom were queens — a rarity for ancient Asian kingdoms.
One of the most interesting tombs in the park (something I didn’t realise at the time, even when I photographed it) is the Tomb of King Michu, aka the “Tomb of the Bamboo Chief”. According to legend, King Michu was able to send a ghost army from beyond the grave to save Silla when external forces threatened it. After the ghosts killed the kingdom’s enemies, they disappeared, leaving behind only the bamboo leaves that had infested the enemy corpses. A rather macabre, botanical calling card one might say.
Another site I didn’t fully understand at the time was Cheomseongdae Observatory, a 7th-century observatory tower. Located a short distance southeast from Tumuli Park, it is the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia and quite possibly in the whole world.
During peacetime, once all of Silla’s rivals on the peninsula were crushed, science and culture were able to flourish in the kingdom. It is believed that the tower served as the centrepiece for an entire scientific district in the city. The tower had both scientific astronomical purposes and more mystical astrological ones. Like many parts of the ancient world, the movement of the stars was used to guide all facets of life, from when to plant and harvest crops, to when to wage war and make alliances.
And like the rest of the ancient world, it was hardly a place of scientific reason as we would recognise today. Silla operated under a strict social hierarchy, a fantastical caste system known as the “Bone Rank System”. A person’s “bone rank” in Silla was determined by their hereditary bloodline, and this rank dictated everything in their lives: from how many servants they could have, what kind of saddle they could sit on, and even what types of utensil they could eat with. For instance, only women of the highest caste (the “sacred bone rank”) were permitted to wear hairpins enchased with gemstones or jade. Some scholars even believe that this stagnant, inefficient caste structure helped with Silla’s decline, despite the kingdom’s wealth and sophistication.
A little further southwest from here is the Gyeongju National Museum which holds many of the Silla relics uncovered from the old capital. One prime example sits right in the main courtyard of the museum: the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, a massive bronze bell dating back to the 8th century. It has a grisly if fanciful origin story — supposedly the original versions of the giant bell refused to make a sound despite being remade over and over again. Eventually, a live baby was thrown into the molten bronze of the furnace in order to cast a bell that made the ‘perfect sound’.
The museum itself is filled with a range of fascinating artefacts. By tapping into the riches of the Silk Road, Silla was able to transform itself and become fabulously rich. Precious gold, silver and glassware from as far away as Persia has been found in Gyeongju and wealthy aristocrats were said to have owned thousands of slaves.
Muhammed al-Idrisi, an Arab medieval geographer and travel writer from Sicily, provides the very earliest known account of Korea to westerners. Writing in the 12th century, he stated that “travelers who visit Silla do not think of returning home. Gold is too common. Even the dog’s leash and the monkey’s collar are made of gold.” It was as though Korea was seen at the time as a mythical El Dorado of the East.
Dongung Palace and Wolji Pond
The ancient capital also once had numerous luxurious palace sites. Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, an artificial pond on the palace grounds, represents one such place. Close to the Gyeongju National Museum and beautifully lit up at night, it was originally a secondary palace site used by Crown Prince and was also a banquet site for important national event and esteemed visitors.
However, after the fall of Silla, the site was abandoned and largely forgotten. It was finally restored to an inkling of its former glory in the 1970s under the Korean dictator President Park Chung-hee (many people forget that South Korea was not a continuous democracy until the 1980s). There was a political agenda behind it, obviously — President Park was keen on restoring and promoting historical sites, such as those in Gyeongju, as a means of inspiring cultural unity in the consciousness of the people.
The following day I took a bus out of the city centre and up the slopes of nearby Mount Toham to visit Bulguksa Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in South Korea. Built in the early 500s, it represents the flourishing and installation of Buddhism as the Silla state religion. As with many exotic goods that found their way into the ancient capital, Buddhism was brought to Gyeongju from Central Asia via the Silk Road.
Bulguksa is one of the head temples the Jogye Order of traditional Korean Buddhism and has had a rough history. It was almost destroyed by the Japanese invasions in the late 1500s and lay largely in ruins for centuries after. Like with Dongung Palace and Wolji Pond, it was only properly restored in the 1970s under President Park Chung-hee.
Within the temple complex are two well-known stone pagodas: the Dabotap Pagoda and Seokgatap Pagoda, which stand opposite each other. Dagotap is meant to be feminine, dark, cold, and representative of the messy complexity of the physical world. In contrast, Seokgatap is intended to be masculine, bright, hot, and simplistic, symbolising the elegance of spiritual ascent.
On the temple site, there is also a lucky golden pig that you are supposed to touch it for good luck. And in one part of Bulguksa, there is a courtyard full of stacked stones. The explanation goes that visitors can make (very Instagrammable) wishes by placing stones on the top of each other. If your stack doesn’t tumble down, then your wish will come true. So don’t go around knocking these over, unless you want to ruin everyone’s hopes and dreams.
Hovering above Bulguksa on a mountain ridge is Seokguram, a secluded grotto that is known for its well crafted Buddhist sculptures. Trudging up there almost felt like a pilgrimage along a cold mountain track — and indeed, the journey up to the grotto from the foot of Mount Toham is supposed to symbolise the spiritual journey of Buddhists to Nirvana.
The highlight of the grotto is a Buddhist cave temple that was constructed in the 8th century. A large, elegant statue of the Buddha seated within a circular chamber beneath a stone dome (photography was discouraged). The statue faces east towards the coast in order to offer protection against seaborne invaders, especially from Japanese pirates that used to prowl the waters.
And this concludes my brief trip to Gyeongju: the venerable heart of an obscure and bygone kingdom in one small part of Asia. While I might not have been able to fully admire these sites at the time, I believe that this small writing and research exercise has helped me to relive, to recollect, and rethink my visit.
Next stop: Busan