Episode 12: Baekje Historic Areas

In 2015, Baekje Historic Areas became Korea’s 12th UNESCO-designated World Heritage site. Baekje is an ancient Korean kingdom that existed from 18 B.C. to 660 A.D.
It fiercely competed with two neighboring kingdoms, namely Goguryeo and Silla, for supremacy on the Korean Peninsula. Baekje is often characterized by a high level of culture. It was willing to accept advanced culture, cultivate it in its own way and spread it to neighboring states to play a key role in developing culture in ancient times. This element was highly appreciated by UNESCO, which placed Baekje Historic Areas on its World Heritage list. They are divided into three areas such as Gongju, Buyeo and Iksan, home to the remains of Baekje’s rich culture.

The first historic area is Gongju in South Chungcheongdo Province. It was the capital of Baekje during the Ungjin period. Baekje joined forces with smaller tribal states in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula to grow into a nation. After Baekje lost the Hangang River basin to the northern kingdom of Goguryeo in 475, it moved its capital to Ungjin, which is present-day Gongju, to pave the way for the nation to prosper again.
Gongsanseong Fortress in Gongju served as the royal palace of Baekje for 63 years until 538, when the capital was relocated to Buyeo. The huge mountain fortress covering 370,000 square meters was a defensive, natural fortification, which was built along the ridge and the valleys by the Geumgang River.
During the Ungjin period, Baekje built up its national power, engaging in exchanges with other kingdoms in East Asia. A group of royal tombs in Songsan-ri represents the pinnacle of Baekje’s royal culture. The seven royal tombs include King Muryeong’s tomb that was discovered in 1971.

“It is not a coincidence that mud bricks were discovered during the drainage work that had been carried out to prevent flooding of the sixth tomb of Songsan-ri. I’m sure a royal tomb is located here, waiting to awaken from its long sleep.”
“So are we going through the arch-shaped mud bricks that we found this morning?”
“Yes, we are. First, I’ll lift out the two bricks on top. You can then remove the bricks below one by one.”
“Sir, I can see a mason guarding the tomb inside the entrance. Over there, I can also see something that looks like a memorial stone.”

King Muryeong, the 25th monarch of Baekje, ruled the nation for 22 years from 501. A memorial stone describing his name and the year of his death was excavated in his tomb. The tumulus is the only tomb of which the owner was identified among all royal tombs from the Three Kingdoms period.
It was made of bricks, a style influenced by China, while the wooden coffin of the king was made with Japanese gold pine trees. The tomb is a valuable relic that shows Baekje’s active exchanges with foreign nations during ancient times.

The second historic area is Buyeo, which served as the capital of Baekje during the Sabi period. In 538, King Seong, the 26th ruler, relocated the capital to Buyeo with fertile lands in order to strengthen national power. At the time, Buyeo was known as Sabi, where a royal palace was built.
The remains of Gwanbuk-ri include a large building site spanning 630 square meters, waterworks, storage facilities and a pond. This area is presumed to be the old palace site. Busosanseong Fortress, surrounding Busosan Mountain, was located at the rear of the royal palace. It served as a rear garden of the palace at normal times and was used as a defensive facility in case of emergencies.

“Baekje culture is simple but never humble. It is splendid but not extravagant.”
Baekje’s aesthetics recorded in the “History of the Three Kingdoms” can be felt in the Jeongnimsa Temple site. A pagoda and the main building of the temple were erected in a straight line—a temple layout peculiar to Baekje. The elegant, five-storied stone pagoda that is 8.3 meters high stands out at the site. It feels like the temple site still holds the spirit of Baekje people some 1,400 years ago. Naseong Fortress, which was constructed to defend the capital, was the first outer city wall built on the Korean Peninsula. The complex of old tombs in Neungsan-ri, where the royal treasure of a gilt-bronze incense burner was excavated, also illustrates the refined culture of Baekje during the Sabi period.

The third historic area is Iksan in North Jeollado Province. The area had complementary functions to make up for the weaknesses of the capital of Sabi. In this area, Baekje built a huge secondary palace covering over 210,000 square meters. The ruins of the palace are found at the Wanggung-ri site.
“According to the <Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms>, King Mu of Baekje and his wife were passing by a large pond at the foot of Yonghwasan Mountain, when a Maitreya Buddha triad emerged from the pond. They showed respect with full honors, and the queen asked the king to build a large Buddhist temple at the site. Upon the queen’s request, the king set up Mireuksa Temple.”

The Maitreya Buddha or the Future Buddha appears in the birth myth of Mireuksa Temple. Maitreya is called Mireuk in Korean. The myth shows King Mu, the 30th ruler of Baekje, put a great deal of value and effort into building the temple. Mireuksa Temple in Iksan was one of the largest Buddhist temples in East Asia in the seventh century. Traces of the large temple, which was 172 meters wide from east to west, and the 14-meter-high pagoda, the oldest and largest stone pagoda in South Korea, are found at the Mireuksa Temple site. It represents the essence of Baekje’s Buddhist culture.
The glorious kingdom of Baekje collapsed in 660 due to the allied invasion of Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China. It was such a long time ago, but Baekje Historic Areas still display the kingdom’s history and culture to this day. Indeed, Baekje still shines brilliantly, transcending the limits of time.