Episode 6: Gyeongju Historic Areas

In 2000, Gyeongju in North Gyeongsangdo Province was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of “Gyeongju Historic Areas.” The entire city was placed on the prestigious list thanks to its well-preserved history and culture of the ancient kingdom of Silla. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom that existed for nearly 1,000 years from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. In the past, it was called Seorabeol. The whole city is dotted with numerous cultural relics, including national treasures. Gyeongju Historic Areas are divided into five zones, based on their characteristics.

The first zone is the Mount Namsan Belt, regarded as the treasure trove of Silla’s Buddhist art.
Located south of Gyeongju, the small mountain stands at 494 meters above sea level. Despite the low altitude, Mount Namsan has deep valleys and varied ridges. Even before Buddhism was introduced to the nation, Silla people believed that a type of god lived at the mountain to protect them.
It was a sacred place with special meaning. So, in the sixth century when Buddhism was officially recognized in Silla, people began to build temples near every valley at the mountain, set up pagodas on mountaintops and engrave the image of Buddha on the rocks. Today, there are 150 temple sites, 100 stone pagodas and 100 Buddhist statues within the belt. Mount Namsan itself is a huge art hall featuring a variety of Buddhist relics.

The second zone is the Wolseong Belt, a royal palace site of the 1,000-year kingdom.

In the second month of the 22nd year of King Pasa, the fifth ruler of Silla, a castle was built and named Wolseong. In the seventh month, the king moved to Wolseong and lived there.

According to the written by Kim Bu-sik, construction of Wolseong began in the year 101, and it served as the royal palace until Silla collapsed in 935.
Wolseong was the political center of the dynasty with such a long and rich history. In the area, there is Gyerim Wood, where Kim Al-ji, the founder of the royal Kim clan of Silla, was born. The clan produced 38 kings out of a total of 56 Silla monarchs. Other renowned spots in the belt include the ruins of the Imhaejeon Palace, which was one of the Silla royal family’s detached palaces, and Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest existing astronomical observatory in East Asia.

The third zone, the Tumuli Belt, features a cluster of ancient tombs of Silla kings, queens and aristocrats.
It is known as the Daereungwon Area in Korean because of an old record that states: “King Michu was buried in Daereung.” Here, 23 great and small tombs are clustered together. They include the Royal Tomb of King Michu, Hwangnamdaechong or the Great Tumulus of Hwangnam, which is the largest ancient tomb from the Silla era, as well as Cheonmachong Tumulus, meaning Heavenly Horse Tomb.
The tombs were built during the 5th and 6th centuries when Silla established strong sovereign power. Valuable relics were excavated from the tombs, showing the lifestyles of the time. The relics discovered include golden crowns—the essence of dazzling Silla culture, glass cups and the Cheonmado painting or the Painting of a Heavenly Horse.

The fourth zone is the Hwangnyongsa Temple area, a hub of Silla Buddhism.

The whirling stairs look as if it is flying into the sky. A thousand rivers and a thousand mountains are seen at a glance. Looking down, I can see countless houses in Gyeongju far in the distance, like a hive.

Kim Geuk-gi, a writer from the Goryeo era, wrote that poem after he ascended the nine-story wooden pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple. Construction of the temple began in 553 and was completed in 645.
Although this guardian temple of Silla was burned down during the Mongol invasion in 1238, it boasted a magnificent scale. The largest temple from the Silla period, with the temple compound covering some 66,000 square meters, had an 82-meter-high, nine-story wooden pagoda and a giant bell that weighed 108 tons. The Hwangnyongsa Belt, where the ruins of the enormous temple remain, clearly shows Silla’s power and status.

The fifth zone is the Sanseong Fortress Belt, the core of the city’s defense structure.

General, Silla shares its land borders with Goguryeo and Baekje, while on the sea, Japanese pirates are always watching for a chance to attack us. We should set up some facilities as a defense against enemy attacks.
You’re absolutely right. Silla is surrounded by mountains, so we should build mountain fortresses on the outskirts of Seorabeol. The fortifications will certainly be helpful for the defense of the royal capital.

The three ancient Korean kingdoms competed fiercely for power on the Korean Peninsula. During the Three Kingdoms period, Silla built mountain fortresses such as Myeonghwal, Seohyeong and Bukhyeong as well as Namsan Fortress outside Gyeongju.
Myeonghwal Mountain Fortress, among others, is estimated to have been built before the year 400. Traces of the dual-structured fortress with a perimeter covering 6 kilometers still remain, proving that it contributed greatly to the defense of Gyeongju at the time.

Gyeongju Historic Areas show many different aspects of the millennium kingdom of Silla. The breath of the people of Silla can be felt throughout these areas, which act like living, outdoor museums of history.