Known as the “Museum Without Walls” Gyeong-Ju contains more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas and Buddhist statuary than any other place in South Korea and if your are into history it is a fantastic place to spend a couple of days. Well, actually a few more than just a couple since Gyeong-Ju is a vast area (~1300 sq. km) and there is so much to see. I spend about three days in the area and I did not have time to see quite everything that I wanted to see. However, the various places I managed to visit were absolutely stunning.
The early history of Gyeongju is closely tied to that of the Shilla kingdom (57 BC – 935 CE), of which it was the capital. Based on the dynastic chronicles of the Shilla, Gyeong-Ju, was first established in 57 BCE, when six small villages in the Gyeongju area united under Bak Hyeokheose . As the kingdom expanded, it changed its name to Shilla. During this period, the city was called “Seorabeol”, “Gyerim” or “Geumseong”. In the 7th century CE, under King Munmu, Shilla conquered the neighbouring KIngdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje and Gyeong-Ju became the capital of the whole penisnsula. The city was home to the Shilla court and the great majority of the kingdom’s elite. Its prosperity became legendary, and was reported as far away as Persia according to the 9th century Book of Roads and Kingdoms. The records of Samguk Yusa give the city’s population in its peak period as 178,936 households, suggesting that the total population was almost one million. Many of Gyeongju’s most famous sites date from this Unified Shilla period, which ended in the late 9th century when it was conquered by Goryeo (918–1392).
I traipsed around central Gyeong-Ju and an managed to visit the Tumuli Park, the Noseo-Dong Tombs, the Cheomseondae Observatory and the Bunhwang-Sa Temple. The Tumuli Park holds about two dozen Shilla Dynasty (57 BCE – 935 CE) burials of royals and officials, the most famous one being called Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb). This tomb is also open to visitors and apart from a beautiful painting of a horse (hence the name) it also contains a cross-section display showing its . The tomb itself is 13m high with a diameter of 47m and was build around the 5yh century. Wandering around the Tumuli Park, as well as the adjacent Noseo-Dong Tombs is very pleasant as these areas are very quiet and peaceful. Whether the visit is interesting or not depends a bit on the amount of prep you did before the visit since most of the signs are unfortunately in Korean only. Note that it is considered to be very bad form walking over or across the tumuli and you might end up with a big fine.After visiting the Shilla Tombs I headed towards the Cheomseongdae Observatory, which was constructed between 632CE and 646CE and is most likely the oldest observatory in the Far East having inspired the construction of the a Japanese observatory in 675, and Duke Zhou’s observatory in China in 723. Cheomseongdae, which roughly translates to “star-gazing tower,” is a cylindrical structure composed of 362 granite blocks, which some claim represents the 362 days of the lunar year. In total, there are 27 circular layers of stones, a number believed to reference the 27th ruler of the Silla Kingdom, Queen Seondeok, during whose reign the observatory was built. Furthermore, the south-facing window has 12 stone layers above and 2 stone layers below it, apparently symbolizing the months of the year or the signs of the Zodiac. Disregarding all this symbolism, the observatory is one of the oldest scientific sites in the world and was definitely used for serious astronomical (rather than astrological) research. From the top of the tower, state-appointed astronomers made continuous observations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, developing the ability to predict eclipses and chart the trajectories of comets.
Next on my list was the Bunhwang-Sa temple. Similarly to the Cheomseongdae Observatory, this large pagoda was build in the mid-7th century during the reign of Queen Seondeok, making this the oldest pagoda in Korea. The pagoda is based on prototypes from the Chinese Tang Dynasty However, unlike Tang pagodas which were made from brick, the Shilla architects used stones of black andesite cut like brick. Each story of the pagoda is progressively smaller in size and each story’s roof is made by placing bricks in a staircase-like fashion. Ancient records state the pagoda originally stood nine stories tall. However, today, only three tiers of the pagoda remain.
Bulguk-Sa is one of the Three Jewel Temples in South Korea, alongside the Tongdo-Sa and the Haein-Sa. Bulguk-Sa was first was first constructed in 528 A.D., which was also the first year that Buddhism was officially accepted by the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C – 935 A.D.) during the reign of King Beopheung (514-540 CE). The temple was built to appease the wishes of King Beopheung’s mother, Lady Yeongje, and his wife, Queen Gi Yun. Originally, the temple was named Beopryusa Temple or Hwaeom Bulguksa Temple. Later, the temple was rebuilt by King Jinheung’s mother, Lady Jiso. Nearly two hundred years later, Minister Kim Daeseong started to rebuild Bulguksa Temple. According to the Samguk Yusa (“Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms,” in English), Kim Daeseong built the temple to help pacify the spirits of his parents. However, before it could be completed in 774 A.D., Kim Daeseong died and the temple was completed by the Silla royal court. It was at this time that Bulguksa Temple was given its current name, which means “Buddha Land Temple,” in English.
The temple has been continuously expanded and renovated up to the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Like a lot of temples in South Korea, the wooden temple buildings got razed to the ground in 1592, during the Japanese invasion (1592-98 CE). However, only a few years later, in 1604, reconstruction of the Bulguk-Sa Temple started and by 1700 the temple had been completely restored. Between 1604 and 1805 the temple has been restored about 40 times. Unfortunately, in 1805 the temple fell into disrepair and was looted several times by robbers. After World War II and the Korean War a partial restoration was conducted in 1966. Upon an extensive archeological investigation, major restoration was conducted between 1969 and 1973 resulting in the reconstruction of 24 buildings. As a consequence of all of this, the only original bits that have been preserved are the foundation stones and some of the pagodas.
This mountain south of the city centre truly incapsulates the city’s slogan, “A Museum Without Walls” and is probably one of region’s most rewarding areas to explore. Within a few moments of starting your hike of Namsan Mountain, you’ll understand why. Strewn among the forested mountain sides of Namsan Peak are countless statues, relics, temples and monasteries some of which are over 1000 years old and not one them is protected from hikers by a glass wall, curator, or even a simple rope. Among the relics that have been found here are 122 temple sites, 64 stone pagodas, 57 stone Buddhas and many royal tombs, rock-cut figures, pavillions and remains of fortresses. Literally, hundreds of path criss-cross the park but probably the best place to start (I mean where I started) are the Samneung Royal Tombs, were three Shilla Kings are burried. From here head up the western slopes of the mountain and start exploring. You might have to head of the main trails to scout for relics, but as the path are well trodden (and well signposted) there is little chance of getting lost – and finding hidden statues is ohhh so rewarding. I spend a happy day wondering around the from statue to statue to temple. It is absolutely worth a trip and I would nearly say that if you have only a day to spare, visit the Namsan Mountain.