Saturday, November 14, 2009


Gyeongju

Part I

I first visited Gyeongju a couple of weeks after my arrival in South Korea, for the annual Traditional Rice Cake and Alcohol Festival held there, which I enjoyed immensely and ever since going I've been promising myself I would go back.

One of South Korea's most popular tourist destinations, visiting Gyeongju is like taking a time machine back into the past and last weekend I finally got around to returning.

Wherever you go, you come across something intersting, from beautiful temples and mountain shrines, to ancient tombs of royalty that once ruled Korea and centuries old images of the Buddha, carved in stone.

The capital of the Silla Kingdom(57 BC-935 AD), it was once one of the world's largest cities in its heyday, with a population of nearly 1 million people living there.

The Silla Dynasty lasted for 992 years and most of the sights Gyeongju has to offer date from the 7th century, when the peninsula was reunified.

With the decline of the Silla Empire and the following Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, Gyeongju lost much of its national importance, but remained a regional centre throughout and approximately 350,000 people currently reside there today.


The Three Buddha Statues Of Bae-ri

Having travelled on the coach from Seoul the previous night, I awoke early for a busy day of sightseeing and once ready I headed towards the tourist information office, in Gyeongju Station.

Walking through the centre of Gyeongju I passed through the market set up along the side of the road, on the pavement. Less of a tourist trap than others I have visited, there were stalls selling everything from fruit and vegetables to ginseng, fish and kitchen utensils. Many of the stallholders were very old, some were well into their late seventies, their faces weathered by old age.

When I arrived at the tourist office they provided me with an invaluable itinary to get the most out of my weekend, with lots of advice allowing me to see as much as possible in the available time. The woman here advised me to start off by looking around the city centre itself before going further afield, so after thanking her I made my way to Tumuli Park, to visit the royal tombs there.

The largest burial site in Gyeongju with 23 tombs, it's the ideal place for a leisurely stroll in the middle of autumn.

The tombs themselves are covered by huge mounds of stone and earth, in all manner of sizes, some of them even spanning 80 metres in diameter. Similar to the ones I visited recently in Seoul, visually they were a lot simpler, without the elaborate statues and sculptures associated with those of the Joseon era that I had seen previously.

The largest tomb here is Hwangnamdaechong and is believed to have housed a king and a queen. Excavated between 1973 to 1975, it is 23 metres high and its length from north to south is 47 metres and from east to west it is 80 metres. Inside many valuable treasures were found, such as necklaces and other jewellery, which are now on display in the nearby Gyeongju National Museum

Also known as the Heavenly Horse Tomb, Cheonmachong was first excavated in 1974 and over 10,000 treasures were found in it, including a gold crown and a painting of a mounted horse, the only discovered painting from the Silla era. It is actually possible to walk inside this tomb and on display are replicas of objects that were found, as well as the remains of the person inside.

The 13th king of the Silla Dynasty, King Mich'u, is also buried here in a tomb known as Chukhyonnung or 'Bamboo Soldier Tomb'. During his reign of 22 years, the Silla Kingdom grew in power and he was also successful in fending off attacks from the nearby Baekje Kingdom.

The tomb gains its name from the myth that when the country was under attack, warriors with bamboo leaves in their ears would emerge from the tomb to repel the invaders. Regarding the significance of the bamboo leaves, be it some sort of mystical device for aiding the warriors in battle or a Silla Military fashion statement, I unfortunately have no idea whatsoever.


Cheomseongdae

A short walk then led me to Cheomseongdae, which is the oldest existing observatory in the Far East. Looking somewhat similar to the top of a bottle, it is 9 metres in height and in the south side there is small window. Built during the reign of Queen Seonduk, believed to be the 27th ruler of the Silla Dynasty, it has 27 layers of granite bricks on top of a square base which may represent this. At the top are four stone bars arranged in a square shape.

It is filled up with earth to the height of the window and it is through here that a person would have entered to observe the heavens. The actual use of the observatory has fuelled much debate regarding its use. Whilst there are those that believe its purpose was astronomical, others have critiscised this viewpoint, pointing out that the building is not actually suitable for observing the stars and that nothing similar can be found in China.

Another explanation is that the observatory may have been used for astrological purposes. During the Silla period, studying the movements of the stars and planets was very important and would have been used in all aspects of policy making. From matters of state to agricultural practices, astronomy would have been used for determining whether battles should be fought, to when crops should be planted.

You can see all the photos here.

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