The city of Gyeongju isn’t as well known as Seoul or Busan, but it deserves pride of place as a bedrock of Korean culture. It also boasts surprising connections to distant cultures from the past.
To understand Gyeongju today—and, indeed, modern Korea—you first need to understand Shilla. The coastal city was the capital of the Shilla Kingdom (Silla in ancient Korean), a hereditary monarchy that ruled from 57 B.C.E. to 935 A.D.
While the notion of “royal blood” has long been prevalent in the West, aristocratic rank in ancient Korea was organized around the belief in “sacred bone”—direct paternal and maternal lineage to a specific Kim family clan. Later, as sacred bone became harder to achieve, “true bone” emerged as the criteria for royal lineage; it required a connection to Bak and Seok families, along with another Kim lineage.
In all, this rigid ancestry-based system dictated clothing, house size and the permitted range of marriage, among many other cultural norms.
The Unified Shilla (or Later Shilla) period, which lasted from the 7th to 9th centuries, is considered the cultural peak of the dynasty. It was a wealthy and prosperous era for the region, with Gyeongju ranking as the fourth-largest city in the world at the time.
It was also a period when Buddhism became extremely important to Shilla society—as evidenced by the Seokguram Grotto, located within the Bulguksa Temple.
Chief minister Kim Daeseong initiated the site in 742 A.D. during the reign of Gyeongdeok. Legend has it that Kim ordered the Bulguksa Temple built in honor of his parents in his present life, while the Seokguram Grotto was dedicated to his parents from a previous life.
The Shilla rulers’ focus on legacy didn’t end with honoring their forebears. They also constructed monuments to their own greatness—many of which were partially located underground.
Today, Gyeongju’s Tumuli Park Belt has three groups of Royal Tombs, which appear as grass mounds in the shape of domes, half-moons or gourds. The core of the mounds hold double wooden coffins, but in most cases, the remains cannot be traced to a specific ruler. As a result, the tombs are now named after some of the other remarkable objects they contain.
Indeed, history seekers have found veritable treasures inside the tombs, including gold, fine ceramics and a birch bark mural painting of a winged horse. They’ve also discovered several artifacts from the ancient Middle East: a silver bowl engraved with an image of the Persian goddess Anahita, a golden dagger, and clay busts and figurines portraying Middle Eastern merchants.
This latter assortment, which includes objects that date back as far as 1,500 years, reflects the prominence of the ancient Silk Road. The famous trading route facilitated a remarkable economic and cultural exchange between Korea and Persia (ancient Iran) despite a distance of more than 6,000 kilometers between the two nations.
In addition to the Seokguram Grotto and Tumuli Park Belt, many of Gyeongju’s other ancient treasures have survived the vicissitudes of time and incursions from the Mongolians, Japanese and Neo-Confucians. Indeed, UNESCO added Gyeongju to its World Heritage List in 2000, noting the city’s outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art.
Late October is one of the best periods of the year to see these works and experience the region’s enduring culture. At that time, locals hold the annual Shilla Cultural Festival, which features concerts, wrestling matches, Buddhist pagoda dancing and lavish processions with elaborate floats.
It’s the perfect opportunity to channel your inner Shilla and celebrate Gyeongju’s—and Korea’s—rich history.
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