Gyeongju was the capitol of Shilla, a kingdom that ruled the southern Korean peninsula for nearly a thousand years. The dynasty was formed there in 57 BC and remained in power until 930 AD. This city at one time topped one million inhabitants, then making it one of the largest cities in the world. In 668 the two other kingdoms on the peninsula (Goguryeo in the area now controlled by North Korea and the Baekje centered around the Seoul area) were subdued and Korea was first united under one ruler. The kingdom was weakened by factionalism within and pressure from another kingdom in the north until in 930 a Goguryeo military leader, Wang Geon, defeated Shilla and once again united the continent under his dynasty, Goryeo (from which the name Korea is derived). This dynasty lasted until its overthrow in 1392. The succeeding dynasty, founded by Yi Seong-gye, lasted till 1910, when the country was occupied by Japan. (This historical information from the Lonely Planet and travel pamphlets.)
Over the last thirty years the Korean government has made monumental efforts in the recovery, preservation, and restoration of the thousands of structures and artifacts located in the Gyeongju area. History is incredibly popular in Korea, and they rightfully feel proud of the relative stability of their kingdom throughout history. Whenever I have the opportunity to flip channels on Korean TV I invariably find a few channels devoted to historical documentaries and dramas based on the ancient era. Koreans also love to travel, and Gyeongju is a choice destination for many people. When we were there the place was packed, but there are so many sites to see and they are so open that it didn't seem too overused. Only at Seokguram, where there is one way in and one way out and only room for maybe twenty people to look at a time, was it a real problem.
And the curators of the place have done a good job to balance the reverence and respect necessary for things like tombs and temples with the entertainment value and crowd control necessary for high volume tourism. The city itself has made an attempt to maintain the feel of an ancient city. The two most obvious ways are in the restriction of multi-story buildings around the historic sites and the insistence on traditional roofing in those areas. Many people, wanting the traditional experience to extend to their palette will dine at one of the many restaurants near the historic sites offering "traditional Korean food." I couldn't tell the difference between "traditional" and "modern" Korean food and that is telling. Korean food is excellent across the board, and if the adage holds then "if it ain't broke don't fix it."
Here are the things we saw while in Gyeongju, in no particular order:
- Cheomseongdae: This is "the Far East's oldest astronomical observatory. We went to this site twice, once on foot and a second time on a tour bus that duplicated couple of the previous day's path. I mention this because the tour guide had to explain to us why we were parking so far away. The observatory, because of nearby traffic among other causes, had begun to tip slightly a la Piza. This is particularly problematic for an astronomical observatory obviously. Various stones and their arrangement indicate the various components of the astronomical system as they were understood when the structure was built in the seventh century. I was interviewed by a college student when we visited the first time and he asked me what I thought the significance of this place was. I told him that while his culture was practicing actual science my ancestors were burning people at the stake for even postulating that the earth might not be flat or at the center of the universe. (If you want more technical information about this and other sites in the list I have linked to Wikipedia above.)
- Anapji Pond: When this site was reconstructed in 1975 researchers were delighted to find out that many of the original artifacts and archetectural components had ended up in the pond. As it was dredged and rebuilt they foudn ceramics, fixtures, wooden beams, and foundation stones from the palace. It was originally built to be a "pleasure garden to commemorate the unification of the Korean peninsula under Shilla" (LonePlan 200).
- Bulguksa: With construction beginning in 528, this sprawling temple complex in the mountains south of Gyeongju has been called the "crowning glory of Shilla temple archetecture." It is situated in the midst of beautiful gardens and landscaped grounds. A pond with a beautiful bridge and grotto lay between the main gate and the temple complex. Huge courtyards surrounded by an arcades hold the two main temples. Others are accessible only by climbing incredibly steep stairways. Monks were painting in the courtyard of the temple highest up the mountain. It was a beautiful place. If I am able to do a temple stay at some point I would like to do it here. Buddhists from all over Asia have been making pilgrimage to this place for centuries. The Wiki for this site is particularly well done.
- Seokguram: Like Bulguksa, Seokguram has a place on the Unesco World Heritage List. This is the only historic site that I had previous knowledge of before coming to Korea. The huge stone Buddha at this site was one of two or three depicted in the Asian section of the Humanities 101 textbook I taught with at Lincoln Land. It was truly amazing to see this in person. The Buddha sits in a stone rotunda that is partially carved into the side of a mountain. The Bhudda itself sits 3.5 meters tall and overlooks the sea from its mountain perch at 750 meters above sea level. Since times of old he has been regarded as a protector of the nation.
- Cheonmachong: One of the many tomb mounds, or tumuli, in Gyeongju, this one has been escavated and is open to the public. Half of the tomb's core has been removed, allowing visitors to see how the tombs are constructed. Wooden beams box the burial chamber, which in this case was about 3x5m. There were many gold artifacts unearthed from the tomb and replicas were on display, including golden crowns, diadems, and breastplates, painted horse tackle, and bronze table service.