South Korea has featured frequently in the news this year, as a result of its successful management of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a remarkable country with industrious people and a fascinating history, as we saw when we visited the archeological sites of the ancient city of Gyeongju.
South Koreans are proud people with a rich cultural heritage. One of their most important dynasties, the Silla Kingdom, ruled Korea for almost 1,000 years, from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. Many of this kingdom’s cultural achievements can be seen around the city of Gyeongju, which is situated in the southeast corner of the country.
This was a prosperous time, for Gyeongju was the fourth largest city in the world, home to the Silla Royal Court and a playground for the kingdom’s most privileged residents. Archeological remains show evidence of the lavish lifestyle of Gyeongju’s elite, their careful preparation for after-life, and a wealth of superb Buddhist art.
Mahayana Buddhism spread from China into Korea during the seventh century and was adopted by the Silla Kingdom. Nearby Mt. Namsan became a sacred Buddhist peak and inspired the religion’s devotees to hire the most outstanding architects and craftsmen to build temples and create sculptures dedicated to the Buddha. In 2000, UNESCO designated all of Gyeongju’s historic area as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
There’s a lot to see and we spent a whole weekend exploring Gyeongju’s celebrated exhibits – the Tumuli Park, the National Museum, the Cheomseongdae Observatory, the Donggung Palace, Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto and the Gyochon Traditional Village. The Tumuli Park, to the south of Gyeongju, has around 20 large tomb mounds dating back to the mid-1st century. Excavation began in the 1970s and thousands of important items have since been discovered.
We explored the interior of the most famous tomb, nick-named the ‘Flying Horse’, because of a painting of a galloping and winged horse found amongst its contents. Other treasures unearthed were gold jewellery, ornate belts, jade ornaments and a beautiful gold crown. These and the finest items from other tombs are displayed in the nearby National Museum. Among the most important and eye-catching items at the museum is the huge bronze Emille Bell, cast in 770 A.D. It is one of the world’s oldest and largest, 2.3m in diameter and weighing 20 tonnes.
The Chomsongdae is Asia’s oldest surviving astronomical observatory tower. It is bottle-shaped, almost 10m tall and is constructed from 365 pieces of cut granite representing the number of days in a year. There are 12 rectangular base stones, plus 12 separate levels of stones above and below a central window. Does the number 12 imply the signs of the zodiac or the number of months in the year? Only the Silla Dynasty geomancers know for certain, but this iconic tower was probably used to observe the movements of stars in the sky and maybe even forecast the weather.
We enjoyed the ambience of the beautiful pavilions of the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, which are the remains of the Silla Kings’ royal residence complex. The palace’s Poseokjeong Pavilion was said to be the most beautiful but, unfortunately, no longer exists. This is where the kings and court noblemen enjoyed their banquets.
In a popular drinking game, the guests sailed their wine cups around a 10m long winding stone water channel. One person would make up a line of poetry, float his wine cup on the channel’s flowing water and challenge another guest to create a suitable second line for the poem. Should the wine cup reach the guest before he had finished composing, then he was obliged to consume the entire alcoholic contents of the cup! The timing of the cup’s arrival depended upon the curves of the channel, the rate of water flow and the quantity of wine in the cup. Any guest who failed this daunting literary task was ordered to keep trying (and drinking) until an acceptable line of poetry was completed. Modern-day Koreans love to tease foreign visitors with similar drinking games and, speaking from bitter experience and some painful hangovers, we can truthfully say that the foreigner always loses!
The sprawling temple complex of Bulguksa is revered throughout the land and is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monasteries in Korea. It was snowing when we arrived, which was rather unexpected in the month of March, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. There were very few other visitors on this chilly day, so it was a rare privilege to have the country’s most famous temple almost to ourselves. Its structure was badly damaged during the Korean War but has since been flawlessly restored and the complex stands as a supreme example of Silla architectural craftsmanship.
The temple’s spectacular hillside setting, surrounded by manicured stands of pine, plum, cherry, peach and pear trees, enhances its beauty even further. The entrance is at the top of a long stone staircase and inside we admired wonderful examples of Buddhist art including some colourful temple guardians and an amazing painting of the ‘Goddess of Mercy’ with 1,000 hands.
Seokguram Grotto, a stone cave hermitage, is an eighth century annex to Bulguksa and built into a hillside on nearby Mt. Toham. We adored this diminutive place of worship, which is delightfully situated amongst pines and maples, and an important pilgrimage site for students of Buddhism. The grotto enshrines a white granite marble Sokkamoni Buddha, widely considered to be one of the world’s great masterpieces of Buddhist art. He sits serenely on a large circular throne and faces east, thereby offering protection against invasion across the East Sea, as marauding Japanese pirates were prevalent at the grotto’s time of construction.
Significantly, the rising sun strikes the statue right on the centre of its forehead. This beautiful image has become so popular with visitors that it has to be kept behind glass for its own safety.
The Gyochon Traditional Folk Village is an important modern addition to Gyeongju’s attractions. There are many similar villages throughout Korea but this is one of the best. We admired the environmentally friendly construction of traditional houses, always built in harmony with their natural surroundings, and designed to endure cold winters with their Ondol under-floor heating system.
We also sampled the local (and gaspingly strong) Beopju Liquor, listened to traditional music and learned about the country’s folk arts and ‘Living National Treasures’.
The ‘Living National Treasures’ of Korea are people with specialist skills that have been handed down through generations. The creation of a list of these exceptional people began in 1962 with the impressive aim of protecting and enhancing all the intangible heritage of the country. There are now over 500 artisans on the list with a diverse range of skills that include the making of horsehair hats, Korean court dance, ceremonies that honour Confucius, traditional folk music and silk embroidery.
Once people are designated as holders, they have the right to government support but are also required to publicly demonstrate their abilities and train younger students in their unique talents.
South Korea has been a world leader in promoting heritage education and conservation, and it is encouraging to report that through vigorous support by UNESCO and the EU, many other countries and cultures are now following their innovative example.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.