There are plenty of remnants of Ancient Silla heritage conveniently located within downtown Gyeongju, which means, if you stayed in downtown Gyeongju overnight (which I did a for a few nights), or if you just arrived in Gyeongju by intercity bus/train, you can walk straight to some historic sites within a reasonable amount of time. I already discussed the ancient royal tombs, so now I will introduce even more ancient Silla heritage in downtown Gyeongju.
The super-fast history of the Silla kingdom is this: Silla was founded in 57 C.E. around the time that iron became widely used in the Korean peninsula, which encouraged the peninsula’s many tiny societies to scale up political organization. At first, Silla just consisted of six village around what is now called Gyeongju, but Silla consistently continued to absorb its neighbors. Eventually, there were three major kingdoms on the Korean peninsula – Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla – as well as the Gaya Confederacy between Baekje and Silla. This is called the ‘Three Kingdoms’ period.
Silla eventually annexed the Gaya Confederacy, Silla formed an alliance with Tang China, and the combined Silla-Tang armies in conquered Baekje 660 C.E. and Goguryeo in 668 C.E., was the beginning of ‘United Silla’. Thus United Silla controlled almost all of the Korean peninsula.
United Silla had bigger and bigger problems, until it broke into the ‘Later Three Kingdoms’, with ‘Later Baekje’ and ‘Later Goguryeo’ (later called ‘Goryeo’) splitting from the United Silla kingdom. Finally, in 935 C.E. the last king of Silla surrendered to the new kingdom of Goryeo, and the kingdom of Silla was no more.
One of Gyeongju’s more popular sights is Anapji Pond, which was originally part of a pleasure garden for Silla’s aristocracy. All of the original buildings burned in 935 C.E., but when the pond was drained in 1975 lots of ancient were found. These are on display in the Gyeongju National Museum, and offer a lot of information about the lives of Silla aristocrats.
Another famous sight is Cheomseongdae, which is the oldest astrological observatory in East Asia. It was constructed during the reign of Queen Seondeok, the first known female ruler of a major kingdom on the Korean peninsula. Though it looks simple, many of the details of its construction have symbolic meaning – for example, it has exactly 366 stones, which represents the days of the year.
There is a very popular (mostly fictional) historical TV drama about Queen Seondeok. I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to eventually watch the Mandarin dub.
Near Anapji Pond and Cheomseongdae is the Gyerim Woodland (shown at the top of this post) where the ancestor of the Silla kings and queens was discovered inside a golden box with a rooster. ‘Gyerim’ means ‘rooster woods’.
Also in the area is Banwolseong, which was once a Silla palace, and is now a very ordinary looking park. A Joseon-era ice house for storing food remains. However, among these landmarks are some fields, some of which have very nice flowers.
And of course, people interested in history should not miss the National Gyeongju Museum, which essentially documents the entire history of Silla, with genuine artifacts to serve as evidence, including the treasures found in tomb excavations. There is a special exhibit dedicated to Buddhist art and another one dedicated to the discoveries from Anapji pond. The museum has an outdoor exhibit, which includes the Emille bell, which is one of the largest bells ever made in Asia, and decorated with lots of detail.
The very evening I arrived in Gyeongju, I happened to go out and see Silla: Land of the Gods the musical. I can summarize the story in one really long sentence (SPOILER WARNING): a young Silla man sees the Hwarang, and later a beautiful woman tells him to join them, so he trains, passes the tests, and becomes a great Hwarang, only to find out that the beautiful woman is dead. It was the very first show I saw in South Korea, and my first exposure to any kind of traditional Korean dance (it may not be as authentic as, say the byeolsingut talnori, but the choreography is inspired by Korean tradition). I had great fun watching the dancing. You can see a bit of the musical yourself on Youtube.
Gyeongju is definitely a city which requires time to explore.