Namsan: A Hike Through Ancient Silla

On the left is an ancient Silla-style stone pagoda, standing on the ledge of a mountain with rocks beside it on the right, trees below the rocks, and a blue patch of sky in the upper right with clouds around it.

Namsan, which means ‘South Mountain’, is south of downtown Gyeongju, and is famous for its many works of Buddhist art from the Silla kingdom left throughout its mountainsides. It is both part of Gyeongju National Park and the ‘Gyeongju Historic Areas’ World Heritage Site. It is said that it could take a lifetime to explore and find every remnant of the Silla kingdom, and that even a comprehensive overview requires at least a week. I spent far less than a week exploring Namsan, but I still managed to see plenty.

The map shows that Gyeongsangbuk Province is in east-central South Korea, and that Gyeongju is in the southeastern corner of the province

I started my hike at Samneung (the Three Tombs – royal tombs of course), and happened to see some sort of ceremony where people were dressed in historical clothes.


I made my way up the trail, and found my first work of ancient Silla Buddhist art – a headless Buddha.


Near the headless buddha statue was a rock carving.

I manipulated this picture with computer software - it's harder to see the Buddhist figures in the regular color photo

I manipulated this picture with computer software – it’s harder to see the Buddhist figures in the regular color photo

I then found a Buddha statue which not only has a head, it also has its own little cave behind it.


A patch of sunlight came out, illuminating the granite slopes as I started to get high enough to see some views.


I then made it to Sangseonam hermitage. Buddhist practice began at Namsam during the Silla dynasty, and today Buddhist nuns and monks continue to stay in Namsam’s hermitages for meditation and study.

Sangseonam as seen from above

Sangseonam as seen from above

I got to the top of one of the ridges, and saw this view of Gyeongju.


One section of the ridge trail passed a rock face which looks like it might have once had an ancient carving, but the carving got badly eroded. Or maybe I just expected to find ancient Buddhist art everywhere because it’s Namsam.


I also continued to see exposed granite and plants suited for harsh conditions, typical for the top of Korean mountains/ridges.


I then reached a section which has a very steept descent, and reached the remains of Yongjangsa, a Buddhist temple built by the Silla Kingdom in Namsam (the Silla kingdom built over 100 temples in Namsam).


There is a classic, Silla-style stone pagoda looking over a mountain ledge.


The views from the pagoda are nice. Perhaps that’s why the pagoda was set up there.


Further down, we see a Buddha carving in the rock.



And next to the rock carving is … another headless Buddha.


If I remember correctly (and I might not, maybe it was a different carving/statue), this carving and statue are from the late Silla kingdom, when it was already well into decline. Apparently there was an increase in religious activity around Namsam in the late Silla kingdom as people turned to Buddhism to help them cope with their problems.


If you look from the right spot, you can get the headless Buddha and the pagoda of Yongjangsa in the same field of vision, as in the above photo.


Actually, the pagoda of Yongjangsa is visible from quite a distance away, thanks to its location on the ledge.

I went on a short side trail which clearly did not get nearly as much traffic as the main trails, and I was rewarded with the sight of this ancient pagoda which is not mentioned in my guidebook. DIY archeological exploration!


Around here I met up with a European tourist, and we chatted for a while as we hiked. I then reached my favorite part of this hike through Namsam, which I will reserve for the next post.

If you want a different account of a similar trek, you can check out Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures – we found some of the same works of art, but he found a Large Seated Statue of Mireuk-bul which I missed.



About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Art, Forest, Gyeongsangbuk, Hike, Mostly Photos, National Park, Temple, World Heritage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Namsan: A Hike Through Ancient Silla

  1. kabeiser says:

    The writing might not be similar but a lot of words are similar between Chinese and Korean. For example Namsan in Korean is Nanshan in Chinese and usually I don’t here a ‘sh’ sound but rather a ‘s’ sound for mountain. Just an interesting thought that I had while reading this. Luckily the internet backs up my observation of similarities between Korean and Chinese.

    Now I just need to actually learn Chinese sometime.


    • Sara K. says:

      Oh yes, some linguists say that over 50% of Korean vocabulary comes from Chinese (it’s a bit like French/Latin’s impact on English). I was surprised to sometimes suddenly understand what a Korean was saying to me because it was so similar to the Mandarin word. For example, I know that one Korean said that I was brave to travel alone because the word she used is very similar to the Mandarin word for ‘brave’.

      If you need a little help with motivation learning Chinese, Hacking Chinese now has a learning challenge about once a month at


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