Tombs, Temples and Treasures

Korea’s ancient capital is a top World Heritage Site

By: Janice Mucalov

Walking by the small grassy hills, it was difficult to believe that these simple mounds are actually royal tombs from the ancient Silla dynasty, which ruled Korea for 1,000 years from 57 B.C. But inside the Heavenly Horse Tomb, it was another story.

As we pressed our faces against the glass showcase windows, we were dazzled by the intricate gold filigree crown with four layers of antler-shaped branches, the gorgeous gold belt adorned with hanging pendants and the elaborate gold earrings and bracelets on display just some of the 11,000 artifacts excavated from the tomb. Squeezing between throngs of excited Korean schoolchildren, we also peered at the painting of a flying horse on a white birch-bark saddle guard (which gave the tomb its name).

Some 270 Silla tombs can be found in Gyeongju, South Korea. Three of the tombs have been excavated, but only the Heavenly Horse Tomb is open to the public.

“It’s typical of the Silla tombs of the late 5th and early 6th centuries,” explained our tour guide Lae.

The tomb was constructed with a large wooden burial chamber on the ground surface, which was then covered with a pile of river boulders and topped with a thick layer of earth to form a mound.

Historic Silla Sites

The tombs aren’t the only fascinating sites in Gyeongju. Korea’s ancient capital boasts hundreds of temples, pagodas and Buddhist rock carvings. In fact, there are so many architectural and other treasures that UNESCO has designated Gyeongju as one of the world’s 10 most historic sites.

The tombs and temples are spread throughout the city of 280,000 people, amid rice fields and strawberry farms. We didn’t see any high-rises, and every house, restaurant, store and gas station was crowned with the traditional Silla-style, curved, black tile roof to preserve the area’s cultural heritage.

As we drove to another top attraction in Gyeongju the vast Bulguksa Temple Lae explained that the mighty Silla kings unified all of Korea from 668 A.D. until the 10th century. They also introduced Buddhism to the country.

At the Bulguksa Temple, an old path led us up a hillside to two stairways, which would take us from the ordinary world outside to the spiritual world within the temple. Completed in 751 A.D., the temple (which means “Buddhist World”) consists of several buildings and is home to about 100 monks. As we peeked inside one building, the smell of burning incense wafted toward us, while a monk prayed in front of three gold-plated Buddhas.

Upon wandering over to the temple’s art shop, we admired long silk paintings of village scenes and calligraphy made by the Buddhist monks, along with Korean art cards.

On the way out, we passed by a rock garden where people were stacking small rocks on top of one another.

“They’re wishing rocks,” Lae said. “You pile up the rocks and make a wish.”

Hungry by then, we headed to a restaurant that served us a traditional Korean lunch. As strips of beef sizzled on heated pots in the center of the table, servers showed us how to pile up a lettuce leaf with beef, garlic cloves and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage mixed with chili and fish sauce), then roll it into a wrap. While we ate, we were treated to a colorful folkloric dance performance.

After lunch, we visited the Gyeongju National Museum, which houses thousands of funerary objects and excavated items. We were particularly intrigued by a pair of 5th-century bronze shoes sporting numerous two-inch spikes on the sole an early version of platform shoes.

The 11-foot-high Divine Bell of Kong Songdok is also found on the museum grounds.

“It’s believed that the sound of the bell is like a baby crying for its mother,” said Lae.

Legend has it that to make a perfect-sounding bell, a child sacrifice would have to be made. A poor farm woman offered her baby, who was thrown into the pot of melted copper. Now, when struck, the 1,300-year-old bell emits a mournful sound, and the echo is reputed to resonate over two miles.

The Folk Arts and Crafts Village was our last stop during our full-day bus tour. Created to preserve traditional Silla artistry, many artisans live and work here. Stores sell everything from black unglazed clay pots reminiscent of Silla dynasty pottery to masks, metal sculptures and lacquer jewelry boxes ingrained with mother-of-pearl.

I was particularly interested in the jewelry. Amethyst and smoky topaz are stones indigenous to Korea, and good quality jewelry can be bought here. I happily found a pair of amethyst-and-silver drop earrings and matching ring for $75.

A Museum Without Walls

To truly appreciate the wealth of the area’s historical riches, visitors need more time than a day. We were sorry we couldn’t hike along some of the trails in Mount Namsan, 2½ miles from downtown Gyeongju. Ribboned with valleys and waterfalls, the mountain is dotted with countless stone pagodas and Buddhist statues. Hikers

can even see the foundations of a water channel, through which wine cups were floated during royal parties while courtiers recited poems.

We also missed seeing the Cheomseongdae the world’s oldest astronomical observatory. Shaped like a milk bottle, the 32-foot-tallstructure is made of 361 stones representing the number of days in the Silla lunar calendar year.

Still, we saw most of the important attractions, and as we reflected back on our day, we appreciated why Gyeongju is rightly known as a “museum without walls.”

Trip Planner

Getting there: A four-hour drive southeast of Seoul, Gyeongju is a scheduled destination on most South Korean tours. Day trips from Seoul can also be arranged.

When to go: The best times to visit are spring (April-May) and autumn (September-November), when the weather is sunny and pleasant.
More information: Korea Tourism Organization (KTO);