Gyeongju - Capital of the Silla

Gyenongju today, is a small relatively unimportant city in the south-east of the Korean peninsula.

It was not always so. More than a thousand years ago it was capital of the Silla Dynasty (54BC - 935AD). The Silla was the first dynasty to unify the Korean peninsular. They ruled all of it from 668 to 935. In those times the city's name was Seorabeol, which means capital. It was renamed Gyeongju in 940.

Silla Tombs

In Gyeongju there are dozens if not hundreds of grassy knolls. They are the tombs of the Silla royalty and aristocracy. Coffins were constructed with wood, sealed with clay and then covered with a mound made from earth and stones.

Burial Mounds of the Silla Royalty and Aristocracy Burial Mounds of the Silla Royalty and Aristocracy
Burial Mounds of the Silla Royalty and Aristocracy

They were buried with treasure. Thin gold crowns, jewels, ornaments fashioned from silver, bronze and glass beads have been unearthed from the tombs. The higher a person was in social rank, the more opulent were the treasures with which they were buried.

State Buddhism was introduced to Korea in 538AD. With its introduction cremation gradually replaced the practice of burying nobility in large moulds with treasure. The cremated ashes would be placed in an urn and buried. By the end of the century gold and other precious metals would not be buried with the deceased but donoted to a Buddhist temple.

Gyeongju National Museum

Many of the treasures unearthed from Silla tombs are on display in this museum and to a lesser extent the Silla Art and Science Museum.

 Bhaisajyaguru Buddha
Bhaisajyaguru Buddha

The Gyeongju National Museum has over 80,000 relics from the Silla period. At any given time only 2500 are on display, housed in a number of halls(separate buildings).

Each hall has a specific theme. However the themes overlap. The four broad themes are archaeology, art, outdoor exhibits and relics extracted from the nearby Woljii Pond. Relics from the Woljii Ponds, unlike the ones from the royal tombs, are predominately common everyday items.

Featured in the Archaeology Hall are relics from the royal tombs and pre-historic items such as the Banguda Petroglyphs.

The Art Hall has many stone and gilt bronze Buddhas on display. An example of a gilt bronze casting, with pigments, is a casting of a Bhaisajyaguru(medicine) Buddha. Cast in the 8th century it is 179 cms high. Devotees believed that the medicine required to relive their suffering was the teachings of the Bhaisayjyagura.

Many Buddhist stone objects such as pagodas, steles, lanterns and sculptures are displayed outdoors. They were unearthed from temple and palace sites. Also near to the entrance of the museum grounds is a bell, the Sacred Bell of King Songdak.

Banguda Petroglyphs
Silla Artifacts on Display

Banguda Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are found in the verticle rock face of the Daegokcheon stream which is a tributary of the Taekwa River.

Banguda Petroglyphs
Banguda Petroglyphs

They are believed to date from 3500 to 7000 years ago. Figures depicted are human, fish, animals included deer. The activity of whaling is also depicted. It is one of the earliest examples the recording of whaling.

Sacred Bell of King Songdok

Casting the bell was started by his son and completed by his grandson. Cast in 771AD it is a bronze bell. Weighing 18.9 tons, 3.78 metres high and 2.24 metres in diameter, it is largest of its type in the Orient. It is commonly known as the Emily Bell.

Sacred Bell of King Songdok
Sacred Bell of King Songdok

According to legend the first cast bell did not ring. So it was melted down. A priest threw a child into the molten metal and a new bell was cast. When it was first struck it emitted an "em-ee-lah" sound, the sound of the child as it hit the molten metal.

Legends aside, the sound from the bell, if lightly struck, is said to carry for three kilometers.


To walk amongst the grassy knolls of Gyenongju, is to be surrounded by kings, queens and princes whose voices have been silent for more than a thousand years. What remains of their 989 year Kingdom? Burial mounds, thin gold crowns, ornamental swords, Buddhist temples, bells and other art. Yes!

Their greatest legacy: the Korean national identity.