Gyeongju (350 kilometers southeast of Seoul and 80 kilometers north of Pusan) is Korea's most well known historical city. Selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and sometimes called a "Museum without Walls," because of its abundance of historical buildings and treasures, it was the capital of the Silla dynasty, which united Korea in A.D. 676 and governed Korea for 300 years after that. Gyeongju is also spelled Kyong Ju, Kyongju and Kjongu.

Kjongju's temples, museums and 200 tombs (including 56 for Silla kings and queens) are scattered over a fairly large area. And even though it would take several days to visit them all, the major places can be visited in one day with the help of a tour, public buses, taxis or a bicycle. When looking at a map or guidebook don't confuse Gyeongju with Kwangju or Kongju.

Gyeongju has been described as one of the world's 10 most historic cities and served as the Silla Dynasty's capital until A.D. 935. Spared destruction during the Korean War, there are many temples, pagodas, shrines and tombs that survive today. Gyeongju has a population of about 264,000. The historical areas are for the most part outside the city. Gyeongju can reached fast train from Seoul in about two hours; from Pusan about an hour. A bus from Seoul takes about four-and-a-half hours. There is no direct air service. The fast train between Seoul and Pusan stops at Singyeongju KTX station, which is a 20 minute bus ride to Gyeongju.

Pomun Lake (15 minutes outside the Gyeongju) is a resort with extensive and modern facilities, including international hotels, golf courses, a marina, shopping centers, swimming pools, tennis courts, bowling alleys, a casino and pleasure boats. Shuttle buses ferry tourist between the resort, downtown Gyeongju and the historical sights. Guided tours of Gyeongju can be arranged here.

Gyeongju During the Silla Dynasty

Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom almost throughout its 1,000 year history. At the height of the Silla Dynasty in the 8th century, Gyeongju was the center of one of the largest kingdoms in Asia, and home to possibly a million people. Ancient historians who visited the city described houses with rafters tipped in gold and streets where Chinese, Muslim and Korean merchants all did business side by side. The king had four palaces — one for each season — that boasted treasures from the four corners of known world: tortoise shell from the Philippines, glass from Persia and pearls from Japan. Items produced in Gyeongju that were coveted by other kingdoms included bronze temple bells and smooth silk paper.

The first reference to what is now Gyeongju in non-Korean records is a mention of Saro-guk during the Samhan period in the A.D. first century. Korean records, probably based on the dynastic chronicles of Silla, record that Saro-guk was established in 57 B.C. when six small villages in the Gyeongju area united under Bak Hyeokgeose. As the kingdom expanded, it changed its name to Silla. During the Silla period, the city was called "Seorabeol" (literally. “Capital”). [Source: Wikipedia]

After the unification of the Korean peninsula under the Silla Dynasty in A.D. 668, Gyeongju became the center of Korean political and cultural life. The city was home to the Silla king, his court and much of the kingdom's ruling elite. Its splendors in the 9th century were recorded as far away as Persia in “The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.” Records of Samguk Yusa give the city's population in its peak period as 178,936 households, suggesting that the total population was almost one million. Many of Gyeongju's most famous sites date from this Unified Silla period (668-918).

In 940, the founder of Koryo, King Taejo, changed the city's name to "Gyeongju", which literally means "Congratulatory district". Under the Koryo Emperor, Gyeongju lost ots importance as three additional capitals were established in the late 10th century in politically important provinces such Gaegyeong (nowadays Kaesong). Gyeongju became "Donggyeong" ("East Capital") and after that, although it remained influential in eastern Korea, its power was diminished. In 1601, it ceased to even be the provincial capital.

Gyeongju Historic Areas: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Gyeongju Historic Areas were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. According to UNESCO: “The Gyeongju Historic Areas contain a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art, in the form of sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and the remains of temples and palaces from the flowering culture of Silla dynasty, in particular between the 7th and 10th century. The Korean peninsula was ruled for almost 1,000 years (57 BCE – 935 CE) by the Silla dynasty, and the sites and monuments in and around Gyeongju bear outstanding testimony to its cultural achievements. These monuments are of exceptional significance in the development of Buddhist and secular architecture in Korea.

“The sites and monuments in and around Gyeongju (including the holy mountain of Namsan) bear outstanding testimony to its cultural achievements. The Gyeongju Historic Areas contain a number of sites and monuments of exceptional significance in the development of Buddhist and secular architecture in Korea. The heritage areas, as a whole, serve as testimony to the 1,000-year history by providing evidence of the entirety of the culture, including the city layout, social structure and modes of living of the Silla dynasty. All necessary components to portray the values of the capital city and their original settings are included within the property.

“The overall complex of the Gyeongju Historic Areas maintains a high degree of authenticity, as do the individual elements, which are largely archaeological sites and carvings. The various component elements of the historic areas have been maintained in situ in their original settings and the ruins of the temple and palace sites have been maintained so as not to interfere with their original form and layout. There has been little restoration of the architecture, sculptures, pagodas, tombs and fortresses, and the work that has been undertaken has been based on scientific evidence from excavation and other forms of research.”

Areas of Gyeongju

According to UNESCO: The property comprises five distinct areas situated in the centre of Gyeongju and in its suburbs. 1) The Mount Namsan Belt lies to the north of the city and covers 2,650 ha. The Buddhist monuments that have been excavated at the time of inscription include the ruins of 122 temples, 53 stone statues, 64 pagodas and 16 stone lanterns. Excavations have also revealed the remains of the pre-Buddhist natural and animistic cults of the region. 36 individual monuments, including rock-cut reliefs or engravings, stone images and heads, pagodas, royal tombs and tomb groups, wells, a group of stone banner poles, the Namsan Mountain Fortress, the Poseokjeong Pavilion site and the Seochulji Pond, exist within this area.

2) The Wolseong Belt includes the ruined palace site of Wolseong, the Gyerim woodland which legend identifies as the birthplace of the founder of the Gyeongju Kim clan, Anapji Pond, on the site of the ruined Imhaejeon Palace, and the Cheomseongdae Observatory. 3) The Tumuli Park Belt consists of three groups of Royal Tombs. Most of the mounds are domed, but some take the form of a half-moon or a gourd. They contain double wood coffins covered with gravel, and excavations have revealed rich grave goods of gold, glass, and fine ceramics. One of the earlier tombs yielded a mural painting of a winged horse on birch bark.

4) Hwangnyongsa Belt consists of two Buddhist temples, Bunhwangsa Temple and the ruins of Hwangnyongsa Temple. Hwangnyongsa, built to the order of King Jinheung (540 – 576 CE) was the largest temple ever built in Korea, covering some 72,500 m2. An 80 m high, nine-storey pagoda was added in 645 CE. The pagoda in Bunhwangsa was built in 634 CE, using dressed block stones. 5) The Sanseong Fortress Belt consists of defensive facilities along the east coast and at other strategic points and includes the Myeonghwal Mountain Fortress.

The area surrounding the Mount Namsan and Sanseong Belts are rural and face little threat of development. However, the remaining portions of the historic areas are in urban districts. Building heights, design, encroachments from development and the growing number of vehicles within Gyeongju, all of which could interfere with the physical and visual integrity of the historic areas, should be strictly controlled. The function of the East Sea Southern Railway line running through the Wolseong Belt has been terminated.

Sights in Gyeongju

In the Gyeongju area, there are many sites and monuments important to the 1,000 years of development of Korean architecture and Buddhism. Over 52 cultural heritages were designated by UNESCO and the area is divided into 5 zones based on their characteristics: the Namsan Mountain area, showing the beauty of Buddhist art; the Wolseong Fortress area, the royal grounds of Silla dynasty; the Daereungwon Tomb area, the tombs of high-ranking officials including the kings of the Silla Dynasty; the Hwangnyongsa Temple area, showing the essence of Silla Buddhism; and the Sanseong Fortress area, focusing on the defensive mechanisms of the royal capital. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

The most representative heritages include Gyeongju Poseokjeongji, Sinseonam Hermitage Rock-carved Bodhisattva in Namsan Mountain of Gyeongju, Anapji Pond, Cheomseongdae Observatory, Ancient Tombs in Hwangnam-ri, Daereungwon Tomb Complex, Hwangnyongsaji (Hwangnyongsa Temple Site) and Bunhwangsa Temple

The town's most popular temple — Bulguksa — dates from A.D. 535 and is a fine example of Korean Buddhist architecture. Sŏkkuram Grotto, home of a stone Buddha, is a well-known historic site. Several of the region's largest royal tombs may be found in downtown Gyeongju's Tumuli Park. Korea's most revered and best-known monument is probably Chŏmsŏngdae Observatory, the country's oldest secular building, constructed in 634.

Sights scattered around the edges of Gyeongju proper include tombs of kings and generals, many decorated with zodiac figures and steles; former palaces; ponds and pleasure pavilions of the Silla royalty; and over 60 Buddhist images, many of which are found in the mountain locations that can only be reached on foot. Hwangyongsa, the largest temple in Gyeongju houses a 24-ton Buddha covered in gold. Toham San, near Gyeongju, boasts a nine-foot stone Buddha, carved in A.D. 752.

Kyerim Forest is the birthplace of Korea's most prevalent family, the "Kims." According to legend, King T'alhae heard a cock crowing in the forest and upon investigation discovered a golden box hanging from a tree. He opened the box to find a lovely baby boy inside. He adopted the baby and named him Kim, which means "gold."

Anapchi Pond was one of the places where the Silla royal family used to relax and enjoy themselves. Originally surrounded by pavilions and constructed by King Munmu between 674 and 679, this artificial pond is located across the road from a former imperial palace. The pond was drained in 1974 and revealed a treasure trove of Silla artifacts: Buddhist statues, jewelry and a preserved barge. These items are now on display in the Gyeongju National Museum.

Panwolsong Fortress was the principal Silla royal residence, but nothing much remains of its today. In its day, it was said, the palace was so large that a tour of it was enough to wear out a pair of straw sandals. Sokbinggo (on the grounds of Panwolsong Fortress) is a well preserved a 56-foot-long, 20-foot-wide, and 18-foot-high building made from more than a thousand huge stones.

Bunhwangsa Temple was where the prominent Buddhist priest Wonhyo resided. The stone brick pagoda in front of the temple has become one of the must-see sites in Gyeongju, as it is the oldest stone pagoda remaining from the Silla Dynasty. The stone pagoda was made of well-cut bricks and very uniquely built, representing the carving style of Silla dynasty. The stone brick pagoda is the archeological site was originally nine stories high, but now has only three stories. Each of the four sides of the lowest story has a carved niche with a stone door, half open and flanked by the guardian Deva kings.

Tombs and Tumuli in Gyeongju

Burial mounds for Silla dynasty kings are the size of small hills. Objects discovered inside royal tomb have included jewelry, stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, decorative eave tiles, Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood, ceramics, swords, gold bridles, crowns and a painting of a divine flying horse. Eggs for nourishment in the afterlife have been found inside the coffins of some of kings.

Large ancient tombs of kings and nobles of the Silla Kingdom can be seen around Gyeongju at Daereungwon Tomb Complex, including Cheonmachong Ancient Tomb. During an excavation of the tomb,Cheonmachong was discovered with a painting of a mounted horse, giving the tomb it's name ('Cheonma' means heavenly horse in Korean). [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Tumuli Park (located right in the heart of modern downtown Gyeongju) contains 20 of the 300 burial tombs found in Gyeongju area. Located in beautifully landscaped park, the tombs are located under huge grass-covered, hill-size mounds. The mounds vary in size and those with double humps are where a king and queen were buried together in lacquered coffins underneath a 25-foot layer of boulders and tons of earth.

Flying Horse Tomb (Cheonmachong) (in Tumuli Park) was built in the A.D. 5th or 6th century and excavated in 1974. Named after an image of a galloping white horse found on a pair of birch saddles found in the tomb, it has been rebuilt and is now reached via a tunnel inside the mound. Inside a glassed-in case are replicas of important artifacts found in the tomb. Most of the original 10,000 relics discovered inside the tomb — including jewelry, stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, decorative eave tiles, Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood, ceramics, swords, gold bridles, crowns and a painting of a divine flying horse — are in the National Museum at Gyeongju.

General Kim Yu-Shi's Tomb features an impressive, well-preserved set of statues of humans and animals. The animals, belonging to the Chinese zodiac, are carved in relief on stone slabs encircling the mound. Each animal carries a weapon and is dressed in traditional Korean clothes. General Kim Yu-Shin was the seventh century militray leader whose armies unified Korea. King Muol's Tomb (near General Kim Yu-Shin's tomb) dates from the same period and is distinguished by a stone monument with a huge tortoise base, columns and an inscribed capstone made in a style which was introduced during the Unified Silla Period.

Kwaerung (near Bulguksa) is a tomb occupied, according to legend, by the 38th Silla ruler, King Wonsong, who reigned at the end of the A.D. eighth century. What makes this tomb worth visiting are the statues which line the path leading up to it, symbolizing the civil and military officials who attended the king in the afterlife.

Orung (Five Tombs) is said to be the final resting place of the very first Silla king, Pak Hyokkose, his queen, and three later kings. Nearby is Najong Shrine, the legendary site where Pak Hyokkose was born.

Chomsongdae Observatory

Chomsongdae Observatory (near Tumuli Park) at first glance looks like an old kiln; but in actuality it is one of the world's oldest observatories. Built in 634 A.D. by Queen Seon-deok, the first of Korea's three great queens, this 29-foot, bottle-shaped stone tower was made from layers of square granite stones. Chomsongdae means "Happily as Near the Stars' Place."

No one is quite sure whether the observatory's ultimate purpose was astrological or astronomical, but some evidence seem to indicate it was used to record comets, meteors and solar eclipses on a calender built according to complex mathematical principals: with the 12 stones at the base representing the months of the year, the 30 layers of stone symbolizing the days of the month, and the 24 stones that protrude from the tower at regular intervals showing the seasonal subdivisions of the lunar calendar. In all, there are 366 stones, representing the days of the year.

Constructed during the reign of Queen Seon-deok (632-647), Cheomseongdae was used for observing the stars in order to forecast the weather. It is the oldest existing astronomical observatory in Asia. Astronomy was related to agriculture because the movement of the stars could influence the farming schedule. The obveratory is also highly valued as proof of the advanced science technology of the Silla Dynasty. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

National Museum at Gyeongju

National Museum (on the outskirts of Gyeongju town) is located in a modern building with upswept eaves that mimic a traditional Korean style. Perhaps the most interesting museum in Korea, it has a magnificent collection of stone sculptures, royal artifacts and pottery. The 1,400 year-old jade and gold crowns are perhaps the most interesting relics. Unlike their heavy European counterparts, Silla crowns featured jade- and gold-encrusted horns and strings of golden chain with stamp-size golden square which dropped from the crown like locks of golden hair.

Outside of Seoul's National Museum, the Gyeongju National Museum houses the country's finest exhibits of Silla culture. Among the other treasures found in the museum are Buddhist scriptures printed in gold leaf; a wonderful collection of Korean paintings; rings, girdles, bracelets and harnesses made from gold; stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, ceramics, swords, and decorative tiles unearthed from tombs; and Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood. Located in the basement of the museum is a nearly intact Silla dynasty royal barge pulled out of a local lake.

Most of the original 10,000 relics discovered inside Flying Horse Tomb in Tumuli Park — including jewelry, stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, decorative eave tiles, Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood, ceramics, swords, gold bridles, crowns and a painting of a divine flying horse — are in the National Museum at Gyeongju. Built in the A.D. 5th or 6th century and excavated in 1974, the tomb is named after an image of a galloping white horse found on a pair of birch saddles found in the tomb.

Anapchi Pond was drained in 1974 and revealed a treasure trove of Silla artifacts: Buddhist statues, jewelry and a preserved barge. These items are now on display in the Gyeongju National Museum. The pond was one of the places where the Silla royal family used to relax and enjoy themselves.

Emille Bell (in front of the National Museum) is one the largest, oldest and most resonant bells in Asia. Cast in one piece in A.D. 771, it is 11 feet long and weighs 23 tons. After earlier casting failed, legend has it, a small child was tossed into the molten metal to ensure success. The sound of the bell is reminiscent of a child's cry and word Emille comes from the Korean word for Mama. When the bell is wrung by a particularly strong monk, it is said, the sound can be heard 40 miles away.

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple (10 kilometers southeast of Gyeongju) is the most well known temple at Gyeongju, and perhaps in Korea. Originally built in A.D. 535 and enlarged in A.D. 751, it is admired by Westerners who like the bright colors used to paint the eaves and frames. The woodwork on the temple has been periodically replaced, but the stone bridges, pagodas and stairways are all seventh century originals. In 1995, Bulguksa was selected as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The stone block pagoda, erected in A.D. 634, is oldest Silla dynasty brick building in existence. The monks that live in the temple are woken up at 3:00am by the sounds of brass gongs, and bells. They begin their day with sacred chants which are spoken to the rhythm of drums and beating gourds.

Bulguksa, literally translating to Temple of the Land of Buddha, was built with the aspiration for Buddha's utopia. The temple was damaged in 1592 by the Japanese during the Imjin War, when all the wooden structures of the temple completely burned down. Luckily, the stone altars, bridges, pagodas, lanterns and bronze statues of the Buddha escaped the fire, and have been well preserved up until now. A partial restoration was conducted from 1969 to 1973, which resulted in the current structure. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

According to UNESCO: Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex that comprises a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces. The grounds of Bulguksa are divided into three areas – Birojeon (the Vairocana Buddha Hall), Daeungjeon (the Hall of Great Enlightenment) and Geungnakjeon (the Hall of Supreme Bliss). These areas and the stone terraces were designed to represent the land of Buddha. The stone terraces, bridges and the two pagodas – Seokgatap (Pagoda of Sakyamuni) and Dabotap (Pagoda of Bountiful Treasures) – facing the Daeungjeon attest to the fine masonry work of the Silla.” [Source: UNESCO]

Bulguksa Temple Features

The Bonjonbul figure is a giant statue of the Buddha, 3.3 meters in height and 2.7 meters in width. While most statues of Buddha were carved in a standing position wearing a generous smile, the bonjonbul is seated on a pedestal, emanating a sense of grandeur. From the solemn and grave facial expression to wrinkles in the statue's dress, all details were meticulously carved, representing the splendid and prosperous Buddhist culture of the Unified Silla era.

The oldest woodblocks, dated to A.D. 704, were found in Bulguksa Temple in October 1966. The oldest existing work completely printed with woodblocks is the Mugujonggwang Taerdaranigyong (Pure Light Dharani Sutra), Buddhist scriptures (sutras) printed sometime before the Silla monarch King Kyongdok was enthroned in A.D. 751. The Great Dharani Sutra was discovered in October 1966 while repairing Seokgatap (the three-storied pagoda) in Bulguksa

A key point at Bukguksa is the relief of 10 disciples, a rarity in World Buddhist Art history. It is highly appreciated for its uniqueness and artistic characteristics for vividly capturing the disciples who are diligently carrying out their tasks as Buddha's followers. The smallest disciple is about 2.08 meters in height the tallest is about 2.2 meters.

Seokgatap (on the western side of the temple) has two stereobates (stone foundation levels) and is crafted in the traditional pagoda style of the Silla period. Dabotap, which is also called Muyeongtap, is quite simply designed, yet has an imposing appearance, radiating a feeling of stability. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Dabotap (on the east side of the yard before Daeungjeon), was distinctively different from other stone pagodas of the Silla era. Remaining completely intact since its establishment, it has been said that the stone tower was based on the shape of Chilbotap, a tower from Buddhism scriptures made of seven treasures. Although Dabotap and Seokgatap are uniquely different, the foundation stones and stylobate are roughly the same height, providing a balanced and proportional aspect when viewing the two towers together.

Sokkuram Grotto and White Granite Buddha Statue

Sokkuram Grotto (about seven kilometers miles up a mountain road from Bulguksa) is one of Asia's finest Buddhist shrines. Surrounded by Bodhisattvas and guardian deities, the serene 60-ton Buddha here — carved from a single block of white granite — gazes out over the forest hills from a cave inside Mt. T'ohamsan. The statue is positioned in such a way that the first rays of the sun strike a jewel placed on the statue's forehead.

Sokkuram was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Bulguksa in 1995. The granite dome of Sokkuram is built from blocks of stone that were dragged up the side of the mountain. Because the grotto has deteriorated somewhat a glass wall with humidity controls has been installed at the front of the cave to protect the Buddha and treasures around it. The Grotto can be reached by a hiking trail as well the road, which winds through a beautiful forested mountain.

Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple are ancient Buddhist sites established in the mid-8th century during the golden era of the United Silla Dynasty. These two heritages represent the highly developed architectural skills and creative craftsmanship of the Silla people. In particular, the magnificent and sublime beauty of Seokguram's carvings and Bulguksa Temple's stylobate and its two stone pagodas are considered some of the masterpieces of Buddhist architecture, unparalleled in all of Northeast Asia. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Seokguram is an artificial stone temple made of granite. Inside the round-shaped main hall are the Bonjon Statue, Bodhi-sattva and his disciples. Seokguram was built to preserve these statues. The majority of the stone statues, including the Bonjon figures have high value in cultural heritage. Kim Dae-seong (A.D. 700-774), chief minister during the reign of King Seongdeok, initiated and supervised the construction of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto — the former built in memory of his parents in his present life and the latter in memory of his parents from a previous life.

According to UNESCO: Established in the 8th century on the slopes of Mount Toham, the Seokguram Grotto contains a monumental statue of the Buddha looking at the sea in the bhumisparsha mudra position. With the surrounding portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples, all realistically and delicately sculpted in high and low relief, it is considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East. The Temple of Bulguksa (built in 774) and the Seokguram Grotto form a religious architectural complex of exceptional significance.

Seokguram is an artificial grotto constructed of granite that comprises an antechamber, a corridor and a main rotunda. It enshrines a monumental statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha looking out to sea with his left hand in dhyana mudra, the mudra of concentration, and his right hand in bhumisparsa mudra, the earth-touching mudra position. Together with the portrayals of devas, bodhisattvas and disciples, sculpted in high and low relief on the surrounding walls, the statues are considered to be a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art. The domed ceiling of the rotunda and the entrance corridor employed an innovative construction technique that involved the use of more than 360 stone slabs.

The Seokguram Grotto, with its statue of Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattvas, the Ten Disciples, Eight Divine Guardians, two Devas, and two Vajrapanis all carved from white granite, is a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist Art. Seokguram Grotto portrays the enlightenment of Buddha and Bulguksa Temple represents the Buddhist utopia taking its form in the terrestrial world. The two sites are closely linked physically, historically and culturally and all of their key components are included within the boundaries of the property.

White Granite Buddha in Sokkuram Cave

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The crown jewel of Kyongju is the eighth-century granite image of Buddha that sits majestically in the Sokkuram Cave near the top of Mount T'oham. Built during the reign of King Kyongdok (r. 742-65), the image is about eleven feet high and sits on a pedestal facing the entrance and is surrounded by images of guardians, disciples, and bodhisattvas carved into the granite panels that line the cave. At certain times of the year the rising sun shines in through the entrance and lights the Buddha, who seems to be serenely watching over the valley and seacoast beyond. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The Sokkuram Cave is on the opposite side of Mount T'oham from Pulguksa Temple. It is generally assumed that there was a relationship between the two, and that probably the cave temple was a religious retreat for monks or possibly Silla kings. It is not even clear exactly which manifestation of the Buddha the statue is intended to represent, whether the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) or the Buddha "of life and light," as a nearby inscription suggests. A further dimension was added to the mystery when marine archaeologists discovered the stone structure of the tomb of King Munmu (r. 661-81) in the water off the seacoast. The structure was located in a line with the gaze of the overlooking cave Buddha, suggesting that the image was intended to watch over the dead king's grave. However, no one can be sure, since there is no surviving documentation to bear out the relationship. In fact, the cave was almost forgotten over the intervening centuries.

“Under the Chosun dynasty and its policy of suppressing Buddhism, Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Cave fell into decay. The cave itself was overgrown with weeds and trees and virtually lost to memory until it was accidentally discovered in 1909 by a man seeking shelter from a storm. The cave has now been repaired and sealed from the elements to spare the interior carvings within from further damage from erosion and the effects of industrial air pollution. The Sokkuram Cave now ranks as a Korean National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Treasure.

Conservation at Sokkuram Grotto and Bulguksa Grotto

According to UNESCO: The Seokguram Grotto, with its artificial cave and stone sculptures, and the associated Bulguksa temple with its wooden architecture and stone terraces, is an outstanding example of Buddhist religious architecture that flourished in Gyeongju, capital of the Silla Kingdom in the 8th century, as a material expression of Buddhist belief.

The main statue of the Buddha and most of the stone sculptures has preserved their original form. As a result of the partial collapse of the rotunda ceiling, the entire grotto was dismantled and rebuilt, and covered with a concrete dome between 1913 and 1915. A second concrete dome was added in the 1960s. These dramatic measures have diminished the authenticity of the form of grotto, and to a lesser extent its materials, although they were acceptable in their time and in the face of serious deterioration. There have been no changes to the function and size of the grotto.

The most significant threats facing Seokguram Grotto are moisture and condensation, which cause the growth of mould, mildew and moss. Weather damage to the stone sculptures is another threat. The construction of a concrete dome between 1913 and 1915 resulted in humidity build-up and moisture infiltration. A second concrete dome was placed over the existing dome in the 1960s, to create a 1.2 m air space between them, control and adjust airflow, reduce the formation of mildew and prevent further climatic damage. A wooden antechamber was also added and the interior of the grotto was sealed off by a wall of glass to protect it from visitors and changes in temperature. The 1913-15 alterations to the grotto’s original structure and subsequent modifications to address the problems caused by it require further study. Temperature and humidity control, and water ingress are carefully monitored and managed, and mitigation measures implemented as required.

The masonry structures within Bulguksa have maintained their original form, having undergone only partial repair. The wooden buildings have been repaired and restored several times since the 16th century. All restoration work and repairs have been based on historical research and have employed traditional materials and techniques. The main threats to the masonry components of Bulguksa Temple are acid rain, pollution, salty fogs originating from the East Sea and moss on the surface of masonry. These threats are continuously monitored and studied. Fire is the greatest threat to the integrity of the wooden buildings of the Bulguksa Temple, calling for systems for prevention and monitoring at the site.

Seokguram Grotto has been designated as National Treasure and- Bulguksa Temple has been designated as a Historic Site under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. Any alterations to the existing form of the site require authorization. They are included within the boundaries of Gyeongju National Park, in which there are restrictions on new construction. A Historic Cultural Environment Protection Area that extends 500 meters from the boundary of the site has also been established, in which all construction work must be pre-approved.

At the national level, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) is responsible for establishing and enforcing policies for the protection of the property and buffer zone, allocating financial resources for conservation. Gyeongju City is directly responsible for overseeing the conservation and management of the property, in collaboration with the Korea National Park Service, whilst Bulguksa Temple is responsible for the day-to-day management. Regular day-to-day monitoring is conducted and in-depth professional monitoring is conducted on a 3 to 4 year basis.

Conservation work is conducted by Cultural Heritage Conservation Specialists who have passed the National Certification Exams in their individual fields of expertise. A ventilation fan in Seokguram Grotto, whose vibration posing a risk, has been removed, and the number of visitors is properly controlled. Within Bulguksa Temple, acidic rain, pollution, salty fogs originating from the East Sea and moss on the surface of the stone are carefully monitored and methods to relieve the problems are being continuously studied. To protect the wooden structures of the temple from fire, an overall Fire Risk Prevention System has been implemented for Bulguksa and CCTVs installed in various points in the temple.

Mt. Namsan

Mt. Namsan is a treasure trove of cultural remains. Among the numerous artifacts scattered around the mountains and its valleys are the stone relief carvings at Seven Buddha Hermitage. These priceless objects of religious art are surpassed only by the Buddhist sculptures found in Sokkuram Grotto.

Buddhist Triad (on he slopes of Mt. Namsan) are three great stone figures. The central figure is the Amita Buddha, or the Buddha of the Western Paradise, who welcomes believers to paradise if they recite his name fervently enough. The plump, smiling 8½-foot-high figure is flanked by two bodhisattvas of slightly smaller scale.

Poseokjeongji (Poseokjeong Pavilion) (on Namsan Mountain) is all that remains of a former royal palace. It is an ancient miniature watercourse made of stones formed into the shape of an abalone shell (its name means "abolone" in Korean). The king used to host drinking parties here in which cups of wine were floated to guests who had to compose a poem before the cups reached them. If they failed to make a composition they were required to drink all the wine in their cups. King Kyong-ae enjoyed playing this game so much that he failed to raise an army in August 927 to head off attack by Koryo forces who brought an end to both his reign and the Silla dynasty.

Posokchong Watercourse is a stone waterway carved into a raised rock platform. This is where the Silla Kings would come with their officials and nobles for parties. Float their wine glasses on the water as it flowed along the stone groove is said to have shown the Silla aristocracy’s love for a cozy and relaxing atmosphere. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Protection and Conservation at Gyeongju

According to UNESCO: Gyeongju Historic Areas consists of five different sub-areas of Mount Namsan, Wolseong, Tumuli, Hwangnyongsa Temple and the Fortress Belt, which are owned by the national government. The entire area of the property, including the numerous individual sites, has been designated as State-designated Cultural Heritage under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. The entire area is also designated as a national park under the National Park Law. These measures severely restrict any form of development within the designated area. A 500 m buffer zone (Historic Cultural Environment Protection Area) has been established around each of the historic areas, under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. Within the buffer zones, all construction requires authorization. In order to protect the abundance of unearthed heritage, it is mandatory in Gyeongju City to conduct a Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment before any construction takes place.

“At the national level, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) is responsible for establishing and enforcing policies for protection and allocating financial resources for the conservation of Gyeongju Historic Areas. Gyeongju City is directly responsible for the more specific operations of conservation and management together with the Korea National Park Service, which is responsible for the management of Mount Namsan. Regular day-to-day monitoring is conducted at the sites, and in-depth professional monitoring is conducted on a 3-to-4 year basis.

“Conservation work is conducted by Cultural Heritage Conservation Specialists who have passed the National Certification Exams in their individual fields of expertise. The CHA and Gyeongju City have continued to purchase the land surrounding the designated heritage areas to ensure better protection and connectivity between the areas. The East Sea Southern Railway will be completely removed by 2014.

“Management plans are in force for the Gyeongju Historic Areas, which address the preservation of the original status of the Historic Areas, preservation of the surrounding environment of the Historic Areas, use of the Gyeongju Historic Areas for the education of citizens and field studies for students. They provide for the establishment of long-term plans, the strengthening of measures against forest fires, floods, and other natural calamities, a scientific research program, including archaeological excavations, and a policy of seeking systematic investment and site-management proposals that are eco-friendly and consistent with world-class tourism policies. In addition, programs are in place for regular conservation and maintenance of sculptural and monumental antiquities and for selective restoration, based on thorough scientific research. Regular monitoring is to be carried out on the open sites, to check for any illegal use of the land for unauthorized burials or shamanistic rites. Parking facilities are to be extended and marked paths laid out so as to prevent uncontrolled access to the land.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.