by Karen Loh
During a trip to South Korea recently, I visited the historic city of Gyeongju. About 2 hours by train from Seoul, this ancient city was once the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE). Legend has it that a man by the name of Park Hyeokgeo-se came down from the heavens in 57 BCE and founded the kingdom of Silla. The city was officially named Gyeongju by the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty, King Taejo, in 940 CE. The Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea from the 10th-14th century. Listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in November 2000, the historic area in Gyeongju is divided into five sections. The five areas are Namsan, Wolseong, Gobungun, Hwangnyongsa, and Sanseong.
My first stop in Gyeongju was naturally at their National Museum. Located in the city close to Korea’s major historical attractions, this museum is dedicated to the preservation of Silla’s historical artefacts. According to the guidebook, the museum has 2,500 artefacts on display and houses around 80,000 relics. Opened in 1975, the museum has three permanent exhibition galleries, namely the Silla History Gallery, Silla Art Gallery, and the Wolji Gallery. There is also an interesting outdoor exhibition area. Amongst the displays outdoors are a Head of Buddha carved out of stone, a very large Divine Bell of King Seongdeok that is 3.77 meters tall, and a Three-Story Stone Stupa from the Goseonsa Temple; the latter two are listed as national treasures.
The Silla History Gallery has four rooms with artefacts displayed from the pre-historic era to the forming of the kingdom in the middle of the 4th century, the conquering of nearby lands around the 6th century, and unification of the three kingdoms (Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo) to form the Unified Silla Dynasty.
The highlights of the museum for me personally are the exhibits of the rich relics excavated from the Silla mound tombs. Recovered from the Geumgwanchong (nicknamed Gold Crown Tomb), Cheonmachong (nicknamed Heavenly Horse Tomb), and Seobongchong (nicknamed Felicitous Phoenix Tomb) mound tombs, there is a vast collection of personal ornaments made of pure gold such as crowns, decorated waistbands with hanging tail ornaments, belts, bracelets, earrings, and rings.
The Silla Art Gallery is divided into three rooms. The first room is dedicated to Buddhist Arts – stupas, Buddha statues, and relics. The second room houses the Kukeun Collection, which is from the private collection of Dr Lee Yang-sun. The highlights in this collection include a cup in the shape of ‘Warrior on Horseback’ and lacquered-bronze stirrups. The Hwangnyongsa Room is dedicated to the display of roof tiles from the prestigious Hwangnyongsa Temple and a sarira (Buddhist relics) reliquary.
Last but not least, the Wolji Gallery displays artefacts from Wolji, a site where a pond was built in the palace grounds during the reign of King Munmu (661 – 681 CE) of the Unified Silla Dynasty.