After finding our inner peace at Bulguksa and hiking the trails of Namsan, it’s time to turn our attention back to Gyeongju proper and explore one of its attractions. When visiting this coastal town, it won’t take too long before you’ll see large hills plotted close together between buildings. One might think they’re some sort of urban planning experiment, but the truth of the matter is that they are far, far older. These are the Royal Tombs of the Silla Dynasty – large earthen mounds that tower above the ground, dating back some 1500 years. This week on The Korea Blog, we’ll be taking a look at the Daereungwon Tomb Complex.
Daereungwon Tomb Complex
The Daereungwon Tomb Complex is easy to find. While serviced by several buses, one can easily walk to this downtown area in less than 20 minutes from the Express and Intercity Bus Terminals. One’s first impression may be one of surprise, as these tombs bear little in resemblance to Joseon Royal Tombs. The Silla tombs are quite plain in comparison, but what they lack in decoration, they more than make up for in size.
The tombs located in the complex tower over those walking between them on carefully maintained walkways. Installed park benches afford those wishing to relax the opportunity to do so as small trees provide shade from the hot sun. Despite lacking ceremonial halls or granite statues, there’s something unique about these massive burial mounds – some of which appear to approach five stories in height. In fact, on our visit, we found a number of local students playing games on the accompanying grounds. We also saw large growth trees sprouting up from the tombs most intriguing.
However, the real draw of the complex and the surrounding park is Cheonmachong, the only Silla Tomb visitors may enter. Regular admission is W1,500 (W700 for children, W600 for under 13) and grants access to the site. Cheonmachong is thought to have been constructed in either the fifth or sixth century and measures about 13 meters in height. When the tomb was excavated in the 1970s, over 11,000 artifacts were recovered.
On a hot summer day, you’ll easily feel the temperature drop passing through the threshold of Cheonmachong. As you make your way into the tomb, it takes a few moments for your eyes to grow accustomed to the decreased levels of light. However, once you do, you quickly see how much space this tomb occupies. Along the outer wall of the tomb are several glass cases with recovered relics on display. These range from rudimentary tools and pottery to ornate gold crowns. The true draw of the experience is the central burial chamber. Here you can view how the remains were laid out so many years ago.
The Korean Pegasus is referred to as the Cheonma and is a white, winged horse with eight legs. A painting of the Cheonma was found on a birch saddle flap inside the tomb and among the relics recovered. This find is what gave the tomb its present name. Another important find within the tomb was a gold crown with jade comma-shaped beads. This artifact signifies the tomb’s inhabitant was once a Silla king. That fact alone makes the experience pretty special and worth the trip.
On busy weekends, the tomb gets very crowded, as can be seen in the video. So you’ll won’t really have time to browse the relics on display. Therefore, my recommendation would be to make the trip to Gyeongju on a non-holiday weekend so you can really take the requisite time to inspect the artifacts on display and honor the experience. I’ll be back next week with one more item from Gyeongju, the museum without walls.