Splendor of Silla next on repair list

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Splendor of Silla next on repair list


Gyeongju, in Korea’s North Gyeongsang, is often compared to Kyoto in Japan.

After all, for about a thousand years, the city used to be the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-AD 935), one of the richest and most colorful kingdoms in terms of culture and arts in Korean history.

When Koreans think of Silla, the first few images that come to mind are sumptuous gold accessories, explicitly portrayed clay dolls and mysterious-looking clusters of humongous tombs where these relics were uncovered.

However, it’s true that when people actually visit Gyeongju - about a three-hour train ride from Seoul - many of them may feel disappointed and realize that Gyeongju is not really Kyoto when it comes to things to see.

For starters, although Silla was a dynasty in which there were kings and queens who adorned themselves in glittering gold accessories all over - yes, men also - as seen in historical dramas and movies, there is no palace to visit.

But that is about to change.

A project to re-create Gyeongju in the form of its heyday during Silla has kicked off. On Jan. 27, a committee that will oversee the project was launched; on Jan. 17, the regional governments - Gyeongju City and the province of North Gyeongsang - as well as the Cultural Heritage Administration secured 16.6 billion won ($15.4 million) for the project. The three organizations had signed an agreement to cooperate on the project on Oct. 21.

However, it will be years before the Silla-era splendor is restored. The project is slated to be completed in 2025 in different phases.


Left: President Park Geun-hye receives an ancient flute as a gift during her campaign in North Gyeongsang. She pledged to restore the Silla palace.[JoongAng Ilbo] Right: The committee that will oversee the restoration project was launched in January. Provided by Gyeongju City

Total package

Some time during the eighth century, the heyday of Silla, some 170,000 households lived in Gyeongju and its population amounted to about one million.

Historians say that during that time, Gyeongju was comparable to Chang’an, an ancient Chinese capital known as Xian today; Constantinople, once the largest and wealthiest European city; and Baghdad, a significant cultural, commercial and intellectual center for the Islamic world.

Koreans are hoping to restore Silla’s past glory that existed 1,500 years ago by restoring its palace and surrounding structures. They include a nine-story wooden pagoda known as the Hwangnyong Temple (Korea’s Historic Site No. 6), which was the largest at that time, and Woljeong Bridge, Korea’s first bridge with a roof, among others.

It is unclear, though, when exactly the Silla palace was built and destroyed. Koreans can only take some hints as to what it might have looked like, from Samguksagi, known as “The Chronicles of the Three States.”

For instance, Anapji in Gyeongju, a royal garden that consists of a pond and had various animals and plants, was part of the palace.

“During the 14th year of King Munmu (674), [they] built a pond, made mountains and raised rare birds and animals,” Samguksagi said.

Anapji was located to the west of Donggung, one of the structures of the Silla palace. The royal family threw banquets to entertain important guests from abroad. It was considered, at that time, a new kind of zoo and botanical garden. Today, Anapji remains and is one of Gyeongju’s tourist attractions.

Besides Anapji, the Wolseong Fortress, in the shape of a half moon, was built in 101 to protect the palace and lasted about 800 years, records say. Also, Woljeong Bridge, built in 760, was used by royal families when leaving the palace grounds. Restoration began in 2008 and is still under way.

Based on some of these scattered pieces of information, Korean scholars believe that the Silla palace was probably demolished during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). If some of the remnants managed to survive, they likely were lost during the Japanese invasions of 1592-98, known in Korea as the Imjin War.


From top: Anapji was a zoo and a botanical garden within the Silla palace; Woljeong Bridge was the gateway to the palace; Hwangnyong Temple will be rebuilt as part of the plan to restore the past glory of Silla; the excavation and maintenance of Jjoksaem District will also be continued. [JoongAng Ilbo]

President’s support

Historians have increasingly called on the need to restore the Silla palace and its surrounding structures, like the Daming Palace (“Palace of Great Brilliance”) in Xian, China, and Heijo Palace in Nara, Japan.

Previous administrations have attempted such a project, but the main boost came when President Park Geun-hye chose the project during her campaign as one of her pledges for the region.

“I have high expectations that Gyeongju will see its past glory restored as a legendary ancient capital in the world,” said Kim Kwan-yong, the governor of North Gyeongsang. “We hope to attract more visitors, historians and also introduce regulations to better manage the city.”

The number of tourists coming to Korea rose to more than 10 million in 2013, from just 10,000 in 1961. But the number of people visiting Gyeongju - which, along with Jeju and Busan, are the most popular regions to visit outside of Seoul - has failed to see such a hike.

“Many Gyeongju residents feel victimized,” one resident said. “Because there are so many relics underneath, Gyeongju is not as developed as other cities. Yet, it’s not like we are a ‘hot’ tourist spot like Jeju or Busan, either.”

During the first phase - between this year and 2017 - the Woljeong Bridge will be restored completely. Also during this period, historians will conduct academic research, work on finding documents and hold archaeological excavations.

Between 2017 and 2025, the government will work on the Wolseong Fortress, then the Hwangnyong Temple. They also plan to keep 3-D data of the restoration process of the Hwangnyong Temple.

The government will continue its excavation and maintenance of the Jjoksaem District, a 36,422-square-meter (nine-acre) area containing the largest concentration of ancient Silla tombs dating from the fourth to the sixth century.

Eventually, it wants to choose some of the tombs that could best showcase the cultural excellence of Silla and hold an exhibition on them.

Choe Kwang-shik, the head of the committee that will oversee the project and former culture minister, said, “The restoration of the Silla palace is a long-cherished wish [of the Koreans today]. We must preserve this cultural property of such high value and pass it on to our next generation.”

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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