Baekje becomes latest kingdom to get Unesco recognition

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Baekje becomes latest kingdom to get Unesco recognition

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The Stone Pagoda of Mireuk Temple Site in Iksan, North Jeolla

Korea’s Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. - 600 A.D.) was one of the three major players on the Korean peninsula during the country’s Three Kingdoms era (57 B.C.- 668 A.D.)

However, compared to Goguryeo (37 B.C. - 668 A.D.) and Silla (676 - 935) - which along with Baekje constituted the “Three Kingdoms” - Baekje has not received as much buzz.

In part, this has to do with the distinctive characteristics of Goguryeo and Silla.

Goguryeo was known for its military prowess and covered a massive territory that included both today’s North Korea and southern Manchuria.

Silla, on the other hand, was known for its artistic and cultural achievements like the intricate golden crowns and explicit clay dolls, and also for unifying the three kingdoms.

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Stone Seated Buddha at Jeongnimsa Temple Site in Buyeo, South Chungcheong

But with the Baekje Historic Areas added to Unesco’s world heritage list over the weekend, local governments are hoping that the glory of the fallen kingdom 1,400 years ago will be restored, attract tourists and vitalize the local economy.

The Baekje Historic Areas, Korea’s 12th in Unesco’s world heritage list, refer to eight sites in Iksan in North Jeolla, and Gongju and Buyeo in South Chungcheong, which were important places in Baekje history.


Visiting the capital
In Iksan, one of the most representative historic areas is the Stone Pagoda of Mireuk Temple Site, or Mireuksajiseoktap.

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Songsan-ri Ancient Tombs in Gongju, South Chungcheong

Iksan was Baekje’s capital in its later years, and the temple is believed to have been created in the seventh century during the final years of the kingdom.

The stone pagoda is the country’s oldest and largest, and is named National Treasure No. 11. Additionally, the pagoda is considered an exemplary case of a cultural heritage item being properly restored in Korea, with authorities taking enough time to study and reconstruct it.

In 1998, a regular safety inspection found the pagoda in dangerous shape. The following year, the authorities decided to dismantle it, and spent the next two years studying just how to do so. The dismantling process began in 2001 and finished 10 years later.

With the hasty mind-set often seen as one of the biggest reasons cultural heritage items are not restored properly, this stone pagoda is a rare case.

Cho You-jeon, then head of the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, recollected people in the region blamed what appeared to be a slow process eating up their tax money.

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Gongsanseong (Gongsan Fortress) in Gongju, South Chungcheong

“There were many criticisms, but I was determined that this restoration would be a model of our stone artifact restorations. … The know-how that the artisans accumulated in the process is an asset that will play a big role in the restoration of other stone artifacts in the future,” he said.

In 2009, the sarira reliquary containing more than 9,900 artifacts was found inside the pagoda, making headlines. As the 19.5 billion won ($17.4 million) restoration project is set for completion in August 2016, tourists will have to wait a while to enjoy the pagoda.


Royal tombs

One highlight in Buyeo is the Five-story Stone Pagoda at Jeongnimsa Temple Site, National Treasure No. 9.

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Left: Great Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje Right: Gilt-bronze shoes [JoongAng Ilbo]

The monument is the best preserved of the Baekje pagodas, and the only one to retain its original shape. The pagoda at the Mireuk Temple site was restored during the 1910-45 Japanese colonization, so present-day researchers don’t know what it looked like originally. The craftsmanship of Baekje artisans is evident at Jeongnimsa, as the pagoda maintains its perfect symmetry and proportions.

Another site worth visiting in Buyeo is the Neungsan-ri Ancient Tombs (or Baekje Royal Tombs), a complex of seven enormous burial chambers. Their size and the stillness of the site evoke a sense of wonder in viewers.

It is still unknown exactly who these tombs belong to, but the assumption is the crypts housed a Baekje king or other royal family members.

In fact, among the tombs from the Three Kingdoms era, the only tomb whose owner is clearly known is the Tomb of King Muryeong (462-523), one of the Songsan-ri Ancient Tombs in Gongju.

It was also in Buyeo that Korean archaeologists found Baekje’s most famous relic: Great Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje, National Treasure No. 287.

The large incense burner with intricate carvings all over was excavated in 1993 near Naseong Fortress of Baekje and the ancient tombs in Neungsan-ri (both of which are part of the Baekje Historic Areas).

Measuring 64 centimeters (25 inches) in height and weighing 11.8 kilograms (26 pounds), the incense burner features scenery of 23 mountains; five musicians with various instruments and 16 other characters; 39 animals including a phoenix, dragon, tiger and deer, among other exquisite illustrations.

“We plan to connect the Baekje Historic Areas to other tourist sites from Korea’s southeastern coast,” Lee Ji-seong, the director of the Jeonbuk Provincial Government’s culture, sports and tourism department says, “and ultimately make it into a representative history and culture tourist site in East Asia.”

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

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