UNESCO World Heritage Series: Part 3 - Gyeongju Historic Areas

By Matthew Fennell, Contributing Writer

March 27, 2017 - We continue our World Heritage Series this month with a trip to Gyeongju Historic Areas, an area often labelled as “the world’s largest museum without walls”. Buy any guidebook on South Korea and a trip to Gyeongju is rightfully listed at the top of places to visit; the city holds more temples, pagodas, tombs, palaces, gardens and Buddhist statuary than any other place in the country. In ancient times, the Korean peninsula was dominated by Silla rule for almost 1,000 years, and the dynasty is credited for a lot of the country’s cultural achievements. Gyeongju was the capital of Silla, hence why the Historic Areas contain a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean art. Thanks to the preservation work which started in the 1970’s under Park Chung-hee, the cultural revival of Gyeongju is stronger than ever before. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is separated into five distinct areas, each with its own history and culture: Mount Namsan Belt, Wolseong Belt, Tumuli Park Belt, Hwangnyongsa Belt and the Sanseong Belt.

Buddhism was first introduced to Korea in the 4th century and the Mount Namsan Belt area has some of the country’s best Buddhist artifacts. In addition to the pagodas and temples, various images have been sculptured into the rocks in the mountain and show the development of the religion over the years. The Wolseong Belt is home to the ruined Banwolseong Palace and Cheomseongdae, one of the oldest remaining observatories on earth. The striking Tumuli Park Belt is famous for its Royal Tombs that dominate the area, built to house members of the Silla royal family after their deaths. Buddhist temples can be found in the Hwangnyongsa Belt, including the ruins of Hwangnyongsa, the largest temple ever built in Korea. Finally, the Sanseong Fortress Belt, the least known and visited of the 5 belts, is made up of defensive fortresses built to protect the city and that stretch along the east coast.

In total, the ancient city of Gyeongju is home to 31 National Treasures and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea. In September 2016, the city was hit by the largest earthquake ever recorded on the Korean Peninsula and despite some 60 cultural assets being damaged, the area is now back to normal. To fully explore all 5 belts, at least three days are needed to take in the deep historical and cultural significance of the region. Gyeongju can be found in the south east of the country and its easily accessible by train or bus.