Along with Kyoto in Japan, Gyeongju in South Korea has been designated by UNESCO as one of the world’s most important ancient cultural cities. Pilgrims who visit Gyeongju today will find that it is an immense museum without walls, a place where the past is constantly visible.
For a thousand years, the royal city of Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom in central Korea. From the first to the tenth centuries, Gyeongju reigned as the spiritual, cultural, and political heart of the Korean peninsula, a city of immense wealth and power.
Burial mounds, temple sites, rock sculptures, and the ruins of fortresses and pagodas fill the city and surrounding area. Gyeongju’s beauty is enhanced by the fact that it is far less congested than many cities in Korea, with tree-lined streets and colorful flowers. No where else does the spirit of ancient Korea seem as vibrant and immediate, making it one of the most visited destinations in the country.
The most visible signs of Gyeongju’s illustrious past are burial tombs. Nearly 700 have been discovered within the city and its outskirts. Some have been excavated, revealing rich caches of jewelry, weapons, decorative items, earthenware, and other artifacts.
The best place to view them is Tumulus Park on the southern edge of the downtown. The park offers a serene place to stroll amid more than a dozen of the grass-covered mounds, some rising to heights of seventy-five feet. One of the mounds has been turned into a small museum, allowing visitors to walk inside its inner chamber and see reproductions of the exquisitely crafted jewelry and weaponry that were found inside.
Visitors to Gyeongju can see an array of cultural, religious, and artistic treasures at the Gyeongju National Museum. Its exhibits give additional background on the sophisticated civilization that existed here for a millennium.
Outside the entrance to the museum hangs the largest and most beloved bell in Korea: the Emille Bell, cast in 771 by a king of the Silla Kingdom. The huge, embellished bell hangs over a shallow echo chamber, which amplifies its sound when struck.
The bell’s name comes from a tragic legend associated with its creation. When the bell was first made, it failed to ring. After the metal was melted down and the bell remade, it cracked when it was struck for the first time.
The head priest of a local temple had a dream in which a spirit appeared to him, saying that the fire spirit dragon needed to be appeased in order for the bell to sound. The bell should be melted down once again, only this time a young girl was to be sacrificed into the molten metal before the bell was recast.
The terrible deed was done, and ever since when struck the bell is said to echo the cries of the girl, who as she died screamed “emille,” or “mother” in the language of the Silla.
Stories like this illustrate the ways in which echoes of the past live on in Gyeongju today. Like many pilgrimage sites, this is a place where the dead are not forgotten. Walking amid the ancient tombs and structures, a traveler can feel a peculiar interweaving of time, as if the twenty-first century is merely the thinnest overlay on a far older tradition that still beats just beneath the surface.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.