Historical Gyeongju was once the capital of Silla, ancient Korean kingdom that lasted from 57BC to 935AD. As such, it contains many of Silla’s most important cultural heritages, which have been officially recognized and divided into 5 distinct areas by UNESCO. These are Namsan, an area famous for its Buddhist art, Wolseong, containing the palaces of Silla, Daeneongwon, where can be found the burial tombs of Silla’s rulers, Hwangnyongsa, a major Buddhist site, and Sanseong, home to the palace security forces during the Silla Dynasty.
The Wolseong Belt is a historical area that includes Cheomseongdae Observatory, Anapji Pond, Gyerim Forest, the Tomb of King Naemul, and was the site of Silla’s royal palaces, with Wolseong at its center. If Gyeongju kept its place as Silla’s capital for a thousand years, Wolseong served as Silla’s center of power where all things related to politics were taken care of. The seat of Silla’s government, the belt was a very different place to the deserted and crumbling ancient relic it is today.
On the subject of Silla’s 49th monarch, King Heongang, the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) says, “I saw the villa where the king had gone and noticed that it didn’t have even one thatched roof, and its eaves and walls were connected to a neighboring house. The chants and the pipes filled the air all through the day and night.”
The dense forest that can be seen in front of Cheomseongdae is Wolseong, however this itself is not the forest. Wolseong in fact is a fortress that protects the palace inside, but with the passage of time, the trees have become a forest and it is difficult to spot the fortress from among the overgrown foliage.
Wolseong was Silla’s second royal palace, built in 101 AD, or the 22nd year of King Pasa’s rule (? - 112 AD) and remained in use until the fall of the kingdom. The palace was shaped like a half-moon, from which it derives its name of Banweolseong, though it was also known as Jaeseong because the king took his residence there. The exact location of Geumseong, Silla’s first royal palace, still remains unknown. However according to ancient records, “Wolseong is a fortress built to the southeast of Geumseong,” so today it is supposed that Geumseong was perhaps located around the vicinity of present-day Hwangseong-dong. Geumseong shares a deep connection to Seorabeol, the ancient name for Gyeongju. The word seorabeol comes from soebeol, meaning a place where iron is made. Soebeol eventually became Seorabeol. Iron is indicated by the Chinese character jin (金), pronounced geum, in Korean, hence the connection between Gyeongju and Geumseong.
In order to be able to see Wolseong properly, one should ascend a small hill. Looking then at Cheomgseongdae Observatory, it is easier to understand that the royal palaces of Silla kings were built above ground. Though the view shows natural slopes and hills, the hills were in fact cut out in order to build the fortress walls. To see these walls, it is possible to walk along the trail to the pine tree on the right-hand side where below, one can confirm that the fortress walls were laid evenly, even if they appear to have been piled upon indiscriminately. Wolseong Fortress’s walls are made of stone and earth that have been packed together.
They can be seen at the north, east, and west, but not in the south. It is likely that the natural terrain was used and no walls were built due to the presence of a cliff.
According to the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), “the circumference of the walls built in the 22nd year of King Pasa measures 1,423 steps”. If we convert this to today's standards, the scale of the east-west route is 900m in length, the south-north route 260m, and the surface area of the fortress’s interior therefore approximately 198,000km2. Today, the luxurious buildings of the palace are gone and the land has been turned into flower beds, yet at the time, the royal palace would have enjoyed striking natural scenery and an excellent location.
In the past, there were many structures inside the fortress, including gates to north and south, they being Gwijeongmun, Bukmun, Yinhwamun, Hyeondeokmun, Mupyeongmun, and Junryemun, as well as numerous pavilions including Wolsangryu, Mangdeokryu, Myonghakryu, and Goryu. Namdang, where the king oversaw matters of state, and Jowonjeon, where the king received his daily greetings from his lieges and received foreign envoys, and Naesong, where internal affairs were managed. All the structures have disappeared except for a freezer that was built during the later Joseon era.
How Wolseong became the site of a royal palace is an amusing tale related to King Talhae (? - 80 A.D.).
When Seok Talhae was looking for an ideal place in which to live, he climbed up Tohamsan and from this mountain looked towards the west, where he saw a land shaped like a half moon. However, a Silla statesman named Hogong had constructed a house there for himself. So Seok Talhae devised a scheme in order to obtain the house. He secretly buried whetstone, pieces of iron, and charcoal around the structure, and the next day went to see Hogong and asked him to hand over the house, saying the land had belonged to his ancestors for generations. Seok Talhae claimed that Hogong had seized his land when Talhae had simply left it for a short time and that the latter was acting like its owner. He then confidently asserted that his ancestors had been blacksmiths in the area and that in order to see proof of this all one needed to do was to dig up the surroundings. This was done, and indeed many pieces of charcoal and iron were found. At this, Hogong acknowledged Talhae’s claims and handed over his house. Talhae’s ruse became widely known and as a result, King Namhae (? - 24), the second king of Silla, befriended him thinking he was wise. Seok Talhae later became the fourth king of Silla, succeeding Yuri (? - 57), and designated the site fit for a royal palace.
Along the dense Gyerim Forest trail between Cheomseongdae and Wolseong, there stands an old tree. Legend says that Kim Alji, the founder of the Gyeongju Kim clan, was born nearby. Originally, Gyerim was called Sirim because it was believed to be numinous since the sun always seemed to shine there first. It became Gyerim when it was said that a chicken cried after the birth of Kim Alji.
The Samguk Yusa records the following on Kim Alji:
“One evening during the ninth year of King Talhae (65 AD), Hogong saw a big and bright light coming from inside Sirim Forest while he was walking along Wolseong. A purple cloud extended from the sky to the earth, and a golden box could be seen hanging from a tree. Light was coming out of the box and there was a white chicken crowing beneath the tree. Immediately, Hogong informed the king of what he had seen. Afterward, the king went into the forest, opened the box and found a young boy lying inside, who sat up as soon as he saw the elder man. The boy was named Alji (‘young child’) because the events surrounding his appearance were similar to the legend of Bak Hyeokgeose. As the king carried the boy back to the palace, birds and animals followed, frolicking and dancing with joy. King Talhae chose an auspicious day and upon it, designated the boy Crown Prince. The prince however subsequently let King Pasa take his place on the throne. He was given the last name of Kim because he came out of a golden box.”
Although Kim Alji had been designated King Talhae’s successor, Kim decided to pass over the throne. Six generations later, his descendant Michu became the 13th king of Silla. From that point onward, the throne was shared between the Kim, Park, and Seok clans. Out of 56 Silla kings, 38 had the surname Kim. Even if Kim Alji had not become king, his descendants would do so generation after generation. Gyerim since then was seen as a holy place, and during periods of growth when a Kim was in power, the kingdom was also called Gyerim.
There are several large tumuli behind Gyerim, one of which is uniquely named the Royal Tomb of King Naemul. It is 5.3m high, measures 2.2m in diameter, and is relatively small compared to other tumuli in the area. Externally it does not look vastly different from the others. There are no stone figures surrounding it, and the tomb is accessed by a simple round bongmun, or tunnel entrance. Below this can be seen evidence of a dulleseok (aka hoseok), which is a round stone wall typically placed around a tomb of this type. In this instance, the dulleseok has been created using natural stone rather than carved stone.
King Naemul (356 - 402) was Silla’s 17th king. He was the second Kim to ascend to the throne after King Michu. He imported advanced Chinese culture through diplomacy, and when Baekje allied with Japan to invade Silla, overcame the crisis by eliciting the aid of Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo. King Naemul was also the first to be titled Maripgan, or ‘great leader’. According to the Shilla historian Kim Daemun, “Maripgan is a title for the king during Silla, which was also derived from the meaning of a stake from the local dialect. Gual means to set a location. King’s palace (Wanggual) would be arranged on top of the lieges’ chamber (Gual)”. The title was used from King Naemul’s time until the reign of Jijeung, the 22nd king of Silla (437 - 514), when the Chinese-style title Wangho began to be used.
Across the street from the base of Wolseong, one can find Imhaejeonji, commonly known in Korea as Anapji, though believed originally to have borne the name Weolji. According to the Samguk Sagi, King Heondeok, Silla’s 41st ruler, chose a new crown prince and had him stay at Weoljigung, and other designations related to Weolji also appear in the text such as Weoljijeon and Weoljiagjeon. When the site was excavated between March 1975 and December 1976, a wooden tablet bearing the engraved word setaek was found, as well as a potsherd that was probably used at the Yongwangjeon. Both the words setaek and yongwangjeon are appellations related to the Crown Prince. Then in 1980 a pottery fragment inscribed with the word Weolji was discovered, providing positive confirmation on the matter. Thus it is currently accepted that “Weolji” was the original name for Anapji.
The name Anapji comes from Joseon-era poets and calligraphers who combined the Chinese characters ‘an’ for wild geese, and ‘ab’ for duck, in reference to the birds that were often to be found flying about the once-luxurious pond that had subsequently become long-neglected and overrun with reeds after the fall of Silla.
Imhajeon was the palace of the crown prince at Wolseong. It was the residential palace for the crown prince during the time of King Heondeok, when the king designated his sibling Sujong as the prince. However there are no records stating that the crown prince stayed there from the time of King Munmu to the reign of King Heondeok, so opinion is divided as to whether the palace really served as the crown prince’s palace - it could simply be that donggul in Korean meant the ‘palace located to the east of Wolseong’ .
What is certain is that the site was called Imhaejon Donggung and that it was used for official banquets and meetings, and also to entertain important guests. There are records in the Samguk Sagi showing that banquets for officials were held in September of the sixth year of King Hyoso (697 AD), March of the fifth year of King Hyegong (769 AD), September of the fourth year of King Heonan (860 AD), and in March of the seventh year of King Heongang (881 AD). In 931 AD, King Gyeongsun (? - 978 AD) also held a banquet for Wanggeon of Goryeo in order to plea for critical assistance after he suffered as a result of the Gyeon Hwon uprising. Through these records, it seems that Imhaejeon was the crown prince’s palace, but it can be seen that Imhaejeon has had great significance throughout Silla history. At present only a cornerstone remains around the pond, a small remnant of the dignity of the former palace.
Anapji Pond is about 190m long and wide, and measures 15,656m2 in surface area. To the left of the entrance (southwestern side), is a vertically-pointing stone structure. To the right (northeastern side) the pond bends and turns and leads to a natural-looking hill. Modeled after the Chinese 巫山十二峯 (wu shan shi er feng), the slope was piled with stone and made into an artificial hill. Inside the pond are three islands of varying sizes, representing the myth of the three Chinese mountains of Bongrae, Bangjang, and Yeongju where legendary hermits live. The height of the pond has been designed unevenly in order to maximize the effect of its appearance, with straight and curved lines exquisitely brought into balance to create the impression of looking into the sea. The pond was designed so that it could not be seen in its entirety from any angle, a testament to the ingenuity of Silla landscape architects.
The results of the excavation estimate Imhaejeon to have contained 26 buildings, 8 barricades, 2 waterways, and 1 area to with instruments to bring water into the pond. During the renovations, three out of five sites of former buildings were restored to the west of the pond, and foundation stones have been laid where buildings are thought to have stood for the benefit of tourists.
Around 30,000 artifacts have been unearthed. The relics were objects used by the kings when they held banquets for his lords. It is supposed that they were pushed into the pond by the force of rainwater while Donggung remained in a state of disrepair after the fall of Silla. These artifacts are currently on display at the Anapji Hall of the Gyeongju National Museum.
It is possible to visit Cheomseongdae even after the sun has set. If you are hoping for a more relaxed visit to the observatory or want to take some pictures as a souvenir of your trip, visiting at night is highly recommended. At night, there are far fewer tourists and the light bouncing off of Cheomseongdae makes for a beautiful scene. However, do not forget that you will need to go during the day in order to get a stamp. So, one good way to do it is to visit Cheomseongdae during the day, and then go again at night, so that you can compare the two different scenes. The electric lights around the observatory are turned on at different times, depending on the season. In the summer, the lights are turned on around 8 o'clock at night; in the winter, the lights go on around 5 o'clock in the evening.
The only surviving structure still remaining at Wolseong is the seokbingo. Although it looks like a tumulus, its function was entirely different. A seokbingo a warehouse made of stone to store ice. A long time ago, ice was made in this structure through the winter then stored and used in the summer. It was today’s equivalent of the refrigerator.
The seokbingo at Wolseong is not from the Silla period, but was in fact built in 1741 during the reign of King Yeongjo (1694 - 1776) of the Joseon Dynasty. A stone monument placed next to the seokbingo records “Jo Myeong-gyeom, an officer in the Joseon government, had this wooden icehouse converted into stone in the 14th year of King Yeongjo (1738 AD).” However, on the headstone placed at the entrance of the seokbingo is marked in large letters “‘숭정기원후재신유이기개축 (崇禎紀元後再辛酉移基改築)’”. It records that the icehouse was moved to its current location four years after Jo Myeong-gyeom had constructed it.
The question remains therefore as to whether there was in fact an icehouse as described above during the days of Silla. Today, none survive, though there are records that the people of Silla also stored and maintained ice. The Samguk Sagi records that there was an administrative office known as the bingojeon which managed ice, and in November of the 6th year of King Jijeung (505 AD), there is a record of the king issuing an ordinance to store ice.
Seokbingo construction was extremely methodical.
The seokbingo at Gyeongju is located north of Wolseong where a mound was razed to create a southern entrance. Steps were installed to allow passage down to the entrance. A waterway was installed and the floor was made to slant so that water from the melting ice could be drained quickly without becoming contaminated. The interior roof is a round dome. Five arches were mounted and in between a long stone was slipped through in order to build the overhead section - a vaulted ceiling is better able to support a considerable amount of weight. To keep the ice, a good amount of chaff or straw was inserted in between. This ensured that any melting ice fragments would not stick together and also maintained its overall surface temperature.
There are three ventilators that can be seen outside of the seokbingo, all of which played a very important role in maintaining the internal temperature based on the principle that hot air rises and cold air falls. The seokbingo was thus conceived so that cold air always stayed inside and hot air could be funneled outward.
The seokbingo was also constructed in granite, with soil heaped on top, within which grass was planted. This was also to maintain the temperature: because stone heated easily, it was covered with soil in order to prevent rises in temperature; while the grass held the soil in place.