One of the things that make Gyeongju noticeably unique among Korean cities are all of the ancient Shilla hill tombs scattered about. Some of them are pretty darn impressive actually, as they range from one to two millennia old and most of them are at least a couple stories high. Not to mention there are over 150 of them around the area. Seen from above they look like mushrooms sprouting up all over the city after a rain.
But honestly, I’ve gotten a bit bored by the tombs after living in Gyeongju for a few years. Really, they do start to look the same after a while. However, there are a number of tombs that have left an impression on me over the years, for one reason or another. If you’re up for a bit of tomb hopping around town, here’s my personal top ten list of ancient Shilla tombs in Gyeongju. (I’ve stricken both Chongmachong and Kim Yu-shin’s tomb off my list. Not that they aren’t well worth visiting, rather they’re already hyped in all the tourist lit and already get plenty of visitors already.)
10. King Beopheung’s Tomb (법 흥왕릉): King Beopheung’s tomb makes the list neither for size nor grandeur. In fact, it’s pretty small compared to a lot of tombs and it doesn’t have any great carvings or stone work either. Still every time I’ve visited King Beopheung’s final resting place I’ve been struck by it’s tranquility and the quite beauty of the pine forest around it. Perhaps the atmosphere is a reflection of King Beophung himself, who abdicated the throne after 26 years of rule to become a Buddhist monk. In any case, it makes for a great afternoon bike ride out of town.
9. King Honan’s Tomb (헌 안왕릉): This tomb belongs to a cluster of later Shilla tombs scattered on the lower slopes of Mt. Seondosan (선도산). They are not the most impressive tombs to look at, especially considering the size and grandeur of the Seoakri tombs in the valley below. However, there’s something quite unsettling and sinister about the two impish stone guardians who watch over King Honan’s final resting place. Their wicked smiles give me the willies.
8. Neungji Pagoda (능지탑) – King Munmu’s Cremation Site: It might be a little unfair for King Munmu to make the list twice, as he only died once. Still, Neunji pagoda is worth mentioning, not just for commemorating the spot on Mt. Nangsan (낭산) where King Munmu the Great was cremated, but for unique architecture of the pagoda. It’s unusual square base is flanked on all sides with figures from the Chinese zodiac and the lotus pattern on the trim of it’s tiers is pretty cool too. Not to mention it’s got a great view to the west of Mt. Namsan (남산), especially around sundown.
7. Tumuli Park Tombs (동부사전지대): Looking West from Cheomseongdae Observatory towards Mt. Seondosan (선도산) are a series of 5 huge hill tombs in Tumuli Park. Aside from King Naemul’s tomb, I’ve found little info of who’s buried here or why these tombs were built in the heart of the palace district of ancient Gyeongju to begin with. Still, these tombs take on an otherworldly glow as sun sets over Mt. Seondosan, making this area a great spot of a romantic evening stroll.
6. King Heondeok’s Tomb (헌덕왕릉): Tucked in a little island of trees, surrounded by rice paddies to the South of Mt. Geumgangsan is the Tomb of King Heondeok. There’s something quite lonely and forlorn about this tomb. It spite of the great condition of it’s stone fence and carved zodiac animals around it’s base, there are never any visitors here. Perhaps it’s Heondeok’s curse for slaying his 19 year old nephew in order to take the throne. In any case, this is another tomb that makes for a great afternoon’s bike ride out in the countryside.
To be continued in Part 2….