From the Latin word tumulus ‘mound’ or ‘small hill’, tumuli are found all over the world, from Sweden, to India to…South Korea.
Mounds of soil and rocks piled high over the ensconced coffin or corpse within, over the centuries these burial sites attain a smooth and vivid mantle of green grass that look just a little bit alien to Western eyes, more accustomed to their deceased being buried six feet under.
Lasting almost 1000 years from just before the time of Christ, the Silla dynasty in Korea was one of the longest in recorded history, and the people of that time revered their dead through the erection of tumuli. The largest of these were, of course, for royalty, and the Daereungwon Tomb Complex in the ancient capital city Gyeongju provides an opportunity to walk around and even inside one of these incredible structures. Where a queen was also buried with her husband, the mound would be a little smaller, adjoining the larger mound for the king, resulting in a tumuli with the profile of a gourd cut lengthways, lying on its side.
While the largest were for royalty, this didn’t preclude the commoners from also following the same traditions in the burial of their dead. As we travelled around Korea, whether it was hiking, driving on rural by ways or even in the suburbs, we would stumble upon these small mounds of soil, perhaps a metre high and a couple of metres diameter. In some cases the deceased had been long forgotten, but in others there was still evidence of ongoing care and maintenance by the modern day relative.
The tomb complex is one of many in Gyeongju, and if you’re staying in central Gyeongju then you will probably be no more than a 20-30 minute walk away from the front gates. Bike rentals are very common in the main road on the northern side of the tombs and I’d be recommending that you rent one for the day, as the streets and sidewalks of Gyeongju are wide and open, and there are heaps of attractions all within a couple of kilometres of each other.
An interesting side note, the first King of the Silla dynasty, Park Hyeokgeose, is said to have hatched from an egg laid from a white horse! No different to virgin birth stories from the same era I guess, but amusing nonetheless! Of more relevance though, is that it is from this first king that the family name ‘Park’ was established, over the many hundreds of years becoming the equivalent of ‘Smith’ in English.
Where is it?
9, Gyerim-ro, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do
경상북도 경주시 계림로 9 (황남동)
This map from the Korean tourism board is fantastic!
How to get there?
It’s on the southern side of central Gyeongju, near many of the hotels. The northern entrance is on Taejong-ro, the large east-west road on which you will also find the local bus terminal, the express bus terminal and the tourist information centre. You should be able to walk there in less than 30 minutes (it’s only about 10 minutes walk from the bus terminal and tourist information centre), but if that’s too much effort then get yourself a rental bicycle and ride there. If all else fails take a taxi, as it shouldn’t cost any more than W5,000 (unless you’re located out of town).
How much does it cost?
W1,500 (if you’re a tight arse, then cross Taejong-ro to the north and you’ll see two other tomb complexes on either side of the intersection that I believe you can walk around for free).
How long does it take?
We spent around 45 minutes exploring the small park, but I’d allow an hour.
- The curved mounds of soil make for some really interesting shapes and lines that you’ll want to explore from numerous angles and at differing focal lengths.
- I’d allow more time than usual, perhaps 1-2 hours, as the park is very popular and you may need to wait for people to get out of frame.
- Consider visiting in the evening, as it is well lit up, but creates a totally different environment to the daytime.
- As mentioned above, there are other tombs located just across the road. I suspect that due to the open nature of the site, and significantly less tourist interest, you may get better value for time over there, particularly of an evening.
- Consider the time of year when you will be visiting, and the type of shot that will work best. Winter will bring snow cover to the tombs and stark branches on the trees; spring may bring wild flowers into play; summer (see shots above) will bring lush green grass and foliage; autumn will bring gorgeous colouring in the foliage of the surrounding trees.
Drop by the Visit Korea website, here.