Where Have All The Korean Ruins Gone?

There isn’t a whole hell of a lot left of the Shilla Dynasty. Aside from two spectacular sets of ruins in Gyeongju—Seokguram and Bulguksa, of course—and a few decent sculptures in the local museum, nearly everything this thousand-year old culture created has been completely destroyed. Part of me suspected that this was due to a lack of artistic fervor, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence: it’s also possible that the last millennium of Korean history was turbulent enough to nearly erase the Shilla from existence.

This is the answer I usually get from Korean people, anyway, if I manage to ask them why there’s so little to see here that’s more than fifty years old. “Korea has been invaded thousands of times!” “The Japanese stole everything worth stealing!”—fair answers to my presumptuous questions, no doubt, but one author (Andrei Lankov, I think), naturally asked why the same dearth isn’t true of a country like Italy, which has been destroyed and invaded and burned to the ground so many times it’s not even worth counting them—and yet when you go there you’re liable to faint from the strength of history, the weight of two millennia pressing down on you from every direction, where Roman Emperors gallop on their horses past the churches of the Renaissance, the old temples and tombs turned to churches and fortresses. I’m fairly certain that the Italians don’t have to make any excuses for the lack of notable historical artifacts in their country.

But at the same time there are outlines in Gyeongju: walls from the Half-Moon Palace have been reduced to hills of grass with trees growing out of them, and wide open fields are full of the imprints and foundations of ancient temples and pagodas. It’s supposedly impossible to build anything here without hauling a sculpture out of the ground, and if you take the trouble to walk around the city you run into rocks, walls, bricks, flagposts, and plinths, all over the place; they’re usually notable enough to have a descriptive sign set up nearby, but there’s one small set just up the street from where I live that seems to be completely unmarked. An old Japanese hospital up the road in another direction has no descriptive sign or commemoration and looks as though it was built twenty years ago—I only discovered its age when I found it in a picture of the city from the colonial period—while traditional Hanok houses that must be at least half a century old are being bulldozed to make way for new apartment buildings (or fields of illegal ajumma gardens!) as I write these words.

My guess is that the answer to the question of—Where Have All The Korean Ruins Gone?—really is that they were lost, stolen, or destroyed. An incredible city like Venice, for example, was never occupied by anyone, while Korea had to deal with the Mongols (who made mincemeat out of the flourishing civilization in Baghdad, building great pyramids of human skulls where cities had been) and all kinds of other nasties. The fact that truly amazing relics built by the Shilla still exist is proof enough that more may have existed at one time, though perhaps that’s not the whole truth: perhaps Koreans really have always been a little too interested in memorizing textbooks (whether they happen to be about the English language, Confucianism, or Buddhism) to bother with erecting shrines to eternity. Only God, who may not even exist, knows.

The local government in Gyeongju has been preoccupying itself, lately, with reconstructing a number of Shilla ruins, and since they’ve been building them mostly out of wood, rather than plastic and cement, these buildings look really good. My only hope is that they continue, so that, perhaps, someday, people can come here without feeling underwhelmed by the woeful lack of antiquities.

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