2016 travel diary 5: An introduction to the Baekje Historic Areas

Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, 16 May 2016

Gold Diadem Ornaments of King Muryeong
Gold Diadem Ornaments of King Muryeong (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

The kingdom of Baekje had its beginnings as a small state founded on the south banks of the Han River in 18 BCE by King Onjo. The people were largely of Buyeo origins – an early kingdom absorbed into Goguryeo. The kingdom gradually grew, absorbing the small Mahan states to the south and west. At its peak under King Geunchogo (r. 346-375) it occupied the area from Hwanghae province (just south of Pyongyang) down to Jeolla province.

The three kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje were never at peace for long and in 475 CE Goguryo’s King Jangsu overran Baekje’s Han River capital, killing Baekje’s King Gaero in the process. Baekje’s next king, Munju, moved his capital southwards to Ungjin (modern Gongju). The location was chosen for its defensive capabilities: the river Geumgang in front and hills behind. It proved a sound choice and contributed to the stabilisation and regrowth of Baekje. Ungjin remained the capital until 538 when King Seong moved it to Sabi (modern Buyeo) – down the Geumgang river to a spot which gave access to more extensive arable land and to the sea, enabling easier international communications with China and Japan.

Baekje capitals
Source: Baekje UNESCO submission

A secondary capital, Iksan, was built further south in Jeollabuk-do. King Mu (r. 600–641) built a large palace there and an impressive temple, Mireuksa (whose stone pagoda can be dated accurately to 639), and is thought to have wanted to move the capital there. Mu’s successor, King Uija, was Baekje’s last. Initial military successes against Silla only served to stir up the forces against him. He stopped sending emissaries to Tang China in 652, and it was a Silla – Tang alliance that sealed the end of the Baekje kingdom in 660.

Very little archaeological evidence remains of Baekje’s Hanseong period. When the Republic of Korea came to register the Baekje Historic Areas on the UNESCO world heritage list the sites therefore related to the later Ungjin and Sabi periods: Gongju, Buyeo and Iksan.

The various Baekje-related UNESCO World Heritage sites in the three locations, together with the museums that contain related treasures, are as follows (links, other than the ones marked KTO, are to the relevant posts on LKL).

GongjuGongju National Museum (contains most of the National Treasures found in the tomb of King Muryeong) (KTO)1 hour?
Royal Tombs in Songsan-ri (including King Muryeong’s)45 mins45 mins
Gongsanseong Fortress1 hour1.5-2 hours
BuyeoJeongnimsa Temple Site45 mins1 hour
Archaeological Site in Gwanbuk-ri and Busosanseong Fortress2 hours3-4 hours
Buyeo National Museum (contains the famous gilt bronze incense burner)15 mins1-1.5 hours
Royal Tombs in Neungsan-ri10 mins20 mins
Naseong City Wall (KTO)30 mins?
Baekje Cultural Land45 mins2-3 hours
IksanArchaeological Site in Wanggung-ri (KTO)45 mins?
Mireuksa Temple Site (KTO)45 mins?

Two of Korea’s most recognisable treasures are from the Baekje kingdom: the famous Gilt-bronze Incense Burner and the Gold Diadem Ornaments of King Muryeong. And interestingly they were only unearthed in the last fifty years: King Muryeong’s regalia in 1971 and the Incense Burner in 1993. More discoveries were made during restoration work on the stone pagoda at Mireuksa, Iksan, in 2009. There must be more treasures yet to be unearthed.

As part of our travels this year we didn’t manage to get as far as Iksan, and decided to skip the city wall in Buyeo / Sabi because we were out of time. And because we were in Gongju on a Monday the museum was closed. But apart from that we covered it all, plus a surprisingly good Baekje-related theme park in Buyeo-gun which contains reconstructions / reimaginings of Baekje Royal and Buddhist architecture. We were there for one afternoon and an hour or so the following morning. It wasn’t enough, and I estimate that if you wanted to cover it all properly (and having done some preparatory reading beforehand) you should allow the best part of two days.

There’s comprehensive information on the Baekje sites on the UNESCO World Heritage website, and the sites also have their own dedicated webpage maintained by the Baekje World Heritage Centre under the auspices of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration.


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