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Kyongju was the capital of the Shilla Kingdom (57 B.C. - 935 A.D.). It has a myriad of historic sites, cultural relics, legendary monuments, all of which are lively reminders of the splendid Shilla's spirit and culture. Kyongju is also a showcase of national treasures, valuable antiques and Buddhist culture, making it a "museum without walls."
Natural Environment
Dongsa Mountains and Jusa Mountains running from north to south are the natural boundaries of the east and west respectively. The city itself is built on a basin composed of granite and there are many mountains in and around the city. Some of them are; Mts. Myonghwal, Keumo, Oknyo, Sondo and Keumkang.
As for the rivers, the In, the upper stream of the Hyongsan, flows into the West, the North winds through the middle of the city, and the South flows by Banwol Fortress. All these rivers join to form the main stream of the Hyongsan that flows from north to south on the west side of the city, and flows into Yongil Bay.
History of Kyongju
Shilla was born by Saro Tribe whose main territory was Kyongju. Scholars think that Saro established a confederation of tribes during the reign of King Naemul, AD 356-402. King Naemul also established the hereditary monarchy of the Kim family instead of sharing the throne with the Park and Sok families.
Saro was late in establishing a kingdom, compared to the other two countries existing on the Korean Peninsula at that time; Koguryo and Paekche. Saro kept close ties with Kokuryo located in the north, but the relation with Baekje located in the west was full of tension. It was King Nulji who changed the diplomatic policy and formed an alliance with Baekje in 433. Saro started to show many characteristics of a full-fledged kingdom in 500 under the reign of King Jijeung who changed the name of the country into Shilla.
King Pophung who ascended to the throne in 514 promulgated state laws and decrees, and officially recognized Buddhism. He also conquered the main part of the Kaya state on the eastern tip of the peninsula, thus securing a stepping stone to expand into the Nakdong River basin.
King Chinhung who ascended to the throne in 540 forged an alliance with King Sung of Paekche, annexed the Han River basin to the territory of Shilla and started trade with China. His attempt to expand the territory continued until the border was pushed up to the southern area of Hamkyong Province of today. The expansion of Shilla achieved under the reign of King Chinhung facilitated the unification of the three countries-Shilla, Koguryo and Paekche-by Shilla in later years. King Chinhung built monuments in his expanded territory in order to show off the power of Shilla, and organized a unique military corps called the Hwarangdo. Political Situations of Shilla at the Time of Its Foundation
First Period: From the Beginning of Shilla to the Foundation of a Confederated Kingdom
Shilla was begun as a village state. Scholars think that the beginning of the Bronze Age in Shilla triggered a series of changes which consolidated the power of tribe chiefs and finally enabled a confederated kingdom to be established.
Shilla was composed of the descendents of six tribes which lived on the Kyongju plains; Kupryang, Saryang, Ponpi, Morayng, Hanki and Supbi. Hyokkose Park, the founder of Shilla, first appeared as a baby when the chiefs of the six tribes assembled to have a meeting.
But what really happened in those days is somewhat ambiguous. Scholars only guess that the kingdom was formed after the six tribes moved from their respective dwellings in the mountains to the plains.
The legend says that Hyokkose was from Kupryang Tribe and that he married to Alyoung Kim who was from Saryang Tribe. This story can be interpreted to mean the formation of an alliance between Kupryang and Saryang.
Their alliance was overwhelmed by Talhae Sok and his tribe later. But the power of Talhae's tribe was not strong enough and the old alliance regained the power soon.
Birth of the Aristocracy
Second Period : Like in the first period, the power struggle between Park, Sok and Kim families complicated the political situations of the second period.
But King Naemul succeeded in establishing the hereditary monarchy of the Kim family and firm royal authority.
Shilla was a weak country when compared to Koguryo and Paekche. Thus, Shilla highly depended on diplomatic relations for its survival. Shilla was originally very close to Koguryo. But when King Jangsu of Koguryo moved the capital to P'yongyang and started to interfere more strongly in the domestic affairs of Shilla, the country switched its alliance to Paekche and prepared to defend itself against the possible invasion of Koguryo.
Shilla's Rapid Growth
Third Period : During this period, Shilla fully established a governing system of the centralized aristocracy. There existed a form of silent agreement concerning power allocation between the king and aristocrats, and they helped each other to make the country grow rapidly.
Political and social foundation for the growth was achieved under the reign of Kings Pophung and Jijeung. Agriculture advanced thanks to King Jijeung's encouragement.
He also institutionalized the Aristocrats Council composed of Jin-gols, the aristocrats whose father was from the royal family.
King Pophung conquered the main part of the Kaya state and threatened other Kayas as well. All the Kaya states were finally conquered by King Chinhung.
King Chinhung also annexed the Han River basin while Koguryo and Paekche were fighting each other.
Shilla continued to prosper under the reign of Queen Sunduk. But her successor, Queen Jinduk died leaving behind the power struggle between the aristocrats supporting the queen and other aristocrats. Using the power struggle, General Yushin Kim pushed Chunchu Kim to the throne. And the two Kims played the greatest role in conquering Koguryo and Paekche and unifying the Korean Peninsula.
Shilla's Golden Age
Fourth Period :During this period, Chunchu Kim, or King Taejongmuyol, established the autocratic monarchy. Since his reign, only his family had the right to the throne. He also forged an alliance with T'ang China and conquered Paekche in 660 and Koguryo in 668. This was the first time in Korea's history that the peninsula had been unified under indigenous leadership.
After the unification, the country reformed its systems in accord with the Chinese model. Chipsabu was established as a central administrative body; Confucianism was named as the political ideology of the country, which created an environment where bureaucrats rather than aristocrats could take control of the government; and relations between the king and the aristocrats living far from the capital were reinforced. The government also divided the peninsula into nine provinces and the bureaucrats of the central administration into five classes.
All of these changes resulted in the establishment of the autocratic monarchy and the centralized government.
The Decline of Shilla
Fifth Period :This period is characterized by conflicts among the aristocracy. There were two types of aristocrats in Shilla; Jin-gols and Song-gols. The latter was those whose parents were both from the royal family and who could be promoted in the government as high as possible. But Jin-gols could not occupy certain positions in the government because of their birth.
Finally, Jin-gols armed themselves with their own armies and united their forces to defy the royal family. Furthermore, powerful families in the provinces also started to revolt against the central government.
To molify the angry aristocrats, King Wonsung established a recruiting system of public officials called Doksosampumkwa. But the system only made the aristocrats more dissatisfied.
All these factors were strongly indicating the path toward the eventual fall of the country. But as if they were not enough, two kings were assassinated by royalties craving the throne and peasant uprisings were started all over the country. Shilla was truly not far from the end.
The Fall of Shilla
Sixth Period :According to Samkukyusa-an ancient book on the history of Shilla, Koguryo and Paekche, many strange things happened in and out of the court during this period. Ghosts frequently appeared and predicted the fall of Shilla and preternatural phenomena often surprised people.
But apart from these strange things, there were real threats. Kyunhwon and Kungye, who claimed themselves to be the descendent of Paekche and Koguryo respectively, established Post-Paekche and Post-Koguryo, dividing the Korean peninsula again. But Shilla was too weak to stand against the two countries. Shilla tried to form a friendly relation with Post-Koguryo when Wang Gun ascended to the throne after Kungye. But King Kyungsun, the last king of Shilla, finally surrendered to Post-Koguryo in 935.

All content Copyright 1998 Soyon Park
Questions and comments go to sopark@evl.uic.edu