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Between myth and reality: Little Known Civilizations: The Kingdom of Silla


The kingdom of Silla is one of the historic kingdoms of Korea. It appeared during the period called ” The Three Kingdoms of Korea ” from 57 BC to 935 after Christ. It was created in the south of the Korean peninsula and then unified all of the peninsula under its authority. It was thus called by then ” Unified Silla Period “. Before the unification, the Korean peninsula was divided in three kingdoms: Koguryo (Goguryeo), Paekche (Baekje) and Silla. The Silla or Shilla or Sinra, situated in the south was considered the most cultural and the most peaceful of the three kingdoms.

At the beginning, the Silla was called Saro. The kingdom, at that time, was made up of the rallying of several tribes from the North and was initially managed and coordinated by a council. The chief of the council was called a ” maripgan ” which was elected by all the tribes. We think that the Silla kingdom was founded in 57 BC by Bak Hyeokgeose, who, according to legend, was issued from an egg and also founded the Bak clan. The annals of the ” Samguk Sagi ” (written in 1145), which is an amalgamation of oral legends/myths and traditions evokes this founding event by stating that six villages (or rather fortified cities) in the Jinhan confederation designated a certain Hyeokgeose as king and then the kingdom was founded under the name of Saro (Seoyaebeol, Seorabeol or Seobeol where the name of the actual capital of Seoul is derived).  The king is set up in the most important city which became the capital  and is today the actual Gyeongju. The name of Saro will disappear around 503 to become Silla. But around the 1Vth century, power passes to the Kim clan with its king Naemul (356-402) when the Saro kingdom becomes more combative and does not stop its spread by annexing eventually Koguryo and Paekche.

King Naemul of the Kim clan monopolizes the royal power till the Xth century. The end of its reign is compounded by invasions from Wa (Japan) and the Mohe tribe (from Mandchuria). The first masssive Wa attack was in 364 and was repelled after heavy losses from the Saho kingdom. King Naemul then establshes laws and edicts of the State and later on under King Pophung (514-540) comes the annexion of the confederation of Gaya. At this time Silla emerges as a kingdom by itself. This whole state of affair is qualified as the Maripgan era which lasted from 356 to 514. But the next period named Junggogi (514-654) sees the king take power fully and establishes a centralised government. The king’s title is then changed to the chinese royal title of Wang. After this, a long warring period started for approximately 300 years between the Three Kingdoms. It finishes with King Junheng (540-576) who allies himself with Baekje (southwest of the peninsula) in the Vth century against Kogyryo (north of the peninsula). In 551, King Junheng seizes the Han basin and the conquest finishes between 562 to 567. But the unification itself starts in 660 to 668 by the 30th King of Silla Munmu. After this, the Silla kingdom knows a century of prosperity and then is followed by a decline and the disappearance of the Silla dynasty and kingdom around 935 AD. You can see the progression on the maps below.éens-ve-xixe-siècleéens-ve-xixe-siècle

The famous golden crowns of the kings of Silla (just like the one presented in the top picture) all were in the shape of upwards structures in the shape of tree branches where little golden disks were suspended. These crowns are similar to the ones of the Sarmates (11nd and 1st century BC) and from the tomb of Tillea Tipi of Afhganistan. These comparisons demonstrate that the Silla elite maintained relations with nomadic populations during its Bronze age.

The astronomical observatory of Cheomseongdae also attests to the advancement of the Silla kingdom. It is constructed during the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647 AD) near Gyeongiu with 362 stones for the 362 days of a lunar year. The construction style is reminiscent of the style of the Buddhist temple of Bunhwangsa. The window of the observatory is oriented in function to the spring and fall equinox.


After its unification, the Silla state maintains the Korean Buddhism as its religion. Several temples were constructed like Hwngnyongsa, Bulguksa and Sokkuran which were restored to show off the Silla culture.

The Silla society was heavily strcutured along hierarchical lines. Different social classes became more and more hermetically sealed thus impenetrable by others. The bone system founded on the blood relatives determined the rank of every person in the Silla society and the functions that he could perform. This type of social structure was based on blood ties: the superior rank (kingship and royal family) was the sacred bone, the real bone was the one of dignitaries. This type of system produced a rigid hereditary segregation which would become responsible for the demise of Silla. The different ranks apply themselves to multiples conventions that vary from the degree of responsibility given to a noble, to the color of his clothes and to the number of buildings allowed in his house. Several institutions flanked and supervised the elite young people. Among these institutions was the Hwarang which assured the young men a military and musical formation.

The method of burying (mostly the King and royal family) changed slightly over time during the Silla reign. At its beginning, during the marigpan period, the dead was supposed to continue its life in the beyond and was buried with everything that was necessary to continue living including his servants (just like the Egyptians). But when Silla adopted Buddhism in the last quarter of the 1Vth century and thus reincarnation, the bodies were buried with a minimum of belongings. But their burial sites were still well protected by mounds or tumulus covered with a well maintained lawn. The importance of Buddhism in the life of the Silla society can be found in the numerous sculptures left by Buddhist monks, notably those of of the Namsan mount near Gyeongju with some of them dating between the V11th and Xth century. These statues and bas-reliefs on the rocks are still on the mountain.

Below you can seen some more of the beautiful artefacts of the Silla empire.

This last artefact is a bronze bell of Seongdeok the Great (702-737) which still attracts tourists and Koreans alike. It weighs almost 19 tons (17,240 kg) and its reverberating sound could reach as much as 65 km (41 miles) in optimal atmospheric conditions.


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Written by HistoryGal

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  1. I know little Oriental history since it was not taught in school. So thanks for this information. Mum told me a little about the China she knew as a child. Although we are European, Mum was born in Foo Chow China. She lived in the Orient until 8 yrs of age and then came to live in boarding schools in New Zealand
    My grandfather was a manager for Brittish Cable & Wireless and worked in the Orient and would move every 3 years to a different location.

    • Your family seem to have been born all over the place and thus they know a little to a fair amount of information. Thank you for visiting, reading, commenting and especially up voting some of my posts. I appreciate it very much.

  2. Very informative article. I know little about this area of Asia. I do know it was quite violent due to its location. In a way it still is. I do know a term that shows a little bit of the journey of ideas. The term is bunjay. It is the Korean term of the Japanese bonsai. The miniature trees in those trays with a little earth. The mini trees. We think it was from Japan and it supposedly went to Korea but that is a mistake. The bonsai concept came from China. It was during the Tang dynasty that the idea of mini trees went from China to Korea and then to Japan. Forgot the Chinese term but it is the original source of the terms bunjay and bonsai. Sorry for the fragmented info but hope you have a nice day.

    • Of course because the Silla empire was in commerce with Japan and a few times even invaded by the Japanese along with the Chinese. Same old story… I want to thank you for pointing that out to me though because I did not know they were reminiscent of the Japanese. And also a big thanks for reading, commenting with your clarification and definitely for up voting.

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