South Korea, a country rich in culture, offers us a wonderful combination of tradition and modernity through music, fine arts, literature, dance, architecture, fashion and cuisine. UNESCO ( United Nations Cultural, Scientific and Educational Organization) has declared fifteen World Heritage Sites in the country that are also part of the construction of an identity for Korean society. We will see them briefly below:
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple (1995): These are Buddhist cultural heritage sites that were built around the 8th century, at the time of the Silla kingdom. The Seokguram Grotto represents Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra position, and the temple, built in the year 774, together with the Grotto, form an architectural ensemble of exceptional value. In the same way, the Grotto, located on the slope of Mount T’oham, near to Gyeongju, is one of the most important tangible assets of Korea’s cultural heritage, and is now recognized throughout the world as one of the supreme works of Buddhist art.
Jongmyo Shrine (1995): Built when the first Joseon king, Lee Seong-Gye (1335-1408), founded the dynasty, it harbors tablets inscribed with the teachings of members of the royal family. The shrine, located in Seoul, has several closed rooms where the spirit tablets of all the kings of the Joseon dynasty are kept, except for two who were expelled from the throne. This place is preserved as the oldest of the Confucian royal shrines today, and it’s registered as Cultural Heritage because tradition and customs, such as commemoration services and traditional music, among others, are very well preserved.
Haeinsa Temple and Janggyeong Panjeon (1995): Haeinsa Temple preserves the Tripitaka, the most complete version of Buddhist texts, which were engraved on 80,000 wooden tablets between the years 1237 and 1249. For its part, the Haeinsase temple, which is located on Mount Kaya, in the southern half of the Korean peninsula, is one of the three main temples in the country dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha. The Janggyeong Panjeon buildings were built right there, in the 15th century, to serve as a repository for these tablets, which are also revered as exceptional works of art.
Changdeokgung Royal Palace (1997): Located in Seoul, this is one of the five royal palaces belonging to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which still keeps the original structures and decorations intact. It has a space for the office of public officials, the king’s residence, and the garden, “Huwon”, which has 300-year-old trees, a pond, and a pavilion, all arranged harmoniously with nature. It is said that the palace best represents Korean culture, as its architectural and natural beauty combines perfectly with the palace surroundings. It is for this reason that since 1997 it has been part of the list of World Heritage Sites. Without a doubt, it is one of the places worth visiting when traveling to South Korea.
Hwaseong Fortress (1997): 30 kilometers from the south of Seoul, it was built in order to express the filial love of King Jeongjo (22nd king of the Joseon dynasty) towards his father, Jangheonseja, as well as to found a new city with its own economic power, and effectively perform its role of protecting the city it surrounded. Its structures were designed according to the guidelines of an eminent military architect, who took into account the latest advances in military architecture from the East and the West. Previously, there were 49 facilities along the perimeter of the original defensive wall, between gates, watchtowers, and sentinel and surveillance posts. Nowadays, 45 of these structures are preserved and UNESCO recognized them as a World Heritage Site for their good state of conservation and their historical value in 1997.
Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa Dolmens (2000): Dolmens are large funerary monuments, which are numerous in Asia, Europe, and North Africa. These are of great archaeological value, for the information they provide about the prehistoric people who built them, and their social and political systems, beliefs and worship rituals, and arts and celebrations. Korea has the largest number of dolmens in the world, especially at the Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa dolmen sites, where the highest density and variety of dolmens in the entire country is found.
Historic Areas of Gyeongju (2000): In the city of Gyeongju and its surroundings, there is a significant concentration of extraordinary works and monuments of Korean Buddhist art (sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and vestiges of temples and palaces). Likewise, it is considered an open-air museum without walls, where the spirit of Silla (one of the kingdoms of Korea between 57 BC and 935) persists. The historical areas of Gyeongju registered by UNESCO include 52 spaces in total and are located in 5 large zones, divided according to their characteristics. Top destinations include Poseokjeong Pavilion Site, Maebosalbangasang Statue on Mount Namsan’s Sinseonam Rock, Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, Cheomseongdae Observatory, Daereungwon Tombs, Hwangnyongsa Temple Site, and Bunhwangsa Temple.
Jeju Island Volcanic Landscape and Lava Tunnels (2007): This site comprises three areas: the Geomunoreum, considered to be the most beautiful network of lava tunnel caves in the world, with multicolored carbonated ceilings and floors, and dark lava walls; Seongsan’s tufted cone Ilchulbong, resembling a fortress raised from the waters of the ocean, which forms a spectacular landscape; and Mount Hallasan, the highest peak in Korea, with its waterfalls, multi-configured rock formations, and lake-filled crater. The site is not only of extraordinary beauty, but also constitutes a testimony of the characteristics and processes of the geological history of our planet.
Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs (2009): The Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs are unique in the world in that they perfectly preserve their original shape and condition they had during the 500 years of Joseon royalty. These relics allow us to understand the history, politics, religious beliefs, and art of that time. Up until now, the assets remain intact thanks to the ongoing conservation work of the Korean Government.
Its cultural and artistic value, and the peculiarity of the religious rituals that are celebrated before the ancestors, were recognized by UNESCO to be declared as a Cultural Heritage. The ancient Koreans preferred to have their tombs close to the capital and, for this reason, the 40 royal tombs are located in Seoul and in the provinces of Gyeonggi-do and Gangwon-do.
Hahoe and Yangdong Historic Villages of Korea (2010): The Hahoe and Yangdong historic villages, located in Gyeongsangbuk-do province, are the most representative historic villages of the Republic of Korea formed between the 14th and 15th centuries by the members of traditional clans. Although many years have passed, both preserve the basic structure of aristocratic clan villages: buildings and residences for the ruling family, pavilions, study rooms, and confucianist academies. On the other hand, the surrounding agricultural lands and landscapes are also still intact, while rites, games, scriptures and works of art of the time are preserved.
Namhansanseong Fortress (2014): Namhansanseong fortress was the protective wall of Hanyang, the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), located about 25 kilometers southeast of Seoul. The construction techniques used to create this fortress were recognized by UNESCO and for this reason, it became another of the cultural heritages that the country proudly presents. In addition, it houses testimonies of a rich civil, military, and religious past that have made it a symbol of Korean national sovereignty.
Baekje Kingdom Historic Areas (2015): Located in the mountainous region of the western central part of the Republic of Korea, this cultural property consists of eight archaeological sites from the Baekje Kingdom, one of the three oldest kingdoms in the Korean peninsula, which lasted for about seven centuries (from 18 b.c to 660 a.d). Some of the sites are: Gongsanseong Fortress and Songsan-ri Tombs, linked to the capital city of Ungjin (now Gongju ); Busosanseong Fortress, Gwanbuk-ri Administrative Buildings, and Naseong Walls, linked to the capital city of Sabi (present-day Buyeo ); and the royal palace of Wanggung-ri and the Mireuksa temple of Iksan, linked to the second capital Sabi. These were characterized by considerable technological, religious (expansion of Buddhism), cultural, and artistic exchanges between the ancient kingdoms of East Asia located in the territories of Korea, China, and Japan.
Sansa, Buddhist monasteries in the mountains of Korea (2018): The term “Sansa” refers to Buddhist mountain monasteries, founded between the 7th and 9th centuries and located throughout Korea. Seven temples are recognized: Tongdosa, Buseoksa, Bongjeongsa, Beopjusa, Magoksa, Seonamsa, and Daeheungsa. UNESCO considers them bearers of outstanding cultural heritage value and thanks to the preservation of their traditions, they survive as spiritual and prayer spaces. These seven temples in particular stand out for their peculiar features, which can only be found in Korean monasteries. They are praised for their value in terms of preservation, historical significance, location, and purpose. Today they are still places where the Buddhist religion is practiced daily.
“Seowon” Korean Neo-Confucian Academies (2019): Neo-Confucianism entered Korea from China in the 14th century as a way to reduce the social tensions of the previous period and balance the influence of the Buddhist clergy, which had occupied social spheres for centuries. This is how the “seowon”, or Neo-Confucian academies, aimed at cultivating human faculties, both spiritual and physical, were introduced. UNESCO has recognized nine of them: Sosu Seowon, Namgye Seowon, Oksan Seowon, Dosan Seowon, Piram Seowon, Dodong Seowon, Byeong-san Seowon, Museong Seowon and Donam Seowon.
“Getbol”, the Korean Tidal Flats (2021): Tidal flats are wetlands found on the coasts, shores of lagoons, and estuaries, and they are generated when debris (clayey, silty or sandy sediments) are recycled by the influence of the tides. Speaking specifically of the ” getbol”, located in the eastern Yellow Sea, they are one of the most productive ecosystems and with the greatest diversity of species in the world, being a vital feeding and reproduction place for millions of waterfowl on their migratory route. The objective of its designation as a World Natural Heritage by UNESCO is to recognize the “outstanding universal value” from the point of view of science, conservation, and natural beauty through the protection of nature.
In this blog we were able to see which are some of the memorable sites in South Korea and why they were named World Heritage Sites. I hope that the information given has been useful and that we have become a little more familiar with the culture and history of this amazing country. See you next time!
Written by: Luisa Méndez
Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero
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