[Visual History of Korea] Sogdian traders at Silla, the eastern end of the Silk Road

Statues of Sogdian warriors guard the royal tomb of King Wonseong, the 38th King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

Korea today is the product of Silla’s millennial history and its successful unification of the Korean kingdoms in the 7th century.

The Korean tradition of remembering ancient rulers with elaborate and grand tombs is visible documentation of the history of one of the oldest civilizations in history.

The royal tombs of two Silla kings, King Wonseong, the 38th king who died in 798, and his son King Heungdeok (777–836), the 42nd king of Silla, stand out among the 56 royal tombs of Silla kings.

Large statues of fierce and muscular Sogdian warriors stand guard in front of the tombs of the two Korean Silla kings. Sogdian was an ancient Iranian civilization, from around the 6th century BC to the 11th century AD in modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

“The tombs of Tang dynasty emperors have Sogdian statues. Silla wanted to show that they had Sodgians who brought tributary gifts,” said Park Cheon-su, director of the Kyung Pook National University museum.

“With an active international trade, Silla had Sogdian traders living in Silla who traded in silk, gold, silver and fur. Sogdians went wherever there were lucrative trade opportunities, including the present-day Vladivostok region for valuable marten fur,” Park said.

Statues of Sogdian warriors guard the royal tomb of King Wonseong, the 38th King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

Statues of Sogdian warriors guard the royal tomb of King Wonseong, the 38th King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

The stone statues of Sogdian, known to have risen to prominence in the military and government of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), an ally of Silla, reflect the worldview centered on Silla in the 9th century .

Documented history traces Korea’s origin to Joseon (2333-108 BC), better known as Gojoseon to differentiate it from later Joseon (1392-1910). Buyeo (400 BC-AD 494) which was a sister state which was later absorbed into Goguryeo (37 BC-AD 668) which is also documented as Goryeo. Meanwhile, Baekje (18 BC-AD 660) traces its beginning to Buyeo.

In the southeast, the Gaya confederacy (42-562 AD) which had a colorful history and advanced metal-producing culture, was absorbed by Silla (57 BC-935 AD).

Unlike the vast plains of Goguryeo and the rice paddies of Baekje, the Silla Kingdom was located in Korea’s least fertile land, full of steep mountains.

What Silla lacked in natural resources they made up for in international trade, diplomacy and Buddhism.

Behind Silla’s unification of Korea in the 7th century, there was a spiritual Buddhist identity which the Silla believed gave them the divine power of the Buddha. Many Silla elites, including kings and queens, became Buddhist monks and nuns.

A physical manifestation of Silla’s belief in the divine power of the Buddha was the nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple, the tallest wooden pagoda in Korean history, which was built in 645. The pagoda was 80 meters tall tall, with each level dedicated to repelling a different enemy state.

A Sogdian warrior statue guards the royal tomb of King Heungdeok, the 42nd King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

A Sogdian warrior statue guards the royal tomb of King Heungdeok, the 42nd King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

A Sogdian warrior statue guards the royal tomb of King Heungdeok, the 42nd King of Silla, in GyeongjuPhoto © Hyungwon Kang

When Baekje took a stronghold from Silla in 642, in present-day Hapcheon area north of Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, Silla sought a military alliance with Wae forces in the southern islands that later became Japan. Furthermore, Silla also contacted Goguryeo for a diplomatic alliance. Neither side wanted to ally with Silla.

The Tang dynasty, in return for Goguryeo territory as spoils of war, joined Silla in a military alliance in 648, which led to the fall of Baekje in 660 and the implosion of Goguryeo in 668.

The seven-year war between Silla and Tang that began in 670 followed the unification of the Korean kingdoms. It was not until 676 that Silla pushed the last Tang forces out of Korea.

Today’s Gyeongju, which was called Seorabol or Gaerim until 935 when Silla became Goryeo, was one of the few ancient cities in this world to have served as the capital of a continuous kingdom for more than 1000 years.

After unifying the Korean kingdoms in the 7th century, Silla became a thriving center of international trade at the eastern end of the Silk Road.

It is no coincidence that the tombs of King Wonseong of Silla and his son King Heungdeok have statues of alien-looking warriors standing guard.

Arriving through the peaceful waters off Korea, a large population of Islamic traders later settled in Gaegyeong, the capital of the Goryeo Empire.

The Silk Road had three stages.

The original Silk Road was called the Steppe Road and was an ancient overland trade route linking the Eurasian plains, from around the fourth century BC, bringing goods from the Roman Empire to the Huns and Gojoseon.

The Silk Road Oasis is the best-known land route among the Silk Roads, referring to the network of trade routes used since the 6th and 7th centuries. The Oasis Silk Road connected Europe and Central Asia to Eastern civilizations through a chain of oases in the Aklimakan Desert in the modern Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur people.

The Maritime Silk Roads, used from the 8th century, mark the golden age of trade, with the direct trade of Roman and Persian glass with the kingdom of Silla.

The Maritime Silk Road did not end in Korea. Some Roman and Persian glassware was traded through Silla and reached Japan, but not all of it, and foreign artifacts have been found in large numbers in the royal tombs of Silla.

When the 42nd King of Silla, King Heungdeok, died in 836, he was buried with his wife, Queen Jeongmok, who had died 10 years earlier, forming the Royal Tomb of King Heungdeok.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

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