Ancient capital of Silla during the Three Kingdoms (57 BC-668 AD) and of the Great Silla Kingdom (668 AD-935 AD) for more than 1 000 years, Gyeongju (or Kyongju) meaning “Congratulatory district” is located at the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula. From the 7th century, Gyeongju developed to become the trade centre of the Korean Peninsula, leading to an arrival by land and sea of merchants from western and eastern regions of the Silk Roads such as China, the Arabian Peninsula, and Japan. Thus, Gyeongju became a hub of the Silk Roads and had an important position in the route of cultural exchanges.
Originally, cultural elements of the Silk Roads started reaching Silla from western regions of Central Asia via China when Buddhism was introduced around the 5th century AD. After Silla’s unification in 668 AD, its capital Gyeongju aimed to attract foreign merchants, and international merchants started entering Gyeongju via the land and sea roads, bringing with them products from the Silk Roads.
Arab merchants imported luxury goods such as peacock tails, gems, shells, incenses, and fabrics. In addition, Persian luxury goods such as gold, crystal, or textiles that were exported to China reached Silla. These goods were very popular among Korean aristocrats, but their use was limited to people depending on their hierarchical status. Importations such as these permitted technical improvement of Silla’s artisans who eventually produced high quality products. Moreover, accounts of Arab traders show their links and direct trade with Silla. Evidence such as statues of soldiers at the Kwoenung and King Hungdok tombs, and clay figurines, indicate that these merchants lived in Gyeongju.
Moreover, Silla traded with Central Asia via China, and archaeological findings signal the presence of Central Asian people in the Korean Peninsula during Silla rule. Indeed, glassware found in Gyeongju such as a valuable phoenix head shaped glassware, a glass necklace made with the particular technique of glass eye-beads observed in the Mediterranean region, and a dagger with ornamental sheath related to one found in Kazakhstan all attest to a Central Asian presence in Gyeongju.
In addition, diverse artistic techniques coming from different regions of the Silk Roads left a print in Silla’s artistic environment. For example, the filigree, carving and hammering techniques originating in Egypt, or the ‘cloisonne’ technique that was developed in the Byzantine church came to the Korean Peninsula via China.
As such, because of its geographic location, Gyeongju was slowly and gradually influenced by cultural elements coming from the other regions of the Silk Roads. In this way, rather than accepting directly (and blindly) different cultural influences, Gyeongju – and to a broader extent, Silla – could assimilate these incoming influences. Thus, a harmonized Korean culture could bloom while cultural features of the Silk Roads were progressively inserted on Silla’s culture.