Koguryŏ Tombs (World Heritage)

The Koguryŏ dynasty ruled from 37 BC. BC to 688 AD large areas of northern China and the northern half of the Korean peninsula. In the middle of the 5th century, Pyongyang became the capital of this empire, which was subjugated by the Silla Empire in 688. The tomb complex near Pyongyang is of great importance for research into the Koguryŏ culture, as it contains wall paintings.

Koguryŏ Tombs: Facts

Official title: Koguryŏ tombs
Cultural monument: Tombs near Pyongyang and Namp’o with wall paintings depicting everyday scenes from the Koguryŏ culture, one of the “Three Kingdoms” of early Korean times; The climax of their reign from 277 BC. Until 688 in parts of northern China and in the northern half of the Korean peninsula; only 90 of the 10,000 Koguryŏ tombs with wall paintings discovered so far in China and Korea; almost half at this site
Continent: Asia
Country: North Korea
Location: Pyongyang and the surrounding area
Appointment: 2004
Meaning: Unique evidence of an Asian culture

The cradle of Korean culture

From 37 BC From BC to AD 668, the kingdom of Koguryŏ was one of the most important powers in East Asia. In its heyday, it stretched from Manchuria to what is now North Korea and northern South Korea. The only relics of this culture are numerous burial mounds over 1500 years old in which kings, members of the royal family and nobles were buried. In total, around 10,000 of these graves are known in North Korea and China, and new grave sites are still being discovered. In 90 of them there are often excellently preserved murals, which give a unique insight into the culture of Koguryŏ. For this reason, UNESCO has included 30 graves on North Korean soil – group and individual graves – in its list of world cultural heritage.

The legendary forefather of Koguryŏ is King Dongmyeong (58 BC – 19 BC), the son of heaven and the goddess of water – as the Korean chronicle Samguk Sagi from 1145 writes. He founded an empire that would last for 700 years. According to youremailverifier, North Korea still sees itself today in the tradition of Koguryŏ: as a fighting empire with strong armed forces that solves its problems itself and takes its fate into its own hands. Communist leaders like the “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) like to portray themselves as the legitimate successors and heirs of Dongmyeong.

The Koguryŏ empire was tightly organized. The king was at the head of a feudal society in which the military held an important position. The people were aggressive and were often attacked – by the Chinese in the north and the kingdoms of the Silla and Baekje in the south. 145 disputes are historically documented. Fortified fortifications existed at the strategically important points, a total of around 200 in number. 50,000 soldiers were permanently available to the king, but if necessary the army could be increased to up to 200,000 men. The fighting was done with bows and arrows, spears and catapults.

In ancient Korea, belief in the afterlife was an integral part of the culture. The soul was considered immortal and lived on even after death. For this reason, the tombs were furnished like houses. Frescoes and paintings adorned the walls of the graves and showed the souls what their future life looked like. These colorful grave frescoes depict scenes from everyday life and from mythology. They provide information on what architecture, food culture and clothing, indeed everyday life, looked like in ancient Korea, which was shaped by Confucianism and Buddhism. They show that even then there was a lively trade and cultural exchange with southern China, Japan, Central Asia and Siberia, for which the Taedong-gang river was used as a traffic artery. And the frescoes testify to the numerous battles

Two graves stand out from the large number of barrows: In 1949 the largest barrow to date, the tomb of Anak, was discovered. The murals show a man and a woman dressed in Chinese style – presumably the people who were buried there. This grave is one of the few that bears an inscription that dates it to the year 357. The name of its owner is given as Dong Shou. The Kangso tomb is located near Pyongyang. The 12 meter high hill is one of the best preserved graves of the Koguryŏ era. Many of the mysterious religious frescoes, which were applied directly to the polished stone wall, appear as if freshly painted. Four mythological deities – dragon, phoenix, turtle and snake – guard the deceased and are supposed to ensure that he can enjoy his life in peace in the hereafter. The deceased also received rich grave goods with them on their way, but the graves were plundered over time, so that today only the paintings and a few old writings give an insight into life in the Koguryŏ empire. A true-to-scale reconstruction of a barrow from the region can be seen in the Pyongyang Historical Museum – but who was buried there is unclear.

Typical barrows of the Koguryŏ empire have also been found in China. In fact, parts of the former Koguryŏ empire are now Chinese territory. Since the early 1990s, the Koguryŏ culture has therefore also been claimed by China as part of its history. In 2004 a corresponding World Heritage Site was named: The “capitals and tombs of the Koguryŏ era” include the remains of the three Chinese cities of Wunu, Guonei and Wandu as well as 40 tumuli.

Koguryŏ Tombs (World Heritage)