When I pop into the small visitor information booth near the Tomb of King Suro, the woman behind the counter looks shocked.
She doesn’t see many foreign tourists here, she tells me.
It’s perhaps no surprise that visiting the Gaya Tumuli in Gimhae is not at the top of the list for things to do in South Korea. I mean, a collection of ancient mounds that have tombs hidden inside them?
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for my quest to visit World Heritage Sites. Yet I will turn out to be pleasantly surprised by my time here – in more ways than one.
One pleasant surprise is when the woman from the visitor information booth appears by my side about ten minutes later while I’m looking at the Tomb of King Suro (the most elaborate of the Gaya Tumuli here).
She’s brought a few extra English-language brochures over. And she’s offering to walk with me to the next sight, to show me the easiest way to get there. How’s that for customer service!
I think she’s probably just enjoying having an international visitor and a chance to use her English skills.
But as we walk and talk, I appreciate her kindness and the added insight I’m getting from being able to ask a few questions about the tumuli in Gimhae and the story of the Gaya Kingdom – which I knew nothing about but is actually quite fascinating.
What are tumuli?
Tumuli is the plural of tumulus, which is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave. These burial mounds were popular with ancient cultures, including in Korea where there are hundreds of thousands of them.
What are the Gaya Tumuli?
The Gaya Tumuli are burial mounds that were built by the Gaya Kingdom, which existed for about 500 hundred years from the 1st to 6th centuries. A World Heritage Site called the Gaya Tumuli consists of seven of these burial grounds (out of more than 700 that have been uncovered).
What is significant about Gimhae?
Gimhae is a city near Busan in South Korea that was once the centre of the most powerful country in the Gaya Kingdom, founded in 42 AD by King Suro (who is buried in Gimhae).
Gimhae today is a city of about 500,000 people, just 20 kilometres from Busan. It’s close enough, and interconnected enough, that Busan’s main airport is technically in Gimhae. Yet the city doesn’t get too much attention in comparison.
But go back many hundreds of years, and Gimhae was at the heart of Gaya Kingdom, a powerful federation of countries that controlled a large area of the southernmost part of the Korean Peninsula from around the 1st to the 6th centuries AD.
The Gaya Kingdom was eventually consumed, a country at a time, by the powerful Silla Kingdom, which would go on to control most of the Korean Peninsula.
Because the end of Gaya officially came in the year 532, there’s very little left from that time in terms of buildings or monuments. Except, that is, the tombs that were built underground and were, hence, easy to survive the ravages of war and time.
It’s these tombs, each built as a ‘tumulus’ (which just means an artificial mound over a grave – plural: tumuli) that are the highlight of a visit to Gimhae to see the ancient history of the Gaya.
What was the Gaya Kingdom?
The first important thing to say is that the Gaya Kingdom is also often called the Gaya Confederacy, because it didn’t have a single king like we think of with other kingdoms. It was actually a collection of countries, each with their own rulers.
There were about six countries that are generally considered to have made up the Gaya Kingdom (although it changed slightly over the years), with Gimhae (also known as Geumgwan Gaya) being the most prominent and powerful of them.
One of the reasons for Gimhae’s prominence is that its first leader, King Suro, is considered to be the founder of the whole Gaya Kingdom, officially beginning in 42 AD.
The Gaya Kingdom is said to have lasted from 42 – 532 AD. It had a relatively advanced culture and good trading connections, which allowed it to prosper and survive for so long amongst the larger and more powerful Korean kingdoms of the time.
Gimhae, in particular, was important for the confederacy’s commerce because it had a strategic position on the southern coast and on the Nakdong River.
The Gaya Kingdom embraced Buddhism and developed its own artistic and architectural styles, which we can see from some of the evidence found on pottery and in the tombs at Gimhae.
But a lot of the detail from life at the time was either not recorded or has been lost over the years, which is why the tumuli are so important.
The Gaya Confederacy existed during a period of Korean history called ‘The Three Kingdoms’ – but, confusingly, the Gaya was not one of those three. In the north of the peninsula, the Goguryeo Kingdom controlled a huge area, while on either side of Gaya, the Kingdoms of Baekje and Silla had smaller domains.
Eventually, it was Silla that absorbed the various countries of Gaya, after a long series of tenuous alliances and backstabbing between the different kingdoms (and Japan). With that, Gaya came to an end in the middle of the 6th century.
What are the Gaya Tumuli in Gimhae?
The Gaya Tumuli are a series of burial grounds in each of the different countries that made up the Gaya Kingdom. So the tumuli at Gimhae are where the people of Gimhae (Geumgwan Gaya) were buried, but it’s just one of the Gaya Tumuli (more on that soon).
The central graveyard for Gimhae is called the Daeseong-dong Tumuli, and this is what is included in the World Heritage Site, and where the focus is for visitors.
Across a small hilly area that is just 300 metres long, there are hundreds of tombs beneath the surface. The most important people had tombs at the top of the hills, while middle or lower class people were further down the slopes or on the flat land around the hills.
The basic idea of a tumuli tomb is that the body is placed into a space just beneath the surface, and then a mound of dirt is built above them.
Exactly what that burial space was changed over the years within the Gaya Kingdom. It started as a relatively simple wooden coffin buried in the ground, then became a larger wooden chamber where more than just the body could be laid, before becoming a large stone chamber that would’ve felt like quite an impressive tomb.
At the Gimhae Tumuli site, archaeologists have examined 219 tombs and 69 of them were large-scale wooden chambers where multiple people were buried.
In fact, the Gaya Tumuli here at Daeseong-dong are particularly interesting for historian because some of them have additional people buried alongside the tomb’s main occupant – evidence of human sacrifice!
Only one stone chamber has been found so far at Daeseong-dong. It’s thought this is because Gimhae’s power was waning towards the end of the Gaya Kingdom’s period so there wasn’t as much activity here compared to the other countries.
Things to do in Gimhae
There are so many things to do in Busan, that you don’t normally think to also look at Gimhae for more attractions – there’s just not enough time to do it all.
But Gimhae has a fair number of attractions for visitors, including museums, theme parks, natural landscapes, and food streets.
I’ll mention a few of those other things to do in Gimhae towards the end of this article, but the focus for now is going to be on the components related to the World Heritage Site – the tumuli themselves and the other sights related to the Gaya Kingdom.
The Gaya Tumuli in Gimhae and their related attractions are all contained in a relatively small area in the centre of the city that is definitely walkable.
If you’re visiting Gimhae specifically to see them, I recommend getting off the light rail at the ‘Royal Tomb of King Suro’ station and then walking through the sites, ending up at the ‘Yeonji Park’ station.
That’s the order that I’ll run through these things to see in Gimhae.
Bonghwangdong Historic Site
Although it mostly just feels like a park these days, the Bonghwangdong Historic Site was actually one of the first archaeological sites to be excavated in South Korea, offering an early insight into the Gaya Kingdom.
One of the things you’ll see here are recreations of how the people of Gaya lived – in huts, thatched-roof houses, or even two-story houses with attics.
Their diet consisted mainly of rice and things that could be grown in fields, as well as fish and shellfish. Here at Bonghwangdong, you can see a midden (a pile of shellfish shells) from the time of the Gaya Kingdom.
At the top of the park, there’s Yeouijangja Pavilion and Hwang Se Rock, which are part of a famous legend about two families said to live in Gimhae at the end of the 5th century.
Royal Tomb of King Suro
One of the most important sites in Gimhae is the Royal Tomb of King Suro, the spot where the founder of the Gaya Kingdom is said to be buried.
At the centre of the site is his tumulus, a mound renovated about 1500 years after his death to be 22 metres across and 6 metres high. In front of it are stone statues of warriors and scholars.
Nothing else here is from even close to the time of King Suro – all the other buildings you’ll see were gradually added much later on (in the 19th and 20th centuries, for instance) by different rulers who wanted to pay their respects and leave their mark.
The building known as the Sungseon Shrine holds the ancestral tablets of King Suro and Queen Heo, while another building called the Sung-an Shrine has the tablets of either other kings and queens from ancient Gimhae (Geumgwan Gaya).
The Royal Tomb of King Suro is open at the following times:
November – February: 09:00 – 18:00
March: 08:00 – 19:00
April – September: 08:00 – 20:00
October: 08:00 – 19:00
Entry to the Royal Tomb of King Suro is free.
Walking towards the next sight, you’ll pass through Sureungwon Garden, which is worth a quick mention.
The park has the theme ‘The Meeting of King Suro and his Wife Queen Heo’ and so it’s interesting to have a look at how the landscaping reflects that.
The east side of the park has straight tall trees, symbolising King Suro, with a sacred Korean tree, representing the birth of ancient Korea.
The west side of the park is full of pear, persimmon, and peach trees, representing Queen Heo, plus some Chinese linden trees, a symbol of Buddhism in India where she was from.
Across the road, you’ll reach the hilly area called Daeseong-dong, which is the heart of the Gimhae World Heritage Site. This is the main burial area of the city, with the hundreds of tombs that I’ve already talked a lot about.
There are trails that lead around the base of the hills and up to the top, with information signs along the way explaining what you’re looking at.
You’ll be able to see some of the mound shapes bulging above the surface as well as some of the markings on the ground that designate where the burials were. But generally, to be honest, this just looks like a big grassy hill.
To get a bit more of an insight, you can first pop into the exhibition hall at the northwestern corner, which has two wood-lined royal burial chambers restored to how they looked when they were excavated (so, without the mound, but with the chamber intact).
Daeseong-dong Tombs Museum
But after the exhibition hall, you’ll definitely want to go to the Daeseong-dong Tombs Museum on the southwestern corner of the site.
This excellent museum (with free entry) has a comprehensive exhibition covering the history of the Gaya Kingdom and Gimhae’s role in it, along with much of the limited information we know about the lives of the people.
Most importantly, though, there is a large section of the museum about the Gaya Tumuli and how the style of the tombs evolved over the centuries. There are interesting displays with artefacts that were found in the tombs, telling the stories of those buried within them.
Even though what you see outside on the hill may seem a little underwhelming, the Daeseong-dong Tombs Museum provides all the context you need, which brings it to life – and was such a pleasant surprise for me that it made the whole trip feel so rewarding.
The Daeseong-dong Tombs Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday from 09:00 – 18:00.
The museum is closed on Mondays and 1 January.
Entry to the Daeseong-dong Tombs Museum is free.
Gimhae National Museum
A little further up the road is the Gimhae National Museum, a large modern complex that specialises in the Gaya culture. (Just as an aside, the 13 regional ‘National Museums’ in South Korea are all excellent and a great way to learn the history as you travel the country.)
There are more than 1300 historical items on display here, spread across eight main sections that cover topics like the start of Gaya, the lives of the people of Gaya, the pottery of Gaya, and Gaya as a maritime kingdom.
Considering I knew very little about the Gaya Confederacy before I arrived in Gimhae, I found the museum really interesting and helped put a lot of what I was seeing outside into perspective.
The Gimhae National Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday from 09:00 – 18:00.
The museum is closed on Mondays and 1 January, Lunar New Year, and Chuseok.
Entry to the Gimhae National Museum is free.
Royal Tomb of Queen Heo
A couple of blocks back from the museum is a site known as the Royal Tomb of Queen Heo, dedicated to the wife of King Suro.
The large space has a paved path leading up the hill to her tumulus, a grassy mound almost as large as the king’s.
Legend says that a stone pagoda in front of the tomb is the same one that she brought with her on her journey from India to Gaya when she was just 16 years old, its powers calming the wind and the waves for a safe sailing.
Other Gaya Tumuli in South Korea
As I’ve mentioned, the tombs at Gimhae is just one of the locations included in the Gaya Tumuli World Heritage Site.
Although there are about 780 tumuli sites in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, with hundreds of thousands of individual tombs, seven tumuli sites have been chosen to be one of South Korea’s World Heritage Sites.
The reason these particular ones have been chosen is because they cover the six countries that made up the Gaya Kingdom, showing both the range in styles of the tombs and the evolution of construction techniques over time.
I have marked where each of the locations are in the map below. (Note that a couple of them have multiple zones.)
For any casual visitor, or even for a World Heritage enthusiast with limited transport options, I think the Gaya Tumuli at Gimhae is the best location to visit.
That’s because Gimhae is very easy to reach by public transport from Busan, it was the most important country so the tombs are significant (including that of King Suro), and the museums here are also excellent and give the best context of what you’re seeing.
However, if you’re keen to see more than just one tumuli site, here’s a brief rundown of what you can expect at each of the Gaya Tumuli locations.
- Haman Marisan Tumuli: This location was used for a longer time than any of the others, so it has the best variety of tombs showing the evolution from wooden coffin burials to stone-lined chambers and corridor-chambers.
- Hapcheon Okjeon Tumuli: One of the prettiest locations, there are about 50 clearly visible mounds set on a hill surrounded by a lush forest.
- Goryeong Jisan-dong Tumuli: The setting of this location is wonderfully scenic up in a mountainous area, and there is a large number of advanced tombs all built in the final centuries of the Gaya Confederacy.
- Goseong Songhak-dong Tumuli: The locations are in the middle of an urban centre now, but their position on the coast means the style was influenced by trade with Japan.
- Changnyeong Gyo-dong and Songhyeon-dong Tumuli: The artefacts found inside these tombs show a strong connection with the Silla Kingdom that would eventually take over the land.
- Namwon Yugok-ri and Durak-ri Tumuli: This location is interesting because it shows how far the Gaya Kingdom stretched and how it traded with the neighbouring Baekje Kingdom.
As you may be able to tell from my descriptions, some of these tumuli sites are much more picturesque than the site at Gimhae, which is in the middle of a city and has fewer visible mounds.
If you’re looking for scenic photos of the tumuli or just want to have a more pleasant visual experience, it would be worth seeing a couple of them.
If you have a car, it’s not too hard. By public transport, it’s a little bit trickier unfortunately, and you may still be limited to those in urban areas.
Visiting Gimhae from Busan
It’s easy to visit Gimhae from Busan, which is one of the reasons I think this is a great day trip.
By public transport, just catch the subway to Sasang and then changes onto the Busan Gimhae Light Rail. It takes about an hour from central Busan.
If you have a car, it will take about 50 minutes to drive the 30 kilometres.
Once you’ve arrived, there are quite a few things to do in Gimhae beyond the World Heritage Site areas that I’ve already discussed.
Near the city centre, there’s the Gimhae Gaya Theme Park, which is aimed at families and has shows and activities that explore the history of the ancient kingdom.
Another option for kids (or young at heart) is Lotte Water Park (the largest in Korea) or the cute Nakdong River Rail Park, which has a rail bike and other activities on this closed light rail track.
For museums, there’s the Clayarch Gimhae Museum about the ceramics industry, the Buncheong Ceramics Museum which is more about the history of the craft, or the Gimhae Folk Museum.
On the natural side of things, there’s Hwapocheon Ecological Park with a huge back marsh with more than 13 endangered species, and there’s Bongha village, known as the birthplace of the former president Roh Muhyeon.
And of course, being South Korea, there’s plenty of food here. Head to Global Food Town for cuisines across the world, Naeoe-dong Food Alley for all sorts of local snacks and meals, or to Buram Eels town for more than 20 eel restaurants along Nakdong River.
It may be 1500 years since the Gaya Kingdom came to an end, but as you can see, Gimhae has prospered on the foundations that it laid.