What Was the Silla Kingdom?

Sakyamuni Buddha image at Seokguram
A Silla-era image of the Sakyamuni Buddha at Seokguram grotto in Gyeonju. travelasia via Getty Images

The Silla Kingdom was one of Korea's "Three Kingdoms," along with the Baekje Kingdom and Goguryeo.  Silla was based in the southeast of the Korean Peninsula, while Baekje controlled the southwest, and Goguryeo the north.

Name:

The name "Silla" (pronounced "Shilla") may have originally been closer to Seoya-beol or Seora-beol. This name appears in records of the Yamato Japanese and the Jurchens, as well as ancient Korean documents.

 Japanese sources name the people of Silla as the Shiragi, while the Jurchens or Manchus refer to them as Solho.

Silla was founded in 57 BCE by King Park Hyeokgeose. Legend tells that Park hatched out of an egg that was laid by a gyeryong, or "chicken-dragon."  Interestingly, he is considered the progenitor of all Koreans with the family name Park. For most of its history, however, the kingdom was ruled by members of the Gyeongju branch of the Kim family.  

Brief History:

As mentioned above, the Silla Kingdom was founded in 57 BCE.  It would survive for nearly 992 years, making it one of the longest sustained dynasties in human history.  However, as mentioned above, the "dynasty" was actually ruled by members of three different families in the early centuries of the Silla Kingdom - the Parks, then the Seoks, and finally the Kims.  The Kim family held power for more than 600 years, though, so it still qualifies as one of the longest known dynasties.

Silla began its rise as simply the most powerful city-state in a local confederation.  Threatened by the rising power of Baekje, just to its west, and also by Japan to the south and east, Silla formed an alliance with Goguryeo in the late 300s CE.  Soon, though, Goguryeo began to seize more and more territory to its south, establishing a new capital at Pyongyang in 427, and posing a growing threat to Silla itself.

 Silla switched alliances, joining with Baekje to attempt to hold off the expansionist Goguryeo.

By the 500s, early Silla had grown into a proper kingdom.  It formally adopted Buddhism as its state religion in 527.  Together with its ally Baekje, Silla pushed Goguryeo north out of the area around the Han River (now Seoul).  It went on to break the more than century-long alliance with Baekje in 553, grabbing control of the Han River region.  Silla would then annex the Gaya Confederacy in 562.

One of the most notable features of the Silla state at this time was the reign of women, including the famous Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647) and her successor, Queen Jindeok (r. 647-654).  They were crowned as ruling queens because there were no surviving males of the highest bone rank, known as seonggol or "sacred bone."  This means that they had royal ancestors on both sides of their family.  

After the death of Queen Jindeok, seonggol rulers were extinct, so King Muyeol was placed on the throne in 654 even though he was only of the jingol or "true bone" caste.  This meant that his family tree included only royalty on one side, but royalty mingled with nobility on the other.

Whatever his ancestry, King Muyeol formed an alliance with the Tang Dynasty in China, and in 660 he conquered Baekje.

 His successor, King Munmu, conquered Goguryeo in 668, bringing nearly the entire Korean Peninsula under Silla domination.  From this point forward, the Silla Kingdom is known as Unified Silla or Later Silla.

Among the many accomplishments of the Unified Silla Kingdom is the first known example of printing.  A Buddhist sutra, produced by woodblock printing, has been discovered at the Bulguksa Temple.  It was printed in 751 CE, and is the earliest printed document ever found.

Beginning in the 800s, Silla fell into a decline.  Increasingly powerful nobles threatened the power of the kings, and military rebellions centered in the old strongholds of the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms challenged Silla authority.  Finally, in 935, the last king of Unified Silla surrendered to the emerging Goryeo Kingdom to the north.

Still Visible Today:

The former Silla capital city of Gyeongju still features impressive historical sites from this ancient period. Among the most popular are the Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto with its stone Buddha figure, the Tumuli Park featuring the burial mounds of Silla kings, and the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory.