Discover The Magnificent And Mysterious Koguryo Tombs Complex In North Korea

The Koguryo Tomb Complex has over 10,000 tombs of kings, queens, and other royalty members, and was the first UNESCO World Heritage site in China confirmed in 2004.
January 18, 2022 | 08:24

Goguryeo tombs, officially designated as the Complex of Koguryo Tombs, are tombs in North Korea. In July 2004, they became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in the country. The site consists of 30 individual tombs from the later Goguryeo kingdom, one of Three Kingdoms of Korea, located in the cities of P'yŏngyang and Namp'o. Goguryeo was one of the strongest ancient Korean kingdoms located in the northern and central parts of the Korean Peninsula and the southern and central parts of Manchuria. The kingdom was founded in the present day area of North Korea, and part of Manchuria around 37 BCE, and the capital was transferred to P'yŏngyang in 427 CE.

History of Koguryo Tombs Complex

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The Koguryo tombs complex, also known as the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs, is a site situated in North Korea. It comprises of several individual tombs in the Koguryo kingdom which was one of the strongest kingdoms among the three kingdoms that ruled Korea. This site dates back to as early as the 3rd century BC, and the tombs discovered are believed to have been made specifically for the burial of kings and members of the royal family. The site is the first site in the country to be inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage list in July 2004 as a cultural site.

Many of the tombs, such as the Anak Tomb No. 3, have wall paintings. The tombs are almost all that remains from this culture. There are over 10,000 Goguryeo tombs overall, but only about 90 of those unearthed in China and Korea have wall paintings. The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs inscribed on the World Heritage List contains the majority of these tombs with wall paintings. It is thought that the complex was used as a burial site for kings, queens and other members of the royal family. The paintings found on the tombs offer a unique insight into the everyday life of the Goguryeo period. The group includes the Tomb of King Tongmyong.

Photo: Lovepik
Photo: Lovepik

The murals are strongly coloured and show daily life and mythology of the time. By 2005, 70 murals had been found, mostly in the Taedong river basin near Pyongyang, the Anak area in South Hwanghae province, and in Ji'an in China's Jilin province.

The following criteria were considered by UNESCO to merit the Goguryeo tombs' inscription as a World Heritage site:

  • The wall paintings are masterpieces of the Goguryeo period. The tombs themselves reflect ingenious engineering capabilities.
  • The site offers exceptional insights into the Goguryeo culture, both into everyday life and burial customs.
  • The Goguryeo tombs are an important example of this burial typology.

In May 2006, 2,360 individual tombs were discovered at the site of the ancient Goguryeo kingdom during work on the Yunfeng Reservoir. Ruins of an ancient city were discovered as well. Among the ruins was a city wall that was 1.5 meters tall and four meters wide. Evidence also suggested the presence of a moat. A dozen tombs were found within the city.

Photo: all about World Heritage Sites
Photo: all about World Heritage Sites

Cultural And Educational Significance

The Koguryo tombs complex gives a leeway for the exploration and understanding the rich and diverse culture of the Koreans, and the burial customs for several centuries. In addition to that, the paintings found on the walls of the tombs provide insight into the everyday life during the Goguryeo dynasty and its cultural richness as these masterpieces are unique. Not to mention the unique architecture and the best construction technology used in the building of these various types of tombs like the single-chambered, double-chambered, and multi-chambered

Outstanding features

Photo: jetsetterweb
Drawings on the walls. Photo: jetsetterweb

The Complex of Koguryo Tombs is a serial property and includes several groups and individual tombs situated mainly at the foot of mountains and some in villages. Located in Pyongyang and surrounding provinces, the tombs are thought to have been made for the burial of kings, members of the royal family and the aristocracy.

There are several types of tombs included in the property, based on the number of burial chambers – single chamber, two chambers, and multi-chambers with side chambers. They represent the full range of the Koguryo tomb typology and showcase the best examples of this construction technology. The tombs are monumental, stone-chambered earthen mounds that were skillfully constructed with ingenious ceiling designs to support the heavy weight above. The technology employed represented a unique, creative and long-sought engineering solution to the technical problems posed by underground tomb construction.

The wall paintings constitute masterpieces of the art of wall painting. The subject matter of the wall paintings of the tombs offers unique evidence of the richness and complexity of the now-vanished Koguryo culture, portraying the costumes, food, residential life and burial customs, as well as religious practices and imagery associated with Buddhism, Taoism and the Four Deities.

The Complex of Koguryo Tombs represents an exceptional testimony to the Koguryo culture, its burial customs, daily life and beliefs. The special burial customs of this culture had an important influence on other cultures in the region, including those of Japan, according to UNESCO.

Natural Surroundings, Sights, And Sounds

Photo: Reddit
Photo: Reddit

The Koguryo tombs complex, located mainly in the Pyongyang province and other provinces, forms a series of property which is mainly situated at the foot of the mountain and various villages. Conflicts have arisen over the years between the Koreans and Chinese people in a claim that the site belongs to them. According to the Koreans, they claim that the site was as a result of their ancestral kingdom while the Chinese argue that the site is their property as it is part of their history.

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