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What is the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs?

North Korea is the site of the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs.
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The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs is a series of tombs in North Korea. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2004. The site consists of thirty distinct tombs, all of which date from the Goguryeo kingdom.

The Goguryeo kingdom, with Baekje and Silla, was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. The kingdom was founded just before the year 0, and lasted until the latter part of the 7th century. In fact, the modern name of Korea comes from the Goryeo Dynasty, which got its name from Goguryeo. A handful of artifacts remain from the Goguryeo period, as do the ruins of palaces, towns, and of course, tombs.

Although the actual Complex of Goguryeo Tombs contains only thirty tombs, there are more than 10,000 known tombs from this period in Korean history. The vast majority of these tombs, however, are relatively nondescript. What makes the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs unique is their inclusion of stunning cave paintings. Although there are some ninety tombs with such paintings, the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs contains thirty of the most visually stimulating and historically important.

The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs were likely tombs used for people reserved a special place in Goguryeo culture. Most of the tombs are thought to have been for kings and queens of the dynasty, as well as close members of their families. Originally, most of the tombs in the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs likely contained wealth as well, but it has all since been looted.

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The murals painted on the walls of the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs are brightly colored, detailed, and depict scenes from daily life at the time. They offer a fascinating and beautiful insight into what life was like for those who lived in the region. The tombs themselves are considered rather remarkable from an engineering perspective, and help to elaborate on the burial rituals of this six-hundred year dynasty.

The most famous and visited of the tombs in the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs is the Anak Tomb Number Three. It was first discovered in 1949, and although the wealth that was once inside had been stolen, the murals were still in nearly-perfect condition. The paintings, as well as the design of the tomb, has a great deal in common with Chinese tombs not far away, and is somewhat different from the other Goguryeo tombs.

What sets Anak Tomb Number Three apart from the other tombs in the complex is the fact that it still has an intact epitaph. Most scholars interpret the epitaph to indicate the tomb is of Dong Shou, an individual recorded in the Book of Jin. The epitaph is dated at 357, and gives a remarkable amount of information about the complicated political situation that existed between the Gorguryeo and the Jin Dynasty.

Because of the relative inaccessibility of North Korea, both politically and physically, visiting the Complex of Goguryeo Tombs is not very feasible for most people. Nonetheless, with enough perseverance, this site can be explored, and offers some really remarkable examples of ancient Asian painting, as well as insights into the life of the era.

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