Home   Work   Skills   About  

The concept of time in monuments of a global past

Before Einstein and before we started questioning the existence of time and its relation to the second law of thermodynamics, people questioned the need to keep track of their everyday lives. The first timekeeping devices were developed by the ancient Egyptians, known as shadow clocks. They also developed the first example of water clocks, later adopted by the ancient Greeks, and the Zhou Dynasty in China. Handle clocks were used from China to England to Mesopotamia. Time sticks were used in India and Tibet.1 One of the well-known methods of timekeeping was using the sky. People identified stars and saw patterns which they used to create maps and keep track of significant events. One example is Cheomseongdae, built in South Korea during the Silla Dynasty (57 BC – 935 CE).

Meaning "Nearer the Stars Palace" and constructed in 647 C.E., Cheomseongdae is considered the oldest existing observatory in East Asia and probably the world. Koreans believed that observation from the stars can dictate what happens in the universe, society and can predict history. Cheomseongdae is located in an essential provincial historical district, Gyeongju, which hosts several important historic sites (Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, pagodas, and many royal tombs) and was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla. UNESCO lists Gyeongju as a World Heritage Site. Cheomseongdae is made of 365 large stones, symbolizing the year's days, in a circular arrangement of 27 courses--representing Queen Seondeok as the 27th monarch of the Silla Kingdom and the first female ruler. The window of the tower is positioned so that there are 12 layers of bricks on both sides (below and above), per the 12 months of the year. The tower stands and is topped by a square, encapsulating the 'round-heaven, square-earth.'2 The top looks like the Chinese character 井 when viewed from above.3 The window is also facing south, capturing the sun rays on the interior floor when the spring equinox is happening.4 If we count the stylobate, then we have 28 courses, corresponding to the 28 constellations of East Asia, the two-tier top is also added, the number increases to 30, which is the number of days in a lunar month. The traditional Korean lunar calendar was likely influenced by Islamic calendar science.

Cheomseongdae astronomers observed the sky constantly for a year and recorded celestial phenomena, solar and lunar eclipses, and charted courses of comets, then dispatched a messenger to spread the news to the monarch. The King's court would consider this information when making important decisions on projects, ceremonies, wars, prohibitions, agricultural innovations, or even political affairs. The precise time for a baby's birth and the heavenly influences described the baby's destiny. Astrologers did many calculations to determine an individual's future events, like when choosing a mate (parents prohibited their children's marriage to persons of inauspicious astrological birthdays). Since Silla has been adopting everything from China, the Korean peninsula adopted its model for literature, art, music, architecture, etiquettes, ideas about government and politics, and the Chinese worldview in which China was the center of the universe and home of all civilization. After a victorious battle with the Chinese Tangs at Maesosong (675 CE) and Kibolpo (676 CE), Silla was the sole master of Korea. Before 535 C.E., Silla used a calendar borrowed from China, but after that date, Silla developed its calendar. 5 A Japanese observatory (675) and Duke Zhou's observatory in China (723) were both heavily influenced by Cheomseongdae. 6 Silla started studying abroad programs, where two hundred monks traveled to India between the 3rd and 8th centuries. Silla was active in foreign trade, which did not continue during the Goryeo and Joseon periods when Korea was passive. One of the essential trades was with the Middle East through the Silk Road. One example is the discovery of Roman and Persian glass cups in the ancient tombs of Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom. 7 Because of the many relations, trades with the Middle East, China, and India, Korean culture and science were heavily influenced by foreign cultures.

Thus, there are many controversial theories as to the purpose of Cheomseongdae. One of them is that it was designed to imitate the holy Buddhist mountain Mt. Sumeru. Mt. Sumeru was a site of worship and prayers of the state religion at that time. Some think that Queen Seondeok used the tower to worship the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (Inanna), associated with the heavens. Another suggestion is that the building represented the female form and was, therefore, a temple dedicated to worshiping the queen, the first female ruler in the Silla kingdom's history. 8 The author of Geumo Sinhwa, the first novel in Korea written in the 15th century, stated that Queen Seondeok led to the Silla Dynasty's perishment because she provided a foundation for Esoteric Buddhism to flourish in Silla.9 A feedback loop is created through the local and global events that affect cultural and good exchanges between countries. Cheomseongdae astronomical observations affected agriculture; agriculture influenced the exported goods by Silla, which strengthened the relationship with foreign nations, further strengthening the influences coming from outside like Buddhism, which affected the everyday lives of people. Time reforms as a universalizing process were shaped by local constellations, and lead to globalisation of countries. 10 From the 1900s to the early 1970s, Gyeongju’s past memories were gone because of the Japanese occupation. Today Gyeongju city is a prominent historical park where Silla's history flows through all the surrounding buildings, creating a close community where families take walks as an everyday routine.