As seen in Forbes Science | November 22, 2018

South Korea is the last place to cross most people’s minds when it comes to the esoteric history of astronomy. But this politically-troubled peninsula is home to both Asia’s oldest surviving astronomical observatory as well as a vibrant contemporary center for astronomy and space just an hour south of Seoul.

Sunset of Seol's bustling Gangnam district. Credit Bruce Dorminey

Sunset over Seoul’s bustling Gangnam district.CREDIT: BRUCE DORMINEY

The Silla Dynasty queen who presided over Korea in the latter half of the 7th century would have never imagined her sovereign territory being bisected by the French-built high-speed train which brought me down to Cheomseongdae Observatory from Seoul. But the setting, not far from today’s Gyeongju, is near to the heart of the ancient capital of Korea’s Silla Dynasty which reigned over the region from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D.

The observatory as it appears today.CREDIT: BRUCE DORMINEY

The observatory as it appears today.CREDIT: BRUCE DORMINEY

Set on a beautiful flat plain in the country’s far southeast, from a distance of a hundred yards, the ancient’s size seems modest. But beyond a tiny wooden barrier fence, its construction (which began sometime after 632 A.D.) is impressive. The cut rectangular stones, whose width is hand to elbow in length and hand to wrist in height, are stacked to create a tapered tower.

Historian Sang-Woon Jeon writes in his book “Science and Technology in Korea” that the observatory’s peculiar shape is thought to be in line with the Chinese theory of round-heaven, square-earth. And he notes that its 27 layers of fan-shaped stones are thought to symbolize Queen Seondeok, the twenty-seventh Silla monarch.