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The early history of Gyeongju is closely tied to that of the Silla kingdom, of which it was the capital. Gyeongju first enters non-Korean records as Saro-guk, during the Samhan period in the early Common Era. Korean records, probably based on the dynastic chronicles of Silla, record that Saro-guk was established in 57 BCE, when six small villages in the Gyeongju area united under Bak Hyeokgeose.
As the kingdom expanded, it changed its name to Silla. During the Silla period, the city was called "Seorabeol" (lit. Capital), "Gyerim" (lit. Rooster's forest) or "Geumseong" (lit. City of Gold). After the unification of the peninsula up to Taedong River in 668 AD, Gyeongju became the center of Korean political and cultural life..The city was home to the Silla court and the great majority of the kingdom's elite. Its prosperity became legendary, and was reported as far away as Persia according to the 9th century book, The Book of Roads and Kingdoms. Records of Samguk Yusa give the city's population in its peak period as 178,936 households, suggesting that the total population was almost one million. Many of Gyeongju's most famous sites date from this Unified Silla period, which ended in the late 9th century by Goryeo (918?1392). In 940, the founder of Goryeo, King Taejo, changed the city's name to "Gyeongju", which literally means "Congratulatory district". In 987, as Goryeo adopted a system of having three additional capitals in politically important provinces outside Gaegyeong.
However, that title was removed in 1012, the 3rd year of King Hyeongjong, due to political rivalries at that time, though Gyeongju was later made the seat of Yeongnam Province. It had jurisdiction over a wide area, including much of east-central Yeongnam, although this area was greatly reduced in the 13th century. Under the subsequent Joseon (1392?1910) dynasties, Gyeongju was no longer of national importance, but remained a regional center. In 1601, the city ceased to be the provincial capital.

Over these centuries, the city's relics suffered numerous assaults. In the 13th century,Mongol forces destroyed a nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyongsa During the Japanese invasions of Korea, the Gyeongju area became a heated battlefield, and Japanese forces burned the wooden structures at Bulguksa Not all damage was due to invasions, however. In the early Joseon period, a great deal of damage was done to Buddhist sculptures on Namsan by Neo-Confucian radicals, who hacked arms and heads off  statuary .