In a Cambodian forest, the temple of Angkor Wat stands as a grandiose symbol of the mighty Khmer Empire.
In the early 12th century, Suryavarman II, the king of the Khmer Empire, decided to build a temple. Around 50,000 people were sent to work, slaving away for 37 years. They dug a 200-metre moat, bridged by a causeway. They built three square plateaus on top of each other, protected by towering walls. At the top they erected five large towers. Around the temple, they created fine artwork, courtyards and corridors. In 1150 they completed the job. Angkor Wat was ready for use.
The new home of Suryavarman II reflected the power of his kingdom. In the 9th century, some 300 years earlier, the Khmer Empire unified regions in present-day Cambodia, amassing an influential people that would dominate south-east Asia, before breaking up in the 15th century. Their capital was Angkor: a 400-square-kilometre (154 square miles) area in north-western Cambodia. It featured more than 100 stone temples, as well as a highly sophisticated irrigation system that archaeologists are still uncovering to this day.
The historical value of the site is lost on no one. UNESCO listed it in 1992, labelling it as one of the most important archaeological sites in south-east Asia. Angkor Wat, the jewel in the crown, is a source of huge pride for Cambodia, and even features in their flag. Researchers have found it to be the largest stone-built temple complex on earth. “What is also fascinating is that it was part of this much larger city, which was actually the largest pre-industrial city in the world,” says Britt Baillie, an archaeologist and research associate at the University of Cambridge. “Those two facts combined make it a pretty fascinating place.”
On the surface, Angkor Wat appears to be a defensive fortress, with its moat and tall stonewalls. However, its architectural features were in fact intended as religious symbols. “The temple was meant to be a microcosm of the Hindu concept of what the world looked like,” explains Baillie. “They created mountains around which there is supposed to be sea. In Hindu mythology you have Mount Meru, which stands at the centre of the world, and is surrounded by the sea. And that’s what they tried to reconstruct on a smaller scale.”
In the 14th century, Buddhism overtook Hinduism as the kingdom’s main religion. In the following century, the empire started to crumble, mainly because it had become too large to run efficiently, and due to the decline of the irrigation system, which provided water to so many. The nail in the coffin came in 1431, when Thais invaded Angkor, forcing the Khmer people to relocate to Phnom Penh in the south of modern-day Cambodia.
In the aftermath, some researchers say the city was effectively abandoned, and left to be swallowed by the jungle – before Henri Mouhot, a French explorer, discovered it in the mid-19th century. However, a group of Buddhist monks kept worshipping in some of the temples, especially in Angkor Wat. “Several temples in the area continued to be used,” says Baillie. “We can see lots of inscriptions from these intervening periods that talk about pilgrims coming from afar, and Cambodian kings paying for restorations of temples; far before the French arrived.”
Baillie also says that the apparently poor state in which the French found Angkor Wat has been exaggerated. “Henri Mouhot depicts the temples when he discovered them as if they were completely buried in jungle, and this wasn’t true at all,” she says. “It is reported that when he arrived at Angkor Wat, there were 100 monks in the temple alone.”
Following Mouhot ‘s discovery, the temple underwent a major restoration project over much of the 20th century. Walls, roofs and chambers were restored; bushes and scrub were cleared away. But the jungle did leave permanent marks too, with some buildings, most notably the Ta Prohm temple, still dominated by large trees. And there is still disagreement over how to handle it. “The Ta Prohm is currently a symbiotic temple where the trees are both supporting and destroying the temple,” Baillie says. “Should it be left as a romantic ruin or should the trees be cut down and the temple reconstructed? This is a big debate at the site at the moment.”
Photos: Alexey Stiop, Kushch Dmitry, Stewart Smith Photography [all via Shutterstock.com].