ANGKOR (near Siem Reap, 145 miles from Phnom Penh) was the capital of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist civilization that encompassed all of present-day Cambodia, and much of Southeast Asia. Situated on a flat plain in northwestern Cambodia, it was one of the largest cities in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries. "Angkor" means "capital" in Khmer. It is derived from “nagara” , a Sanskrit word that originally referred to a particular time and place in Angkor history. The ruins of 100 or more temples and buildings are hidden beneath the jungles and rain forests.

Angkor was the capital of the Great Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Angkor-based Khmer empire was the most powerful kingdom in Southeast Asia. At its height in the 12th century, when Europe was still wallowing in the Dark Ages, Angkor was a thriving city with possibly a million inhabitants. By comparison Paris, the largest city in Europe, was home to maybe 30,000 people. Angkor Wat was established under Yasovarman I (reigned 889-900) and expanded and mostly built up as you see today under Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150).

Angkor is huge and has many buildings and ruins scattered among the jungle. It is sort of like what Washington D.C. would be like if it were abandoned and overgrown and rediscovered in a Planet of the Apes film. Some of the buildings are well preserved. One reason for this is that Angkor wasn’t abandoned all that long ago, the 15th century, and continued to some degree after that. The ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Mayan ruins were abandoned much longer ago than that.

At its peak Angkor was among the world’s most populated cities, with 750,000 residents. It sprawled across an area the size of New York City's five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. In 1431 it was abandoned to Buddhist monks after a final sacking by Siamese invaders. In the 1990s temples of Angkor were rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war and Khmer Rouge rule. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year. During the peak hours of the peak, according to the Washington Post, human traffic jams can form at temple steps once reserved for kings and priests.

According to UNESCO: “Angkor, in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, is one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. It extends over approximately 400 square kilometers and consists of scores of temples, hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) as well as communication routes. For several centuries Angkor, was the center of the Khmer Kingdom. With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization. Temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, exemplars of Khmer architecture, are closely linked to their geographical context as well as being imbued with symbolic significance. The architecture and layout of the successive capitals bear witness to a high level of social order and ranking within the Khmer Empire. Angkor is therefore a major site exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Angkor: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Angkor was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. According to UNESCO: "Angkor contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The influence of Khmer art, as developed at Angkor, was a profound one over much of South-East Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian subcontinent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighbouring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.[Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The criteria used in the selection of Angkor as an UNESCO World Heritage Site: 1) The Angkor complex represents the entire range of Khmer art from the 9th to the 14th centuries, and includes a number of indisputable artistic masterpieces (e.g. Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Banteay Srei). 2) The influence of Khmer art as developed at Angkor was a profound one over much of South-east Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. 3) The Khmer Empire of the 9th-14th centuries encompassed much of South-east Asia and played a formative role in the political and cultural development of the region. All that remains of that civilization is its rich heritage of cult structures in brick and stone. 4) Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian sub-continent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighboring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.

The park is inhabited, and many villages, some of whom the ancestors are dating back to the Angkor period are scattered throughout the park. The population practices agriculture and more specifically rice cultivation. The Angkor complex encompasses all major architectural buildings and hydrological engineering systems from the Khmer period and most of these “barays” and canals still exist today. All the individual aspects illustrate the intactness of the site very much reflecting the splendor of the cities that once were. The site integrity however, is put under dual pressures: 1) endogenous: exerted by more than 100,000 inhabitants distributed over 112 historic settlements scattered over the site, who constantly try to expand their dwelling areas; 2) exogenous: related to the proximity of the town of Siem Reap, the seat of the province and a tourism hub.

Temples at Angkor

There are 292 temples in the Angkor complex, a fifth of those surviving in Cambodia from the Khmer civilization. Among these are 72 major temples and monuments, and 220 minor ones, of which 30 have been cleared from the jungle and can be visited. By one count the entire complex contains 700 large and small temples and shrines. Constructed from brick and hand-carved sandstone, the temples are scattered over a central 30-square-mile urban area (twice the size of Manhattan) and a 155-square-mile metropolitan area.

Angkor Wat is one temple within Angkor. Other major temples that are open to visitors include Bayon, Angor Thom and Ta Prohm. Some of the temples still covered by jungle have only recently been discovered with the help of photographs taken from space. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “From the air, the centuries-old temple appears and vanishes like a hallucination. At first it is no more than an umber smudge in the forest canopy of northern Cambodia. Beneath us sprawls the lost city of Angkor, now in ruins and populated mostly by peasant rice farmers. Clusters of Khmer homes, perched on spindly stilts to cope with flooding during the summer monsoon, dot the landscape from the Tonle Sap, the "great lake" of Southeast Asia, some 20 miles to the south, to the Kulen Hills, a ridge jutting from the floodplain a roughly equal distance to the north. More than a thousand shrines the Khmer erected in the city of Angkor during a building spree whose scale and ambition rivals the pyramids of Egypt. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

History of Angkor

The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Angkor area has been dated at 5000 B.C. and was in the form of artifacts and remains from pre-Bronze-Age hunter-gatherers. According to UNESCO: At the beginning of the 9th century AD the two states that covered the territory of modern Cambodia were united by Jayavarman II. who laid the foundations of the Khmer Empire, which was the major power in south-east Asia for nearly five centuries. One of the sites where his court resided for some years was in central Cambodia, to the north of Tonle Sap (The Great Lake), where half a century later Jayavarman's son, Yashovarman, was to establish Yashodapura, the permanent capital of the Khmer Empire until the 15th century. It was later given the name Angkor (from the Sanskrit "nagara", meaning city or capital). [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The first capital was at latter-day Roluos, itself a pre-Angkorian capital, Hariharalaya. This conformed with the classic form of Khmer capital. This comprised certain fundamental elements: a defensive bank and ditch with a state temple at its center built in brick or stone, and a wooden palace. Leading dignitaries would also build temples, both inside and outside the enceinte, which were dedicated, like the state temple, to Hindu divinities, notably Shiva. There would also have been many secular buildings, constructed almost entirely of wood, in and around the enceinte. The state temple at Roluos, the Bakong, and the temple built in memory of the royal ancestors, Preah Ko, were erected around 880. Another essential feature of a Khmer capital, a large reservoir, was added a decade later, with in its center a third temple. Lolei.

Yashodapura (Angkor Wat) was built to the north-west of Roluos, around the hill of Phnom Bakeng. The enclosure was square, each side measuring 4 kilometers , and it was equipped with a vast reservoir (baray) measuring 7 kilometers by 1.8 kilometers, now known as the Eastern Baray. The state temple was built at the summit of Phnom Bakeng around 900. Following a short period when the Khmer capital was transferred to Koh Ker, some 60 kilometers north-east of Angkor, the second capital at Angkor proper was built by Rajendravarman in the 960s. the state temple being situated at Pre Rup. He alsoconstructed a temple, the Eastern Mebon, on an artificial island in the center of the Eastern Baray. During his reign Rajendravarman's guru built the exquisite temple of Banteay Srei, some 25 kilometers north-east of Angkor.

Rajendravarman's son. Jayavarman V, abandoned the Pre Rup site in favour of a new location. with its state temple at Ta Kev. which was consecrated around 1000. Shortly afterwards he was overthrown by Suryavarman I, who was responsible for the formidable fortifications around his Royal Palace and state temple, the Phimeanakas, and also for the construction of the great Western Baray, extending over an area of 8x2.5 kilometers. In 1050 his successor created a new and more impressive state temple, the Baphuon, to the north of the temple.

The succeeding rulers left little traces in the form of monumental buildings, and it was not until the accession of Suryavarman II in 1113 that the next great phase of building began. It was he who was responsible for the greatest of all Khmer monuments, Angkor Vat, set within an extensive enclosure and dedicated to Vishnu. Among other important monuments dating from this period are Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda.

The death of Suryavarman II around 1150 was followed by a period of internal strife and external pressure, culminating in 1177 with the sack of Angkor by the Chams. The situation was restored by Jayavarman VII, who celebrated his military success by creating yet another capital at Angkor Thorn and launching an unprecedented building campaign. His state temple was the towering Bayon (dedicated to Buddha): among the many other monuments of Jayavarman VII's reign are Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Banteay Prei. Such was the grandeur of this capital that none of Jayavarman VII's successors saw fit to replace it. Nor were there any major monumental additions between his death around 1200 and the end of the Khmer Empire in the first half of the 15th century.

Angkor Infrastructure

Surrounding the temples at Angkor is a sophisticated waterworks system, that still functions to some degree today, consisting of numerous canals, dams and rectangular reservoirs called “barays” . In a monsoon climate, where the rainy season sometimes brings too much water and the dry season doesn't bring any at all, control over water is the key to wealth and even survival.

The waterworks system was very advanced The canals and reservoirs directed and collected wet season runoff water to prevent flooding; stored the water during the dry season; and channeled it into an irrigation system capable of producing two or three crops a year. Canals were used to haul stones used in the construction of temples. The two largest reservoirs held over two billion gallons of water. To build and maintain such water system required central planning and lots of physical labor mobilized through the power of a god king.

The major temples were surrounded by huge moats. Some scholars believe that some of the moats served as reflecting pools to amplify the beauty of the temples. Others say they were primarily symbols of the cosmos. Water in the moats symbolically separated the outer world from the sacred precincts of the temples inside them. Recent surveys indicate the water may have been more decorative and symbolic that practical. It seems that relatively few canals ran out of the moats, implying that there were involved less in irrigation than previously thought.

Rice surpluses produced by irrigation and floating rice freed labor to devote its attention to art and religion and made it possible for the Khmers to build a large standing army and support an opulent culture with court ministers, priests, bureaucrats, and artisans. But the intensive labor required to maintain both the agricultural and irrigation systems also demanded much from the empire’s work force, and may have proved intolerable over time and led to the Khmer civilization’s collapse.

In his book "Challenging the Mystery of the Angkor Empire: Realizing the Mission of Sophia University in the Asian World, Yoshiaki Ishizawa, former president of Sophia University, says he has answered some longstanding questions about the Angkor civilization. Ishizawa, who has studied and worked to preserve Angkor monuments for more than 50 years, found that temples and roads related to the Angkor Empire had spread over the Indochinese Peninsula by reading inscriptions written in Sanskrit and old Khmer, which were discovered in the Angkor monuments. He concluded this huge network of trade and logistics must have supported and nurtured the once-great civilization. According to Ishizawa, the empire's throne was traditionally seized by force, not inherited through bloodline succession. Ishizawa explained the discarded statues were evidence of political conflicts in which a king displayed his new power, and that the empire continued to flourish until its fall. Hiromi Kanekita, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 26, 2012]

Angkor and Water

Another significant element of the Angkor complex is the irrigation system of the region based on the great reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers. Spillways from sloping dams used in the system may extended as long as a football field. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “By harnessing the monsoon tide that gushed from the Kulen Hills, Angkor and its rulers flourished. From the era of Jayavarman II, who laid the kingdom's foundations in the early 800s, the empire's growth depended on bumper rice harvests. Throughout southern Asia, perhaps only the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and their famed reservoirs could compare to Angkor's ability to guarantee a steady water supply. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“That reliability required massive feats of engineering, including a reservoir called the West Baray that's five miles long and 1.5 miles wide. To build this third and most sophisticated of Angkor's large reservoirs a thousand years ago, as many as 200,000 Khmer workers may have been needed to pile up nearly 16 million cubic yards of soil in embankments 300 feet wide and three stories tall. To this day the rectangular reservoir, or baray, is fed by water diverted from the Siem Reap River.

“The first scholar to appreciate the scale of Angkor's waterworks was Bernard-Philippe Groslier, an archaeologist with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO). In a landmark 1979 treatise, he envisioned Angkor as a "hydraulic city." The great barays, he argued, served two purposes: to symbolize the primeval sea of Hindu cosmogony and to irrigate rice fields. Unfortunately, Groslier could not pursue this concept further. Cambodia's civil war, the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the ouster of the regime by Vietnamese forces in 1979 turned Angkor into a no-go zone for two decades. After Vietnamese troops withdrew, looters descended on Angkor, swiping statues and even chiseling off bas-reliefs.

“When Christophe Pottier, an architect and archaeologist, reopened EFEO's research station at Angkor in 1992, the first priority was helping Cambodia restore dilapidated and pillaged temples. But Pottier was drawn to the wilderness beyond the temple walls. He spent months crisscrossing the southern half of Greater Angkor on motorbike and foot, mapping once hidden house mounds and shrines near artificial ponds called water tanks. (Lingering lawlessness deterred Pottier from surveying the northern half.) Then, in 2000, Fletcher and his colleague Damian Evans laid hands on NASA radar images of Angkor. They were a revelation: The University of Sydney team, working with EFEO and APSARA, the Cambodian agency that manages Angkor, found vestiges of many more settlements, canals, and water tanks, particularly in Angkor's inaccessible areas. Donald Cooney's ultralight flights have helped Fletcher and Pottier, now a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project, examine these features in finer detail. Crucially, they found inlets and outlets to the barays, ending a debate catalyzed by Groslier's work about whether the colossal reservoirs were used solely for religious rituals or for irrigation. The clear answer is both.

“The researchers were amazed by the ambition of Angkor's engineers. "We realized that the entire landscape of Greater Angkor is artificial," Fletcher says. Over several centuries, teams of laborers constructed hundreds of miles of canals and dikes that relied on subtle differences in the land's natural inclination to divert water from the Puok, Roluos, and Siem Reap Rivers to the barays. During the summer monsoon months, overflow channels bled off excess water. After the rains petered out in October or November, irrigation channels dispensed stored water. The barays may also have helped replenish soil moisture by allowing water to soak into the earth. In surrounding fields surface evaporation would have drawn up the groundwater to supply crops. "It was an incredibly clever system," says Fletcher.

“That clever water system may have made the difference between mediocrity and greatness. Much of the kingdom's rice was grown in embanked fields that would otherwise have relied on monsoon rains or the seasonal ebb and flow of water on the Tonle Sap floodplain. Irrigation would have boosted harvests. The system could also have provided survival rations during a poor monsoon season, says Fletcher. And the ability to divert and impound water would have afforded a measure of protection from floods. When other kingdoms in Southeast Asia were struggling to cope with too little or too much water, he says, Angkor's waterworks would have been "a profoundly valuable strategic asset."

Building the Temples at Angkor

Rather than expanding temples built by their predecessors, the Khmer kings consecrated their rule by building new temples—with its own moats, irrigation systems, causeways, gates and carved sandstone towers—in scattered areas, where separate mini-cities grew up around them. That is why there are so many incredible monuments in the Angkor area.

Hundreds of architects and engineers were hired to design the temples. Some were dedicated to Buddha. Some were dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu or Shiva. Others were built as shrines to the Angkor god-king that commissioned them. Some like Angkor Wat were all of the above. For the most part the temples were viewed as sanctuaries of the gods and only members of the royal family and perhaps some monks or priests were allowed to enter them.

The sandstone used to build the monuments was transported from faraway quarries by canal barges, oxcarts and elephants. After the stones were cut and fit together they were decorated with bas-reliefs and free-standing statues. Many were once painted with bright colors and decorated with gold leaf. The stone building were once surrounded by wooden houses, where ordinary people lived, but these all disappeared with time.

Many of the temples that have been restored are still used as temples by local people who pray, chant in murmuring voices, leave offerings and light incense and candles in their sanctuaries. There are also some small hamlets scattered among the ruins occupied by people who work in some way at Angkor. The forests and jungle that surround the temples seem to be particularly alive at night when they resound with choruses of frogs, crickets and cicadas.

Many temples visited by tourists were built under Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219, and often referred to by tourist guides as J7). He drove the Khmers rivals, the Chams, from Angkor, converted the Khmer empire to Buddhism and raised many monuments. The buildings built before him are primarily Hindu in nature, Those built during his reign and afterwards have more Buddhist influences. Many Hindu buildings were given a Buddhist going over. after the conversions of the Khmers to Buddhism. Beginning in the 13th century, Angkor went into a period of decline as a result of a series of Siamese invasions from present-day Thailand. In 1432, the city was sacked by the Siamese and then largely abandoned when the Khmers established a new capital in Phnom Penh.

Angkor Architecture

The architecture of Angkor was influenced by architecture in India and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia, but also contains some unique elements such as those associated with the Khmer king and his cosmology and divinity.

Many Khmer temples were built as microcosms of Hindu cosmology with a central tower or towers representing Mt. Meru, , the center of the Hindu universe and the home of the Hindu gods. The sanctuary walls defined the limits of the universe. Some features that appear to have been built for military purposes were in fact built for symbolic and religious reasons. The water-filled moats, for example, that surround the temples represent the oceans around the Hindu universe.

Most temples were built facing east towards the rising sun which was regarded as auspicious, with the main gate on the east side. The west was considered inauspicious and associated with death. The north was linked with elephants, which are valued because of their strength. The south was neutral. An effort was made to make sure all the structures were balanced and in harmony as is the case with the Hindu and Buddhist universes. Angkor Wat was built facing west, perhaps in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of all things.

The decorative motifs and sculptures are similar to those found in India. Some early buildings contains elements found in the architecture of ancient Indonesia. Some of the later ones contain Chinese characteristics such as glazed tiles and Chinese-style motifs in the reliefs.

The architectural technology is less sophisticated than that of the Romans. The rooms are small, ceilings are low, and some of the designs for stone structures is based on wooden structures. Many buildings are made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone placed on top of porous slabs of laterite—a spongy, iron-laden soil that hardens when exposed to air— and fitted together rather than anchored with concrete. But, somehow, using these basic techniques and materials, the Khmers were able to create structures of extraordinary beauty, harmony and complexity.

Sandstone was the preferred material for walls with reliefs because it is relatively easy to carve. The sandstone blocks used at Angkor were quarried about 40 kilometers away and transported by raft to Angkor when Tonle Sap reversed its direction and flowed towards Angkor. The laterite used for foundations is found in abundance in the Cambodian soil. Known for its durability, it is a red rock that is soft when it is underground, because of its high water content, but becomes hard when exposed to sunlight. In most cases it was cut while still in the ground and removed in the form of blocks that were left to dry on the sun.

Elements of Angkor Architecture

Elements of Angkor Architecture: 1) the corbel arch is a primitive construction method that was used only by the Khmers. It is made by placing blocks on top of one another until they come together. The disadvantage of this method is it creates arches that are tall and narrow and accommodate little space underneath them. 2) False doors are another common Khmer feature. They are sometimes found with real doors at the main sanctuaries of temples, and are often beautifully decorated and carved. 3) Khmer pediments (triangular upper portions of a wall) are often intricately decorated with pictorial scenes.

Other common Angkor architectural elements included: 4) rectangular and lotus-shaped pillars (free-standing supports); 5) rectangular pilasters (columns that project slightly from a wall); 6) decorated lintels (slabs that supports the weight above a door) and tympanums (triangular spaces above lintels enclosing the moldings of the pediments); and 7) windows with balusters. Often the windows have laterite blocks placed at the top and five to seven wood- or bamboo-like balusters on the lower half.

Khmer central towers are almost always facing towards the east. Their conical shape is formed by a series of stepped tiers that come together to form a rounded point at the top The interior is usually relatively plain, with the exterior being more highly decorated. The focus of a temple is the sanctuary, which sits on elevated platform below the central tower. Elaborate temples have a central tower surrounded by other towers. These towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru and were often adorned with stucco or carved sandstone decorations.

As the temples became more complex, hallways and galleries were built off the sanctuaries. They were usually set on platforms, with stairways connecting different levels. Later, separate buildings were added for meditation halls, “libraries” and other purposes, and elaborate porches, sanctuary walls, gates and causeways across moats were built. Gallery walls were often decorated with carved reliefs. The so-called libraries were generally storage rooms for sacred objects.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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