to popular belief, Angkor was never a ‘lost city’. References
to it being ‘discovered’ by Henri Mouhot in the 1860’s are
nonsense. The Cambodians were well aware of its existence:
indeed, some of the temples, notably Angkor Wat, continued
to be occupied by monks throughout its history.
Mouhot, a young
and idealistic botanist, stumbled upon the ruins and made
sketches of some of the temples.
He died of malaria
soon after at the age of 34, but his ‘discovery’ unleashed
an opportunity to plunder on an enormous scale. Within a few
years, shiploads of Angkor's finest sculptures and bas-reliefs
had been transported to Europe to ‘enrich French culture’.
destruction and pillaging continued into the 20th century
– that so much remains is a testament to the incredible scope
of the original enterprise.
As with most of
the world’s massive monuments to bygone glories, such a colossal
undertaking could only be brought to fruition on the backs
of forced labour on a grand scale – Angkor was no exception.
At its peak around
the 12th century, over a million people inhabited Angkor.
Today, experts debate why it was built in such an inhospitable
location in the first place.
from the hundreds of temples, the site included an advanced
system of irrigation using an intricate network of canals,
channels and artificial reservoirs, known locally as ‘barays’,
thus creating a huge area for wet rice cultivation.
The nub of the academic
argument is whether the temples were originally built to support
the irrigation project or vice versa.
What is beyond doubt
is the fabulous wealth of the Khmer Kingdom. Providing the
resources and manpower to create Angkor surpasses the world's
ancient wonders and dwarfs today's monumental showpieces.
it has given its name to the entire site, Angkor Wat is but
one of the elements in an enormous complex of temples, terraces,
lakes and monuments spread across the 200-square kilometre
Plain of Angkor, albeit the most impressive.
Taking up an entire
square kilometre, the volume of Angkor's sandstone masonry
is equivalent to that of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and
nearly every stone surface is exquisitely decorated with figures,
images and Hindu motifs.
nine square kilometres of Angkor Thom reflects the transition
from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism and contains the remarkable
Bayon, and the famous Elephant and Leper King Terraces.
Its size is beyond
imagination: the Bayon alone, the ‘forbidden city’ of the
God-King Jayavarman VII, was larger than the entire area of
of the multitude of temples are available in guidebooks, but
words, and even photographs, cannot convey the experience
of Angkor. Many of the temples have been restored with varying
success, others are awaiting ‘renovation’ and a few are still
in pieces, dismantled by international conservationists for
subsequent rebuilding but interrupted by the years of warfare.
particularly interesting temple is Ta Prohm, one of the few
temples in more or less the same condition as in Mouhot’s
day, and immortalised in film by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.
The magnitude of
Angkor usually overwhelms the non-professional – ‘temple fatigue’
sets in after two or three days.
The short circuit
based upon Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom can be covered in a
day and a half, the ‘grand’ circuit takes in some of the further
temples and takes around three days.
An enthusiast, archaeologist
or historian might like to spend more time following the fascinating
development trail from the ancient pre-Angkor Indianised kingdoms
of Funan and Chenla to the founding of Angkor by Jayavarman
II around 800, reaching its zenith in the twelfth century
under Jayavarman VII, and its rapid decline in the 13th century.