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Cambodia’s jungle yields up the ruins of Angkor Wat

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Conservation, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Sunday, 13 November 2011

This edited article about archaeology in Cambodia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 862 published on 22 July 1978.

Angkor Wat, picture, image, illustration

Angkor Wat is it might have appeared at its zenith, by Harry Green

About the time that the Spanish Armada was preparing to sail against the England of Good Queen Bess, a Portuguese missionary stumbled upon an incredible deserted city, deep in almost impassable jungle. He reported the discovery to his superiors, telling of ruined palaces, halls and temples of staggering size and beauty. Nobody believed him. Few had even heard of Kambuja, the scene of the missionary’s discovery, the land known as Cambodia today. It was just one more traveller’s tale, they said.

In 1604 another Portuguese, Quiroga de San Antonio, discovered the lost city for the second time, only to meet with the same disbelief, and in 1672 a French missionary, Pere Chevreuil, fared no better. So the jungle hid the carved temples for another two hundred years, and finally they were discovered for a fourth time, on this occasion by a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot. He stared in wonder at the crumbling walls, the huge trees growing up through ornate roofs, at the stone lions that guarded the deserted entrances. Carved figures of extraordinary beauty seemed to watch him through the foliage, and five immense towers shaped like lotus buds soared up towards the sky.

Henri Mouhot realised that he had stumbled upon the fabled lost capital of Cambodia, and immediately set about making a detailed description of his find. This time there was no disbelief, no talk of traveller’s tales. France was politically interested in Indo-China, but in those days Cambodia was ruled by neighbouring Siam, now Thailand, and there seemed little chance that permission would be forthcoming for a French expedition.

But the wheels of politics turned, and by the end of the 19th century, Angkor, as the area of the ruins was called, had become French territory. The French government got together a formidable team of archaeologists, engineers, scholars and architects and sent it out to study and reclaim the lost city in the jungle. Not only to save it from further damage, but also to find out who built it, and why.

It was soon found that the ruins fell broadly into two parts, Angkor Thom, the old city, and Angkor Wat, the great temple that was soon to be spoken of as one of the wonders of the world. There were, in fact, some 600 temples and other buildings on the site, but Angkor Wat dwarfed them all. The temple was an enormous masterpiece of ancient architecture, measuring 1,500 by 1,200 metres, with a massive central block rising to a height of 60 metres.

It was a maze of carved galleries, stairways and pinnacles, with 20,000 carved figures acting out scenes from religious epics or recounting the achievements of kings who had once ruled in the lost city. The great temple was enclosed by a deep moat, 60 metres wide, and engineered with such skill that the error in its entire circumference was found to be less than two centimetres.

The city of Angkor Thom was also constructed on an immense scale, for the crumbling wall that enclosed it stretched for no less than eight miles. Entered by five magnificent gates, the city was built about an imposing square, the Grand Plaza, which in turn was flanked by stately buildings. Some idea of the sheer size of Angkor Thom may be judged by an inscription found in one of its many temples. This recorded the startling fact that 306,372 servants from 13,500 villages worked there and consumed 35,000 tonnes of rice every year. The population of the city was apparently between one and two million.

Little by little, French scholars pieced together the story of the men who had built Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. More than a thousand years ago, the natives of Cambodia, the Khmers, had established the most brilliant civilization in South East Asia. They were a mechanically ingenious people, and from very earliest times had perfected an intricate and efficient irrigation system.

This harnessed the flood waters of the Mekong River so successfully that their land produced unfailingly good crops. The army of the Khmers was equally impressive, and included such weapons as fire rockets and arrow firing machines. It was also supported by a special regiment of 200,000 highly trained war elephants.

With armed forces on this scale it was hardly surprising that the Khmers took vast numbers of prisoners from neighbouring countries, and these were put to work on building not only temples but also the endless dykes and canals that carried vital water to every field in the land.

About 900 A.D. the Khmer king was Jayayvarman II, a remarkable man who reigned for 48 years as a god-king and built his capital city at Angkor Thom. He built it with slave labour, and tens of thousands of wretched prisoners of war dragged the huge blocks of stone 20 miles from the quarries to the building site. The city grew and flourished in a manner that is said to have surpassed even Babylon, but its life was not to be a long one. By the middle of the 15th century the Khmers’ old enemies, the Siamese, had grown in strength to a point where it was possible for them to penetrate inland to Angkor and attack the city.

After desperate fighting the Siamese were victorious and set about looting and vandalising the captured city. They methodically rounded up not only the able bodied Khmers and carried them off to Siam as slaves, but also every skilled craftsman they could find. Then they destroyed the intricate irrigation system on which Cambodia’s crops depended and left what was left of the vanquished Khmers to starve.

The unfortunate remnants of a once great empire did their best to repair the damage but it was beyond them. Unchecked by barrages, the Mekong flooded, and with the flood water came mosquitoes and  malaria. It was the last straw. Angkor was abandoned, and the jungle moved in. Within a very few years, not even the Khmers could remember where the city had been.

Once it had been found again, the French government poured out money in order to bring Angkor back to a state in which it could be seen for what it undoubtedly was, one of the great man-made marvels of all time. Over the years the experts succeeded brilliantly, but the difficulties that faced them were enormous. The roots of the trees that grew everywhere among the buildings were in many cases actually holding the ancient structures together, while the foliage was protecting the crumbling sandstone from the harsh rays of the sun.

With the jungle cut back, many of the buildings were weaker than before and had to be specially strengthened. Nevertheless, Angkor was slowly brought back to something like its original glory, and visitors from all over the world flew in by way of a special airport to marvel at it.

But today Cambodia is once again devastated by war and torn apart by internal conflicts. No tourists visit Angkor now, and it may well be that all the years of patient work were for nothing, and that Angkor has been reclaimed by the jungle.

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