Appearing like a fever dream amid a thick, humid jungle is Angkor Wat—a soaring, sumptuous city of stone with elegant spires and elevated towers, covered galleries and airy courtyards, ornate walkways and intricate bas-relief carvings. Situated on the shores of Tonle Sap, a lake in northwest Cambodia, this temple complex is a nearly 900-year-old ruin from the ancient Khmer Empire. Among the hundreds of surviving temples in the region, the vast complex is easily Cambodia’s most famous sacred site—it appears on the nation’s current flag—and is revered for good reason. Comprising over a thousand buildings and covering some 400 acres, it is the world’s largest religious structure—and one of humanity’s cultural wonders.
Construction of Angkor Wat began in the first half of the 12th century by the Khmer king Suryavarman II (reigned A.D. 1113-circa 1150). It was probably intended to serve as his vast funerary temple where his remains would rest for eternity. Heavily influenced by Hinduism, the site, whose name means “city of temples” in Khmer, was originally called Vrah Visnuloka (“sacred dwelling of Vishnu”) and dedicated to three Hindu deities: the namesake Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Hindu deities are recognizable among the complex’s many bas-relief carvings.
The structure’s most prominent architectural feature is its central quincunx—five conically shaped towers (four in the corners, one in the middle) built on graduated tiers. Rows of lotuses taper to a point near the top, symbolizing the peaks of Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods and center of the universe. Indeed, Angkor Wat was conceived as an earthly model of the cosmos—a miniature replica of the universe in stone, with its central tower rising nearly 200 feet in the air. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world; the surrounding three-mile-long moat symbolizes the oceans beyond them.
One accesses the site by crossing a 617-foot bridge and then passing through three galleries on the way to the temple itself. The inner walls are covered with bas-relief sculptures representing Hindu gods and ancient Khmer scenes, as well as episodes from two Sanskrit epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Power of the Khmer
The Khmer flourished from the ninth to the 15th centuries, its rulers presiding over a sprawling, prosperous, and sophisticated empire that stretched across much of mainland Southeast Asia, from modern-day Myanmar (Burma) to Vietnam. It was linked by a network of river routes and elevated roads. Agricultural production thrived during this period, perhaps thanks to the higher temperatures and nourishing rains during the so-called Medieval Warm Period.
The Angkor Wat temple complex was built alongside the ancient Khmer capital Angkor, the focus of elaborate building projects since the dawn of the empire (including the ninth-century Phnom Bakheng temple that overlooks Angkor Wat to this day). In the 12th century, as work advanced on Angkor Wat under Suryavarman II, a religious shift from Hinduism toward Buddhism was intensifying across the Khmer lands.
Buddhism had coexisted peacefully with Hinduism for many years. It was first brought to Cambodia around the fifth century, carried by traders and missionaries from India, a culture that exerted a significant influence on Cambodian history: India had already brought Hinduism to the region, and the Khmer language is related to Sanskrit.
Some 30 years after Suryavarman II’s death, King Jayavarman VII came to the throne in 1181. He revived Khmer fortunes after the kingdom was invaded by the neighboring Cham, and he solidified the status of Buddhism by making it the state religion. Jayavarman VII’s face is believed to have been the model for the many visages that decorate the Bayon temple in nearby Angkor Thom. Built alongside Angkor Wat, this new fortified Khmer capital marked a new high in Khmer power. The city’s population swelled to a then-record 750,000.
Angkor Wat continued to be a Hindu temple until the 1300s, when it was formally rededicated as a Buddhist site. In keeping with Buddhist tolerance for Hinduism, the iconography of its great reliefs was not demolished or replaced, although Buddhist statues were added.
Around this time, the Khmer Empire started to decline, the result of a complex mixture of factors. In the 1430s the Khmer rulers abandoned the great complexes of Angkor and relocated to the newly established Phnom Penh to the south.
Environment also likely played a role: Angkor boasted an extensive, advanced system of artificial canals, dikes, and reservoirs, the largest of which, West Baray, is 5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide—a remarkable feat of hydraulic engineering for the time. The water harnessed by this network slaked the thirst of three-quarters-of-a-million residents in the world’s largest preindustrial city, as well as irrigating the rice fields. Historians believe a series of heavy monsoons, followed by drought, may have disabled the delicate irrigation infrastructure and so hastened the demise of the site.
‘Lost’ and found
The jungle reclaimed the area, and the urban area was soon subsumed by dense vegetation. Vast cotton silk trees grew up through the fallen towers, their silvery roots entwining pillars and walls, until jungle and ruin became indivisible. But one temple was never abandoned: Angkor Wat itself. Between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th, the complex was restructured, transformed by Buddhist monks into a site for pilgrimages.
In the middle of the 16th century, Europeans began to arrive in Angkor—first Portuguese merchants around 1555, then missionaries bent on spreading Catholicism in the region. The Portuguese merchant and historian Diogo do Couto described how the Cambodian jungle was concealing an abandoned city whose walls “are entirely built with hewn stone, so perfect and so well arranged that they seem to constitute just one stone—which is... almost like marble.”
After the Portuguese came Spanish merchants and missionaries. Among them was Fray Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, who, in 1604 published A Brief and Truthful Relation of Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia. His description reveals a deep appreciation and respect:
This city is on the banks of the River Meccon, 170 leagues from the sea; the floodwaters and tides of the river lap the city as those of the Guadalquivir do Seville. It is marvelously constructed . . . the houses are made of stone and are very beautiful, arranged in a very orderly way along streets, and the craftsmanship of their facades and patios, halls and chambers seems Roman.
Lure of Angkor
Over the next few centuries, Angkor exerted a magnetic pull on travelers from abroad, as Cambodia received numerous merchants from Southeast Asia, especially Muslim Malays, and Japanese Buddhists. Some even left graffiti on the walls of Angkor Wat (there are 14 examples dated between 1612 and 1632). The first known map of Angkor, an annotated colored plan, was created by one of these Japanese visitors.
The Spanish and Portuguese presence diminished, and the Dutch established a post of the Dutch East India Company in Cambodia. Whether representatives visited Angkor itself is unknown, but the discovery of a Dutch ship painted on the walls of the main entrance to the Angkor temple attests to the impact on local life.
The European fascination with Angkor reached a fever pitch in the 19th century. In late 1859 the French explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot visited Angkor under the patronage of the Royal Geographical Society of London. Mouhot had set sail for Bangkok in April 1858, accompanied by his dog Tine-tine, to gather plant and animal specimens from the region for European collectors.
Mouhot spent three months in Angkor, exploring the ruins, sketching its temples, and recording his impressions in his diaries—not only of Angkor itself, but of the Khmer people as well:
In the province still bearing the name of Ongkor... ruins of such grandeur... at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?
This intimate vision of Angkor, accompanied by Mouhot’s evocative drawings, was published in 1864 and drew European attention to the ancient Cambodian capital. In 1867 a French expedition arrived in the area, ostensibly to chart the course of the Mekong River. One of the members was a promising young artist named Louis Delaporte. His idealized illustrations of Angkor—included in two publications produced by the expedition—helped cement the popularity of the temples in the Western mind. Reproductions of Cambodian art were exhibited at the popular World Exhibitions between 1867 and 1922. At the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, a spectacular replica of the Angkor Wat temple was erected.