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.