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You would think it impossible to “lose” a city six miles wide and 16 miles long, but that is exactly what happened to Angkor in Cambodia.
The first great Khmer ruler established his capital near Angkor in the eighth century a.d., and for 400 years he and his successors expanded it with an astounding series of temples and buildings. It culminated with Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Asian architecture.
The wats (temples or religious centers) rivaled the cathedrals of Europe that were being built around the same time. The stones for the temples were quarried in a range of mountains 20 miles distant. In sheer volume, the quantity of stone used in Angkor equaled that used in the pyramids of Egypt.
Angkor reached its peak in the 12th century. Because of its location on the route between China and India, it became a prosperous trading and spiritual center. Around 1432, the Siamese sacked Angkor. The Khmer fled, the city was abandoned, and the magnificent buildings were gradually covered by the encroaching jungle. Because of its immensity and magnificence, when it was rediscovered, many thought that it had been built by immortals.
The central tower of Angkor Wat is the same height as the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. A Portuguese explorer, Diogo do Couto, was the first recorded Westerner to discover Angkor. In 1614 he wrote, “This temple is 160 paces in length and is of a construction so strange that it is impossible to describe by pen and cannot be compared with any other monument in the world. The central body comprises four naves and the roofs of their vaults, highly decorated; rearing above them is a high pointed dome, built over the numerous columns wrought with all the subtlety which human genius can achieve. At each corner of this great principal edifice stand other smaller ones, of which the style corresponds to that of the principal, and which are all finished with sharply pointed domes visible from a distance of more than four leagues.”
The history of Angkor was not unraveled until after the arrival of the archaeologists. They discovered an inscription which described the birth of the kingdom of Angkor. “His majesty came from Java to reign in the city of Indrapura.” His majesty was Jayavarman II, and he came in a.d. 800. Cambodia was an old country, known to its people as Kambuja, after a mythical founder, Kambu. When Jayavarman II arrived, it was a vassal state of Java, but a series of wars of succession had left it in chaos. Jayavarman II, after many years, was able to restore order.
Angkor Wat, which faces west, was built in the 12th century. Since temples universally face east, and the west is associated with death, it is assumed that Angkor Wat was designed as a mausoleum or cenotaph.
It was not until 1860 that a young French naturalist, Henri Mouhot, exploring in the area, heard rumors of the lost city and set out in search of it. Although not the first European to find it, his reports of its splendors resulted in expeditions by the French to explore and restore the temples.
An immense restoration project was begun in 1908. The restoration has continued to the present with the exception of brief periods in the 1970s and 1980s when military conflicts prevented archaeologists from accessing the ruins. Today, several countries are active in restoration projects. In 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee declared the whole city of Angkor a World Heritage Site. It is the largest sacred architectural complex in the world ...
Read the rest of this article in the November 2003 issue of FATE
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