Just before sunrise on a cloudy May morning in northern Cambodia, I joined hundreds of tourists crossing the wide moat to the outer wall of Angkor Wat, often said to be the largest religious structure in the world. Inside the rectangular courtyard, which covers more ground than 200 football fields, I waited near a small lake in front of the temple. Within minutes the sun appeared behind its five iconic towers, each shaped as a closed lotus bud, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods and the mythical Hindu center of the universe.
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The temple's precise, symmetrical beauty was unmistakable. The other tourists all faced the sun, watching in stillness and whispering in foreign tongues, as hundreds more arrived behind them. Angkor Wat at sunrise is a wondrous spectacle, one that I would return to several times during my stay in Cambodia.
I had come to the temples of Angkor prepared, having read about their archaeology and history and learned of their immense size and intricate detail. The mystery of why an early Khmer civilization chose to abandon the temples in the mid-15th century, after building them during a period of more than 500 years, intrigued me. So too did the tales of travelers who "discovered" Angkor in the centuries that followed, some of whom thought they had stumbled across a lost city founded by Alexander the Great or the Roman Empire—until finally, in the 1860s, the French explorer Henri Mouhot reintroduced the temples to the world with his ink drawings and the postmortem publication of his journal, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, and Laos.
But on that first morning I realized that such knowledge was unnecessary to appreciate this remarkable achievement of architecture and human ambition. "There are few places in the world where one feels proud to be a member of the human race, and one of these is certainly Angkor," wrote the late Italian author Tiziano Terzani. "There is no need to know that for the builders every detail had a particular meaning. One does not need to be a Buddhist or a Hindu to understand. You need only let yourself go..."
Although Angkor Wat is the largest and best known of these temples, it is but one of hundreds built by the kingdom of Angkor. Huge stone monuments scattered across hundreds of square miles of forest in northern Cambodia, the temples are the remains of a vast complex of deserted cities—which included manmade lakes, canals and bridges—that were astonishing in their size and artistic merit.
But piecing together information about the ancient Khmers who built them has not been easy for archaeologists and historians. The only written records that still exist are the inscriptions on the temple walls and the diary of a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296. All administrative buildings and the homes of kings and commoners alike were made of wood; none have survived, leaving only the religious creations of brick and stone.
Direct ancestors of modern-day Cambodians, the Khmers are thought to have descended from the Funan peoples of the Mekong delta. Funan was a decentralized state of rival kings that thrived as a trading link connecting China and the West for the first few centuries A.D. In the late sixth century, Funan was superseded by the state of Chenla, based farther north into Cambodia's interior. Chenla lasted for about 250 years until the start of the Angkor period.
Meanwhile, Hindu and Buddhist influences, which originated in centuries-old contact with Indian traders, appeared in the region. (Neither ever fully displaced the local animist religion, but rather assimilated into it.) Elite Khmer rulers commissioned the building of temples and gave themselves Sanskrit names to demonstrate their wealth and power. Their subjects made donations to the temples to curry favor—both with the gods and with the local ruler. Temples, as such, were not only religious but also commercial centers. In the time of Angkor many temples operated as small cities, and some of them as very large cities.
Around A.D. 800 a powerful regional king named Jayavarman II consolidated the rival chiefdoms in Cambodia and founded the kingdom of Angkor. It was Jayavarman II who instituted the cult of the Devaraja (literally "god-king" or "king of the gods"), symbolically linking Khmer royalty to the divine realm.