Rescuing Angkor

An unprecedented effort to reclaim the ancient temples from the Cambodian jungle is racing against a tourist onslaught

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

Restoration of the 11th-century Baphuon temple is another story. More than 40 years ago, French archaeologists disassembled half of the temple, a lofty, multitiered pyramid over 130 feet high that was falling down. The plan was to reconstruct it from the ground up while augmenting the original stones with concrete and other modern materials. But when the Khmer Rouge overran the region in 1972, the French conservators fled, leaving 300,000 stones scattered across 25 acres. In 1995, French archaeologists returned to face the daunting challenge of reassembling this three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle—without a blueprint, since the written records had been destroyed. Some 200 restorers have divvied up the puzzle and are trying to fit pieces together the old-fashioned way. “There’s no forcing pieces to fit,” says Pascal Royère, Baphuon’s chief architect. “Each stone has one right spot and each spot has one correct stone. If you are off by ten millimeters in one corner, everything is wrong 20 meters farther along,” he says, with an expression of dismay.


It’s something of a mystery how the temples at Angkor have remained upright for so long. Khmer architects stacked sandstone blocks on top of rough-hewn slabs of laterite—a rock as porous as Swiss cheese—without anchoring the pieces together. As a result, many features that a Westerner associates with grand citadels are missing. Rooms are small, ceilings low, arches uncommon. But what the Khmers lacked in building materials or architectural complexity, they made up with flamboyant piety. The more grandiose of these elaborate temples were sanctuaries for the gods. The only people allowed to enter were members of the royal family, their entourage and priests.


Today, Cambodian Buddhists—perhaps descendants of the lordly Khmers—still congregate at the temples, lighting sticks of incense in front of statues of Buddha. Chatting quietly among themselves, they seem to ignore the khaki-clad sightseers trekking through the bare rooms, spaces that centuries ago were festooned with hanging silks and jeweled ornaments.


Ancestors of the early Khmers settled in the Angkor region in Neolithic times, some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, attracted by the abundant fishing at nearby Tonle SapLake, an inland waterway that extends 70 miles south to the Tonle SapRiver, which merges with the MekongRiver at Phnom Penh. Trade with India at the beginning of the first century a.d. introduced Hinduism and later Buddhism to the Khmers, who were animists. Under Khmer rule, Hinduism dominated until Buddhism became predominant at the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. (Although the majority of the country’s Buddhist monks were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism again became the state religion in 1989. Young novices with shaved heads are once more tending shrines.)


The Khmer region was divided into independent kingdoms until the late eighth century, when the future king Jayavarman II swept up from the south and consolidated power in the region, founding his capital near present-day Angkor. His son, Jayavarman III, built one of the first major temples at Bakong, southwest of Angkor Wat, in the mid-ninth century. By the early 12th century, the kingdom was riven by internal strife, and the king, Suryavarman II, embarked on a campaign to expand his empire, eventually subduing present-day Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. To honor the gods, Suryavarman II erected Angkor Wat, whose bas-reliefs of supernatural Hindu battles show off his epic victories.


About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus