Rescuing Angkor

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

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“We don’t know for sure whether Suryavarman II himself designed Angkor Wat, or whether he chose an architect of genius,” explains Ang Choulean, director of culture and research for the Cambodian agency in charge of administering Angkor. “But judging from the harmony of the buildings, the space and sculpture, it’s absolutely clear only one individual designed it.”


In 1177, the powerful Cham tribe of central Vietnam rebelled against Khmer rule, stormed into Angkor and occupied the devastated city. But an exiled prince, the future Jayavarman VII, mustered a Khmer army that drove the Chams out of Angkor in 1181. Sculptors generally portrayed the Buddhist monarch as a serene figure, but Jayavarman VII was an ambitious ruler determined to leave his legacy in stone. On the ruins of the old city he established the widemoated citadel of Angkor Thom and erected many of Angkor’s major monuments, including Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and the Elephant Terrace. Bayon, his greatest achievement, contains incomparable bas-reliefs honoring his battles with the Chams.


Angkor remained the capital of the kingdom until the late 16th century, when it was eclipsed by Phnom Penh, the more accessible MekongRiver port and soon a major hub of Asian trade. Over the next hundred years, the great metropolis of Angkor disintegrated into scattered villages as its crumbling temples were engulfed by the jungle. Only Angkor Wat remained in use.


Obscure records indicate that although Portuguese explorers and missionaries stumbled across Angkor in the 16th century, the ancient city was little known to the West until Bouillevaux’s 1858 memoir and, especially, Mouhot’s account, which was published posthumously in 1863 and caused a worldwide sensation. (Mouhot died of fever and exhaustion in 1861 in Laos.) His lyrical descriptions of Angkor Wat paid homage to its builders, speaking of an “Eastern Michelangelo creating his masterpiece.” In the 1870s, French archaeologist Louis Delaporte collected 70 sculptures from Angkor, many of which are now in the GuimetMuseum in Paris. (Cambodia was under French colonial rule from 1884 to 1953.) In 1923, André Malraux—later to become a renowned novelist, philosopher and France’s first culture minister—was arrested by French colonial authorities for stealing four carved apsaras from the tenth-century templeBanteay Srei. When the 22-year-old author was put on trial, he was forced to return the statues and was given a year’s suspended sentence.


In 1907, a French archaeological research organization took charge of conserving Angkor’s mysterious temples. “Here magnificence and simplicity come together, timelessness and decay, beauty and the harsh realities of war and toil that drove the creation of this magnificent place,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund.


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.

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