Angkor Archaeological Park is amongst the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The ancient complex spreads more than 400km2, including the spacious forested region in which the ancient remnants of the Khmer Empire (from the 9th to the 15th centuries) are magnificently preserved. The Park holds the renowned Temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon. UNESCO has initiated thewide-range programs to protect the symbolic Angkor.
Angkor means “Capital City” or “Holy City” in the Khmer language. It was the capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and the 15th centuries. The temple ruins of Angkor today are the representatives of the pinnacle of the Khmer architecture, civilization, and art. At the peak time, the Khmer Kings built lots of waterworks and grand temples, associated with the military, economy, and culture dominance. There are some significant milestones in the History of Angkor:
The First Century
The Angkorian civilization emerged in the 1st century CE. When Southeast Asia became a commercial hub with the grand trading network from Mediterranean to China, lots of Indian and Chinese merchants arrived in the regions that pushed the indigenous people to approach their culture, and the Indian culture was dominant, maybe via the attempts of Brahman priests. The whole region then followed the Indian culture, religion (Buddhism and Hinduism), political belief, law, writing and science.
820CE: The Dawn of Angkor
The first King of Angkorian era was Jayavarman I, a Khmer prince that came back to Cambodia around 790CE. This king had a ‘god-king’ rite that made his ‘universal kingship’ legal via the formation of the royal linga cult. The linga worshipping was predominant to Angkorian kingship, religion, architecture, and art for decades. Then, 820CE marked the beginning of the Angkor.
The Khmer Empire at Angkor
The Angkorian time witnessed the expansion of territory, commerce, and politics in Cambodia. Some significant monuments were built like Banteay Srey, Ta Keo, West Baray, and Baphuon. When it came to the era of King Suryavarman I, he led the Khmer to gain lots of valuable military victories. Such victory grew in some centuries later, until the regimes of King Suryavarman II, the Khmer Empire reached its political apex. Then, to commemorate the victorious time, Suryavarman II decided to construct Angkor’s most captivating architectural masterpiece – TheAngkor Wat, as well as some other spectacular monuments. Angkor Wat was functioned as the state temple or funerary temple of Suryavarman IIand was constructed between 1113 and 1150.
History said that once Suryavarman II had consolidatedhis political position via various effective military campaigns, domestic administration, and diplomacy, he began the construction of Angkor Wat as his private temple mausoleum. This brave King also broke the Khmer kings’ traditions that he intended to dedicate the temple to Vishnu rather than to Siva. Obviously, Angkor Wat had the half-a-mile-long wall on each side depicted with the Hindu cosmology. While the central towers indicated Mount Meru – the home of the Gods, the outer walls represented the mountains encompassing the world, and the moat embodied the beyond oceans. That was the meaningful architecture of Angkor Wat, due to the original idea of King Suryavarman II. Each carving in the Wat evolved the Khmer themes that the Gods, people, and celestial bodies were connected. This promoted the cosmological significance in the Khmer belief. Interestingly speaking, Suryavarman II ordered the walls of the temple to be decorated with bas-relief: the depiction was from both mythology and the real life of the King’s imperial court. For instance, there was a scene depicting the King was larger in size than other objects. He was sitting cross-legged on the elevated throne and was holding court. Meanwhile, the clusters of attendants in the court made the King easy and comfortable, thanks to the availability of some parasols and fans. In fact, each portrait on the walls of Angkor Wat reflected a special meaning that King Suryavarman IIwanted the later Khmer generation to discover and learn. The images in Angkor have been the big subjects for the international researchers to pore over.
By the late of 12th century, the rebellions, failed campaigns, and internal conflicts weakened the Empire. In 1177, the terrible naval and land battles occurred asthe Champa attacked Angkor city and occupied it.
The Champa ruled Angkor for 4 years and then was defeated by Jayavarman VII, who then became the King. He selected Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion and instantly began the prolific campaign to build the Angkor complex. Hundreds of monuments were built in less than 40 years, and the most outstanding ones were Bayon with the intriguing giant faces, Angkor Thom (the King’s capital city), Ta Prohm Temple, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan, etc.
At the meantime of the frenetic building campaign, Jayavarman VII also took an aggressive struggle against Champa. In 1190, he won and expanded the borders of the Khmer Empire in all directions. In 1220, the King died that marked the finale of the Khmer Empire without further grand constructions even though his successor – King Indravarman II – continued building some of Jayavarman VII monuments with the little success.
The End of Khmer Empire
In the 13th century, under the reign of Jayavarman VIII, most of Angkor Buddhism monuments were damaged. This king also contributed a small tower East Prasat Top in Angkor Thom complex. After his death, Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia. Due to the Thai’s invasion, the Khmer had to move the capital from Angkor to Phnom Penh in 1432. After the capital movement from Angkor, the temple ruins remained untouched as time passes. The images of Angkor existed in literature works that gave the site the first tourism boom. Henri Mouhot was the one that wrote about the discovery of Angkor Wat in 1860 in the book, ‘Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam.’ Angkor Wat was ranked UNESCO World Heritage in 1992.
Tourism in Angkor Today
In 2007, a team of some global researchers used satellite photographs and modern tactics to reveal that Angkor was the greatest pre-industrial city in the world. The complex had the intricate infrastructure system that connects an urban spread of at least 1000km2 to the famous temples. The experts called Angkor “the hydraulic city” since they found the elaborate water management network in the old city. Such water network was used for stabilizing, storing, and dispersing water to the whole area in a systematic way. Also, such network was believed to support irrigation as well as the increasing population in the area.
The temple ruins of Angkor today are positioned amidst forests and farmland to the north of the Tonle Sap Lake (The Great Lake), to the south of the Kulen Hills, and next to the bustling Siem Reap City. Angkor temples are must-seen attractions for all Cambodia Package Tours. While Angkor Wat remains the world’s largest single religious monument, other ruins in the Angkor have been restored in the Khmer architecture. A huge number of tourists come to Angkor Archaeological Park every year. They explore the monuments, and surely, leave some impacts and create pressure on the preservation of the ancient sites. Know that Western tourism to Angkor started in the 1970s. The visitors walk and climb on the sandstone bases that inevitably influence the sites and create the urge for management and plan to protect the Angkor. However, some international and local attempts and implementation have failed for various reasons.