In northern Cambodia, north of the Great Lake of the Tonlé Sap, the magnificent ruins of a bygone civilization shoot rebelliously through the thick jungle canopy. Rendered variously in brick, red and blue sandstone and laterite, the monuments of the vast Angkor group are so stunning in their refinement of style, architectural ingenuity, and sheer magnitude that the first whispers of their existence met with disbelief in Europe. Those few Westerners who wrote accounts of the “Indian Babel” in the 17th and 18th centuries were eager to agree with the natives’ belief that these ruins must have been built by foreigners (Dagens 32). One particularly ridiculous 1647 account asserted that “A learned man supposed these to be the work of Trajan.” (Higham 3) Whatever resemblance to Roman architecture this observer might have seen is extremely superficial1, and upon even a cursory view of these ruins it is obvious that they are the sublimely original work of a society that apparently no longer exists.

Built between the 9th and 14th centuries C.E., Angkor is a massive complex of temples, monuments, and shrines that was at one time a city, the center of a flourishing empire. While many of these structures display considerable sophistication and complexity, it is generally agreed that the finest of all of the monuments is the early 12th century temple-mountain Angkor Wat2. Dating from the reign of the Khmer ruler Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the largest free-standing stone structure in the world. Unlike the other monuments of the Angkor group, Angkor Wat has been occupied continuously since its construction, despite the abandonment of the rest of the city around 1431 (Laur 2002).

Of all the monuments in the Angkor group, Angkor Wat is perhaps the most interesting; due to its constant occupation by monks, scholars, and pilgrims from across the Asian world, its estimated 1 sq km of bas-reliefs has been rather well preserved. These extensive bas-reliefs, carved into sandstone, attain extraordinary levels of artistic sophistication and narrative power. Study of this great monument provides a window into the lives of a people otherwise forgotten (ibid).


Angkor Wat: Environment and Structure


The Angkor group, a series of some thirty major monuments and hundreds of smaller ruins, was built in the Cambodian lowlands between the years 800 and 1432 C.E. by a civilization now known as the Khmer (Highham, 2001). The climate of this area is extraordinarily hot and humid, with a wet season during which most waterways reach flood stage. This climate, along with the dense deciduous forest it nurtures, proved formative to the Khmer people, and its influence can be seen in many aspects of their technology and culture3. While there is some debate as to what sort of system was used for irrigation, it seems clear that rice was the primary crop. Some contemporary reports claimed that complex irrigation systems were used to produce three or four harvests a year in the vicinity of Angkor, but subsequent investigation has found this possibility remote4. (Mabbett and Chandler, 1995)

The soils, mostly sandy or alluvial, are poorly drained, perfect for rice cultivation. The clay found at relatively shallow depths (0.3-1m) over much of Angkor inhibited the growth of more demanding crops, but provided a good building material in the form of laterite. (Mabbett and Chandler, 1995, Fujioka et al., 1972)

The monuments themselves are built of various materials, most of which could be found within a few tens of kilometers of Angkor. The early monuments were constructed using clay bricks, which were made of a mixture of clay and quartz sand. These strong bricks were easy to manufacture and were strong, but they were extremely difficult to carve. Thus, brick continued to be used in small shrines, but around the 10th century there was a shift to the use of stone in larger monuments (Fujioka et al., 1972). For the larger monuments, such as Angkor Wat, this meant the use of both laterite and sandstone5. The substructure, foundation, and retaining walls of these earth-filled monuments (which could be quite substantial) were built from durable laterite (Leisen, 2002). For the exterior of the temple, the blue variety of sandstone was laid over the top of the laterite (with the exception of Banteay Srei, which uses the more durable red sandstone, hence that monument’s exceptional state of preservation) (Laur, 2002).

Angkor Wat, the largest single monument of the Angkor group, is a temple-mountain surrounded by three enclosures, a laterite wall, and a moat. It has five main towers in a quincunx arrangement, with the four subsidiary towers emerging from the first enclosures and the main tower reaching the astounding height of 58 m above ground level. The curbed moat alone is an extremely impressive achievement, measuring 200m wide and 2m deep in most places. It is calculated that digging this moat required the transportation of 1,700,000 m3 of earth. Including the moat, the temple measures 1,470 m by 1,650 m and therefore covers an area in excess of 240 ha (ibid).

The inner island is served by a long causeway from the west (an unusual feature for an Angkorean temple, in this case probably due to the association of this temple with the cult of the dead) which connects to the island at a large, three-towered entry pavilion, or gopura. (Fujioka et al., 1972) These gopuras are an elaborate form of entranceway, and were built wherever a path intersects an enclosure.

The 3rd, outer enclosure which defines the temple proper measures 187 m by 215 m and consists of an enclosed rectangular gallery with a corbelled roof (Laur, 2002). The interior of this gallery contains some of the finest and most important bas-reliefs in the temple, such as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and the so-called Historical Parade. These bas-reliefs are important because they give an enlightening perspective on the symbolic purposes of the temple (to be discussed later in detail), as well as giving us a glimpse into the life of 13th century Khmer (Rooney, 2001).

The 2nd enclosure is raised 5 m from the ground, and is notable for its cruciform gallery, which divides the southern courtyard into four basins (Laur, 2002). These basins may have numerological significance as circumambulatory centers (Manikka, 1996). This enclosure also contains the famous devata sculptures, the celestial maidens who have entranced so many visitors of the temple6 (Laur, 2002).

The 3rd enclosure, the highest, is raised 12.5 m from the ground of the 2nd enclosure. Here are four more basins, and also more devatas. Contained within this final enclosure is the central shrine of Angkor Wat. Originally accessible by four entrances (each with extremely high thresholds to keep out ground-hugging spirits), it may now be reached by only one: Therevada Buddhists, zealous iconoclasts who took over the temple in the 16th century, closed three of them and placed Buddha statues in front of the niches. There is not much to see, however, in the central shrine, because the floor was dug out in 1935 to reveal a central well. This well goes all the way down to the ground and penetrates 23 m into the soil. At the bottom was the foundation stone of the temple, with several gold leaves and white sapphires (Laur, 2002).


Discovery by the West and a History of Research


Since the Eastern civilizations had never forgotten about Angkor in the first place7, it is somewhat amusing that Westerners have so frequently claimed to discover it. Nonetheless, if it was not “discovered” in the strictest sense of the world, there was certainly a brief decade which saw the ruins of Angkor projected into the minds and hearts of most of intellectual Europe. While much of the information disseminated was sensationalized and of little real value, the important fact was that the West was made aware of a new object for the studies of its burgeoning archaeological institutions. (Dagens, 1995)

This rapid spread of knowledge was begun in 1864 with the belated publication of the accounts and illustrations of the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who had traveled to Angkor in 1858-608. In the same year, Cambodia became a French protectorate, and an exploratory mission was sent under Doudart de Lagrée. It was soon determined that the ruins at Angkor deserved archaeological attention. Although Thailand had annexed Angkor with the province of Siem Reap in 1794, French explorers returned statues and artifacts piecemeal until the province came under Cambodian (and thus French) control again in 1907 (ibid).

Once Angkor was officially under the control of the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, the scientific branch of the colonial authority in Phnom Penh, study and restoration of the Angkor group could be carried out in earnest. Initially, much of the work done was to shore up monuments in imminent danger of collapse. Much of the encroaching jungle was also hacked away to allow access to the monuments. But the EFEO wished to take a more active role in the curatorship of the Angkor monuments. In 1927, the restorers began to use a process called anastylosis, which attempted to restore monuments to their original condition using clearly marked new work to replace whatever had been lost to the ages (Laur, 2002). While the results may have been more aesthetically pleasing to Westerners, some feel today that it is more important to respect the integrity of the site as a whole than to attempt to restore it to pristine condition9 (Dagens, 1995).

These early efforts were often ineffective and did little to stabilize the monuments, at the cost of a great disturbance to the local region. Far more important was the work of numerous epigraphists at translating the tens of thousands of Sanskrit inscriptions left behind by the Khmer over the centuries. With the deciphering and cataloguing of these inscriptions, historians could slowly begin to piece together the historical record of the Khmer. The purpose of Angkor Wat was now clear (ibid).


Symbolic Significance of Angkor Wat


The inscriptions left by the Khmer have made it possible for us to definitively date many monuments, as well as reconstruct the dynasties of the Angkorean state. From inscriptions at Angkor Wat, we know that the temple was built during the reign of Suryavarman II, which lasted from 1113 C.E. until 1150 C.E. It can be postulated that the temple took at least this long to complete, as certain bas-reliefs in the 3rd enclosure were left uncompleted10 (Higham, 2001).

The temple is a mausoleum for the king, but also a place of communion with the gods; it, like other temple-mounts, is an earthly representation of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Brahm­­anic cosmology. Every feature of the temple corresponds to this mythical mountain; the five peaks of Mount Meru to the five towers, the four rivers of Mount Meru to the four paths of the temple, and the surrounding ocean to the temple’s moat. And these are just the obvious similarities. Eleanor Manikka has argued persuasively for another level of symbolic significance based on astronomical alignments and numerological measurements. While this approach has attracted much skepticism, the evidence is hard to ignore: when converted into cubits, many apparently arbitrary measurements are shown to be values with deep religious numerological significance. For example, an area on the cruciform terrace from which certain lunar alignments can be made with the subsidiary towers is shown to possess measurements in modules of 27 cubits, 27 being the length of the lunar month in days. The towers themselves are each 27 phyeam tall, phyeam being equivalent to 4 cubits. Another example is that the vertical dimensions of all five towers add up to 540 cubits, exactly the same length as the entrance causeway. While some of the significances cited by Manikka may be artifacts of the process used to select the measurements (that is, trial and error), the case for the significance of Ankgor Wat as a mandala, or geometric diagram, seems very strong (1996).


Recent Conservation and Research


In recent years, work at the Angkor site has taken on international proportions, as archaeological teams have been sent from just about every developed nation. Much progress is being made with new technologies, revealing information that was once thought irrevocably lost.

First, evidence has been found through remote sensing of a larger urban complex underneath and surrounding the Angkor group monuments. Using a ground-penetrating synthetic aperture radar, NASA scientists discovered hidden groundworks fitting ancient descriptions of an extended infrastructure at Angkor11. This “low-density urban complex” could have housed perhaps one million people, more than enough to constitute the vibrant cities that Chou Ta-Kuan saw in 1296 (Fletcher and Pottier, 1996).

With regards to Angkor Wat itself, a Japanese team has used the magnetic susceptibility of sandstone to discover the sequence by which the large Angkor monuments were built12. They studied several large monuments, including Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Preah Kahn, all similar, and discovered that all of the blocks had come from a small number of quarries. It was therefore possible to distinguish the order in which the blocks were placed13 (Uchida et al., 2003).

Finally, great strides have been made in conservation techniques. In particular, it has become much more feasible to fight the erosion processes that attack the monuments. One such process, contour scaling, is at work on 30% of the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs, and can cause the sudden detachment of whole sections of sandstone14. A German team is combating contour scaling by using minimally invasive drill techniques to determine the strength of the sandstone at various depths and to determine if a scale is developing; if it is, a polymer injection through the drill hole can fix the problem (Leisen, 2002).




The classical civilizations of Rome, Greece, and Egypt are a firmly ingrained part of our consciousness because they are the seeds from which our society has flourished. We manage to achieve passing familiarity with other great cultural traditions, such as the Chinese and Indian, because they are a part of our world today. But there are other societies, just as great as any of these, which have, for one unfortunate reason or another, vanished from the earth.

Through the study of forgotten cities like Angkor, and their magnificent temples, such as Angkor Wat, we may come to understand the full breadth of human adaptation. Part of the modern predicament is an obsession with the subjective; learning about such exotic masterpieces as Angkor Wat both captivates and stimulates our imagination. With the recent addition of Angkor Wat to the UNESCO World Heritage List, it is likely that we will have Angkor Wat to excite us for years to come (Beschaouch, 2002).

Works Cited


Bechaouch, A. (2002). Exceptional Measures for a Site of Exceptional Value. Museum International 213-214, 104-109.


Dagens, B. (1995). Angkor: Heart of an Asian Empire. Trans. Ruth Sharman. New York:

Harry N. Adams, Inc.


Higham, C. (2001). The Civilization of Angkor. Berkely: University of California Press.


Fletcher, R. and Pottier, C. (2002). The Gossamer City: a new inquiry. Museum

International 213-214, 23-27.


Fujioka, M., Tsuenenari, K., Mori, C. (1972). Angkor Wat. Tokyo: Kodansha International LTD.


Laur, J. (2002). Angkor: An illustrated Guide to the Monuments. Trans. Diana Pollin. Italy: Flammarion.


Leisen, H. (2002). Contour Scaling: the disfiguring disease of Angkor Wat reliefs.

Museum International 213-214, 85-92.


Mabbett, I. and Chandler, D.P. (1995). The Khmers. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Manikka, E. (1996). Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship. Honolulu: University of

Honolulu Press.


Rooney, D.F. (2001). Angkor Observed. Bankok: Orchid Press.


Uchida, E., Cunin, O., Shimoda, I., Suda, C., and Nakagawa, T. (2003). The construction

process of the Angkor monuments elucidated by the magnetic susceptibility of

sandstone. Archaeometry 45, 2, 221-232.

1 Obviously the ruins of Angkor were not built by Trajan, who lived centuries before even traces of pre-Angkorean style appear in the archaeological record. Intriguingly, however, Fujioka, Tsunenari, and Mori note a strong Western influence from an architectural point of view:


“Ornamental patterns that are Western in type appear on pilasters, false doors, and lintels: these are leaf-shaped . The fact that some of the leaves closely resemble the acanthus, as it was used in Greece and Rome, might seem coincidental, with no relationship to classical Western art, but this would be a rather simplistic judgment, since Roman-type arabesques based on the curled leaf are found on the pillars of such buildings as Prah Ko and Bakon Lolei.” (1972)


Given the separation, in both time and distance, between the Roman and Angkorean empires, this comparison seems a bit far-fetched, although the authors do concede that the validity of this conjecture must be further investigated.

2 Most of the temples of the Angkorean group fall into one of two categories: flat temples and temple-mountains. Flat temples, somewhat ironically, are not necessarily flat, often constructed of one or more towers, but crucially, are placed upon a flat terrace or simply the ground. These monuments were built to honor mortals, both as memorials and as apparati of deification. Temple-mountains, on the other hand, are strikingly vertical structures designed to praise the gods. This distinction is to be taken broadly, as any flat temple would contain references to the gods, and any temple-mountain is partially an aggrandizement of the ruler’s prestige (Laur, 2002).

3 A striking example is the dress of the Khmers, as reported by the Chinese envoy Chou Ta-kuan, who visited Angkor in the 13th century during the reign of Jayavarman VIII. This consisted merely of a simple, pleated skirt called a sampot, worn by both men and women. Women wore nothing above the waist. Another aspect of technology affected by the climate was the technique by which houses were built. Chou reports that the houses were built six feet off of the ground around a tree, not to avoid flooding but to allow adequate air circulation. Curtains lowered during the day enclosed the houses to cool them, and were raised at night (Mabbett and Chandler, 1995)

4 This “hydraulic theory” of Angkorean civilization, put forth by the eminent Khmer scholar Bernard Groslier in “La cité hydraulique Angkorienne,” holds that the numerous reservoirs, or barays, were built by Khmer rulers as the feeders for extensive and complex irrigation systems, which supplemented the average 1 m per yr rainfall to allow the multiple harvests attested to by Chou Ta-Kuan. There are technical problems with this hypothesis, however, in the transfer of water from the barays to the peripheral canals, and it now seems unlikely that such an advanced scheme was ever in place (Ibid).

5 Laterite is a type of infertile, iron-bearing soil that is formed by the rotting away of clay minerals in solution. It is easy to obtain by digging about a meter down into the soil throughout much of the Angkor area, although there is some question as to where the quarries actually were. Once removed from the ground, the laterite was cut using a specialized method and allowed to dry. As it desiccated in the Cambodian sun, an extremely hard, ferruginous crust formed, making the material suitable for use in substructures and retaining walls, but not as an exterior to be carved and decorated (Fujioka et al., 1972). The foundation consisted of a bed of crushed rocks placed directly on the sandy soil. On top of the rocks were placed the uncemented laterite foundation blocks. The failure of the Khmer builders to properly pack the sand has resulted in serious subsidence problems (Laur, 2002).

6 After Henri Mouhot’s “discovery” was made known to Europe in the 1870’s, the temple was much romanticized, and many conflicting and spurious accounts were given of the features of Angkor Wat. The beauty of these devatas, however, was one nearly universal theme. Here is the breathless account of Pierre Loti, in 1902:


“Oh! the adorable creatures here and there upon the walls, as if to afford a respite to the eyes from the long battle . How lovingly the artists of old have chiseled and polished their Virgin-like breasts!... What has become, I wonder, of the dust of the beauties from whom their perfect bodies were copied?


These devatas, known commonly by the misnomer ‘apsares,’ apparently were servants of the gods, and the implication is that they served as a harem. As the entirety of Khmer art is notably devoid of the explicitly erotic elements found so strongly in similar Indian sculpture, the devatas, while lithe, appear almost plain in their monotonous lack of individuality: they are mirror images of each other (Rooney, 2001).

7 The Chinese, in particular, had contact with the Khmer for hundreds of years, and numerous reports of such contacts have been preserved for us by the remarkable Chinese archival tradition. Especially useful are the accounts of Chou Ta-kuan, and his less famous contemporary, Ma Touan Lin, which tell us much about the daily lives of the Khmer people (Dagens, 1995).

8 Mouhot himself never claimed to have discovered anything, merely devoting himself to the faithful reproduction of his experiences. He acknowledged that there were, in fact, many visitors to Angkor before him, upon whose collective experience he drew. Some of these visitors had even published accounts, and one, Father Jean Commaille, unfairly accused Mouhot of taking undue credit. The popularity of Mouhot’s account was simply due to its honesty of character and true-to-life illustrations that truly captured the imagination. (Ibid.)

9 Jean Laur is not among those voices. He writes that the process of anastylosis was “unfortunately” stopped in 1960 – one year after the end of his curatorship.

10 The reliefs eventually were completed in the 16th century by the inhabitants of Angkor, who were believed to be Khmer at that time. (Laur, 2002) The work, unfortunately, is of inferior quality, and devoid of the original significance of the temple.

11 This sort of radar has revolutionized the field of remote archaeology because it allows the visualization of elements that would be completely impossible to see from the ground. It can pick up large-scale disturbances in the earth that are evidence of human influence, and detect the foundations of buildings even when only subsurface rubble remains (Fletcher and Pottier, 1996).

12 Magnetic susceptibility is the degree to which a substance becomes magnetized when exposed to a magnetic field. Materials with higher magnetic susceptibilities often contain ferromagnetic substances; in the case of sandstone it is most likely a result of trace amounts of magnetite, rather than the more prevalent but magnetically weak biotite (Uchida et al., 2003).

13 Actually, the building order of Angkor Wat itself could not be determined, because all the blocks from that monument came from the same quarry. It is known from inscriptions, however, that the process used to build Angkor Wat was the same as used for other, similar monuments. This research should eventually allow researchers to pinpoint the quarry from which any sandstone block was cut, although at the moment access to the quarries is limited due to the presence of landmines on key paths (ibid).

14 Sandstone formed from clay soils, as is found in much of Cambodia, acquires some of the chemical and structural characteristics of clay – layers of interlinked crystals held together by relatively weak attractive forces. When water molecules infiltrate these layers, they can swell and begin to separate. If the slabs are laid perpendicular to the bedding plane, large areas, or “scales,” can begin to detach from the sandstone. This sets the stage for the sudden loss of valuable bas-reliefs which must then be reattached (Leisen, 2002).