History tells us time and again that ceremonial buildings are valued far more highly than functional ones. Angkor Wat (meaning ‘city temple’) was built as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu with an associated royal palace and capital city. The local buildings that people used every day were made of timber and have disappeared, while the temple was made of intricately carved sandstone and survives as what is now a Buddhist shrine.
The city temple was built in the reign of the Khmer king Suryavarman, who until 1150 ruled an empire that included not only modern Cambodia but also Thailand, Laos and parts of Malaysia. Comparable in scale with Versailles, dominated by the towers which were inseparable from the dwelling of the god-king, it was built in under 40 years, and then sacked in 1177 – after which a new capital was established at Angkor Thom.
Angkor Wat became a backwater, but was never entirely abandoned. It amazed the Portuguese and French travellers who came across it in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, who thought it outdid anything that survived from Greece and Rome, but assumed that it must have belonged to some equally remote past.
Angkor Wat stands on flat ground, but the temple is the image of a mountain. It was made defensible by a broad moat that now separates the city from the jungle. At the height of its power, though, it was surrounded by urban sprawl that connected the various capitals that were eventually built, making Angkor the largest pre-industrial conurbation. The moat around Angkor Wat was crossed by a single causeway, placed on axis with the temple's dominating towers, which evoke the multiple peaks of Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods. The temple's precincts were set apart from the rest of the city by being placed on artificially raised plateaux, reached by very steep stairs that were supposed to remind the faithful of the strenuousness of spiritual discipline.
The inner part of the temple, 60 metres (197 feet) square, is an exercise in the elaboration of square geometries into towers, courtyards, corridors, galleries. Its central tower is 35 metres (115 feet) high, rising from its plateau which is already 20 metres (66 feet) higher than the surrounding natural ground level. The masonry buildings are covered in low-relief panels of narrative scenes, and some sections of wall have holes that might have held fixings for bronze panels looted in the distant past. The masonry was constructed without mortar – the blocks being finely ground together, so the joints are often invisible. The blocks were shaped so as to interlock, with mortice and tenon joints and dovetails, which are usually used in joinery. The consistency of style, coupled with the speed of building, makes it clear that thousands of people must have been at work there, all schooled in the same tradition. Their skills were still available in force for the construction of Angkor Thom a generation later. This level of non-utilitarian building activity persisted into the fifteenth century, when an attack in 1431 (by the Ayutthaya from the region now known as Thailand) saw the city looted and then abandoned in favour of Lovek (or Longvek).
Angkor Wat was the one part of Angkor that was not abandoned, surviving as an impossibly grandiose and underpopulated Buddhist foundation, which the monks themselves could never have commissioned. Its after-life continues as a significant generator of tourist income, since it still fills with wonder even the most jaded of travellers, and it remains a source of pride as the centrepiece of Cambodia's national flag.
A massive Khmer temple and capital city complex constructed under King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and located a short distance...
Angkor Wat is an ancient Buddhist temple complex located in northern Cambodia, some 100 miles north of Phnom Penh. The buildings of Angkor Wat...
King Jayavarman II founded Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, in the 9th century AD in northeastern Cambodia. Angkor reached its peak of...