A French naturalist named Henri Mouhot in 1860 stumbled across a city of stone hidden in the tangled forest of Cambodia. It had been built long ago, the locals told him, by a vanished race of giant gods. "Grander than anything left by Greece or Rome," Mouhot said about the lost city of Angkor, with its more than 100 temples and remarkable carvings.
This work was begun in 802 not by giant gods but by Jayavarman II, a Khmer king who chose to build his capital here. (Angkor means "city" in the Khmer language.) Within two centuries perhaps a million people lived here. The city stretched across the plain for 100 square miles.
The 12th-century temple was erected around the same time as the Cathedral
of Notre Dame in Paris and it occupies the same acreage as the Forbidden
City in Beijing. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
The finest temple here, and probably the largest religious monument ever built, is the 500-acre Angkor Wat. Built in the early 12th century by Suryavarman II, it is considered the peak of classical Khmer architecture and art. It is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver -- as well as to his human embodiment in Suryavarman II, who was considered a god-king.
Angkor Wat consists of rectangular enclosures that frame a "temple mountain" designed with an allegorical meaning. The high central sanctuary symbolically corresponds to Mount Meru, the sacred mountain where Hindu gods dwell at the center of the universe. Meru's five peaks are represented by the temple's five towers. The surrounding walls stand for mountains at the fringe of the world, and the moat is the ocean farther out. The central towers are reachable by 12 stairways that suggest the steep slopes of Mount Meru.
The towers are designed to look like sprouting lotus buds, and at one time they may have been covered in gold. Throughout the temple complex, carvings and sculptures depict gods, battle scenes, dancers, events in Hindu mythology, and other images. Working in sandstone, a fairly soft material, made the construction project easier for the 5,000 artisans and 50,000 laborers who built the temple over a period of some three decades.
Creating a mystic link with the eternal movement of the heavens that revolve around the temple, the buildings and statues of Angkor Wat line up with the solar equinoxes and solstices.
The walls of the outer gallery are covered in bas-relief carvings that reach more than six feet high and are said to be the longest continuous bas-reliefs in the world. The carved scenes tell stories from Hindu religious epics -- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata -- and narrate Vishnu's adventures. Supposedly, the bevies of apsaras, or heavenly dancers, who adorn the temple were carved using the king's own bare-breasted harem as models. The women's exotic hairstyles and jeweled collars illustrate high fashion as it was practiced in the area nine centuries ago.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding city thrived until 1431, when invaders from Siam (present-day Thailand) arrived. Badly damaged, Angkor was soon abandoned. But the forest itself proved an even more destructive invader. Vines, creepers, and rampant fig trees strangled the buildings and pushed masonry walls asunder, swallowing up the forgotten city.
Fortunately, Angkor Wat fared better than many other structures, because Buddhist monks arrived with the Siamese invaders and occupied the temple. In the high central tower, once the sacred precincts of the Hindu god Siva, the monks placed a huge figure of Buddha.
After Angkor's rediscovery in the mid-1800s, French and Cambodian archaeologists restored many ruins. But their work was undone in the 1970s, when Angkor was infiltrated by Khmer Rouge guerrillas who looted temples, decapitated sculptures, and sold the spoils on the black market to raise cash for war. In the early 1990s, thieves ran wild through the temples, cutting the heads off the famous apsaras and causing extensive damage. Illicit art dealers acquired many of the treasures from Angkor, and quite a few sculptures later reemerged in western auction houses and private collections.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.