The History of Angkor

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Podcast Transcript

Located in Central Cambodia, north of the great Tonle Sap Lake, lies the former city of Angkor. 

Today, the city is nothing but the ruins of its many temples and structures. However, during its heyday, it was one of the largest cities in the world and the capital of one of the world’s greatest empires. 

Its now, it is considered one of the greatest wonders of the world, attracts millions of visitors, and can be seen from space.

Learn more about Angkor and the Khmer Empire and how they build one of the greatest cities in the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand Angkor, we first have to understand why and who built it, and to do that, we need to understand what was happening in Southeast Asia in the 9th Century. 

In particular, we need to understand that one person is key to the entire story of Angkor, Jayavarman II. 

Jayavarman II is a key figure in the entire history of Southeast Asia. There are certain people who are responsible for the creation of major empires. Augustus, Alexander the Great, and Qin Shi Huang are such people. 

Jayavarman II probably belongs on that list as well. 

Much of what we know of Jayavarman II comes from inscriptions about him written well after his death in temples in modern-day Thailand. 

One of the inscriptions simply tells of how Jayavarman II broke with “Java,” unified the people around what is modern-day Cambodia, and established what we know today as the Khmer Empire. 

The reference to “Java” has been debated by historians for years. Most historians tend to think it refers to the physical island of Java in Indonesia and probably was a reference to the Srivijaya Emprie, which ruled Java at the time. 

Jayavarman II’s reign is usually said to have begun in the year 802. I will probably do a future episode on the Khmer Empire, but briefly, the Khmer Empire ruled all of what is Cambodia today, as well as much of Laos, inland parts of Vietnam, and eastern parts of Thailand. 

For the purpose of this episode, one of the salient facts you should know is that the Khmer Empire was overwhelmingly Hindu. 

At the time, most of Southeast Asia was still Hindu. As we’ll see in a bit, Buddhism didn’t arrive in this part of the world until several centuries later. 

Jayavarman II was crowned at Mount Kulen, which is just northeast of the city of Siem Reap, which is the modern-day entrance to Angkor. It was there that he declared himself a Devaraja or a universal monarch. 

In addition to being crowned nearby, he also established the city of Ha-ri-har-a-laya on the banks of Tonle Sap, which was to be his new capital. 

Here, I should explain what exactly Tonle Sap is. If you look at a map of Cambodia, you will find a very large lake in the middle of the country. This is Tonle Sap. 

The lake is actually just a widening of the Mekong River. Over the course of a year, the lake can rise and fall by as much as 10 meters or 33 feet. Today, there are entire floating communities that live on Tonle Sap and change their community location based on the season and the water levels. 

Tonle Sap is important to the story because it served as an important source of water, food, and transportation for the Khmer Empire. 

Jayavarman II died in 850, and he was succeeded by a series of universal monarchs who ruled the empire and launched large construction projects. 

King Yasovarman ascended to the throne in 889 and built a new capital city near Hariharalaya called Ya-sod-hara-pura in Sanskrit. 

In the Khmer language, this new capital simply became known as Angkor, which is the Khmer word for capital. Angkor was to remain the capital of the Khmer Empire for the next several centuries. 

Part of the construction of Angkor was the creation of an enormous reservoir which Tonle Sap fed. 

Over the next 300 years, Angkor grew and became home to many elaborate construction projects and temples. 

I should note that Angkor was very different from most cities from this time period or any other. What separated Angkor was the fact that it was very spread out. The population density was very low, so low that to this day, there are differing definitions as to where the boundaries of Angkor actually are. 

Numerous roads, canals, reservoirs, and dams came to define Angkor. The city is called a hydraulic city because its water system is so extensive and advanced. 

In 1113, King Suryavarman II rose to power. His ascension was extremely dramatic and included personally killing his rival in combat, supposedly by jumping onto his war elephant. 

Having taken the throne, Suryavarman II set out to build what was to be the greatest temple in all of Angkor. It was to be an enormous structure dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, and it would serve as his personal mausoleum. 

Today, we know this temple as Angkor Wat. 

Here, I should address some confusion regarding Angkor and Angkor Wat. The two terms are often used interchangeably, even though they represent two totally different things. 

Angkor refers to the entire complex, which spans an area of almost 1,000 square kilometers or 390 square miles, and as I noted before, Angkor is just Khmer for capital. The word “wat” simply means “temple.”

So, Angkor Wat is just one particular building in the Angkor Complex. To be sure, it is the largest and most famous building, but it is only one part of it. 

Angkor Wat covers about 1.6 million square meters or 402 acres. It is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest religious structure in the world today by area. 

The moat surrounding the temple is five kilometers long, and the wall around the structure is 3.6 kilometers long. There are five towers in the middle of the temple arranged like the dots on the side of a die.

Inside, there are many walkways with walls covered in bas-relief carvings that show scenes from Hindu mythology and also from the life of Suryavarman. 

Oddly enough, very soon after the completion of Angkor Wat and the death of Suryavarman II in 1150, the Khmer Empire underwent a profound religious transformation from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. By the end of the 12th century, just a few decades after it was built, Angkor Wat had become a Buddhist temple. 

With the death of Suryavarman, the empire went into a period of decline with warring factions. The man who brought order back to the empire was Jayavarman VII.

Jayavarman VII created a new core walled capital city within the overall Angkor complex. This became known as Angkor Thom. 

For those of you who’ve been there, you know that Angkor Thom is on par with Angkor Wat in terms of overall splendor. 

Angkor Thom, unlike all previous construction projects at Angkor, was explicitly Buddhist. The primary temple at Angkor Thom is known as Bayon, which is known for its large stone faces. It is thought that the stone faces might be based on Jayavarman VII. 

Jayavarman VII also constructed the Ta Prohm temple, which has in recent years been dubbed the Tomb Raider Temple because it was used in the 2001 film starring Angelina Jolie.

After the death of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire reverted back to Hinduism. 

A period of decline began in the Khmer Empire that continued until 1431, when Angkor was sacked by invaders from Thailand. 

The religious upheavals, in addition to the invasions, led to neglect of the infrastructure in Angkor, which hurt the water system and eventually resulted in much of the population leaving Angkor completely. 

The seat of power in Cambodia shifted from Angkor to what is now the country’s current capital, Phnom Phen, which is downstream from Tonle Sap on the Mekong River. 

Angkor slowly began to be reclaimed by the jungle. 

I should note that given the sheer size of Angkor by area, it was perhaps the largest city in the world up until that point, it was never totally abandoned. People still lived there, and it didn’t disappear, but the temples weren’t repaired, nor was upkeep done on them. 

Many of the buildings simply became covered with plants and overgrowth. 

By the collapse of Angkor, perhaps only a few envoys from neighboring kingdoms, such as in Thailand, Vietnam, or China, probably ever saw Angkor. 

The first person from outside of Asia to ever witness Angkor was a Portuguese priest named António da Madalena, who did so in 1586. 

The abandonment of Angkor continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, with the temples mostly just being ignored but not quite forgotten and with forest growth covering more and more of the site.

In the 1860s, several notable European travelers came to Cambodia, which was at this time a French colony. 

What really brought Angkor to the attention of the rest of the world were works written by academics such as Louis Delaporte and Adolf Bastian.

From 1907 to 1970, the French School of the Far East worked on restoring, repairing, and protecting the many historic structures in Angkor. 

The work was eventually halted when the Khmer Rouge came to power. The story of the Khmer Rouge will be covered in a future episode, but suffice it to say they were anti-academics, anti-foreigners, and also anti-the-past. 

They managed to close off Angkor for almost three decades as even after their control of the country ended, they held out in the area around Angkor. 

While the Khmer Rouge didn’t intentionally damage any structures, they did open the door for art thieves to enter the country from Thailand in the 1980s, who systematically took the heads off a great number of statues.

When the Khmer Rouge finally gave up their fight, it opened up the country to tourism, and the main attraction of Angkor. 

Tourism has exploded over the last few decades and today over two million people per year visit Angkor. This has caused an explosion in hotel construction in the nearby city of Siem Reap and there are concerns that all the tourism and the rise in population might deplete the water table, which could cause land around many temples to sink, causing them serious damage. 

In 1992, the entire Angkor complex was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in Cambodia. 

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Angkor is probably the greatest historical site you can visit in Southeast Asia. If you visit, I highly recommend you give yourself several days. In addition to the core sites, there are many other temples scattered across the region around Angkor. 

Angkor is quite large and can be seen from space. You can check this out yourself on Google Earth by viewing the area from the altitude of the International Space Station. Once you know what to be on the lookout for, the large rectangle is very obvious. 

The history of Angkor mirrors the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire. Its temples, especially Angkor Wat, remain enduring symbols of Cambodia’s past, drawing global attention to the country’s history and culture.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

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Super interesting!

This is my first time ever reviewing a podcast, but I have been blown away by this one. Little pocket-sized deep dives on diverse and fascinating topics, every single episode has kept my interest and taught me something new. Without a doubt, my favorite podcast I’ve come across lately.

Thanks, MDF! My father always said you should learn something new every day, and I created the podcast to make sure everyone can schedule learning something into their day quickly and easily. 

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