Swallowed by the jungle: Unearthing Angkor Wat

© tawatchaiprakobkit/Getty Images Bayon Temple with giant stone faces, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

By Pat Betteley, Cricket Media

Wading across swamps and cutting through the dense Cambodian jungle was all part of the job for Henri Mouhot (moo-OH) in 1860. He was a French explorer and scientist collecting samples of local plant life for Britain’s Royal Geographical Society. After hearing rumors of a mysterious lost city and monuments hidden deep in the jungle, Henri hired a local guide to take him to the spot. He described the eerie mood at the site. “Hardly a sound echoes but the roar of tigers, the harsh cry of elephants and wild stags,” he said. Among vines and tree roots, the “size of an elephant’s legs” that choked the stone ruins, Henri gazed at the remains of a great city that lie in northern Cambodia, in a region called Angkor (ANG-kor).

Angkor first arose in the early 800s CE (Common Era), and reached its peak in the 1100s and 1200s. It was the home of rulers, as well as a center of culture, business, and religion for the Khmer (kuh-MEHR) Empire. The city was very well planned, with advanced networks for storing and distributing water, grand temples, and galleries with detailed artwork.

© Erik De Castro/Reuters A view of Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat temple is seen during sunrise in Siem Reap December 22, 2012. Erik De Castro/Reuters

Angkor’s largest and most famous temple is Angkor Wat (ANG-kor WAHT). “It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome,” Mouhot reported. The temple was built around 1113 by a powerful Khmer ruler to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu, and took workers 35 years to complete. (The structure has since been used as a Buddhist temple, also.)

Today, Angkor Wat is one of the largest ancient structures in the world. It is actually more of a mini-city than a temple, containing a whole complex of buildings. Archaeologists tell us that Angkor Wat is a magnificent example of the Temple Mountain design, which is deeply tied to the Hindu faith. The large pyramid-shaped temple stands for Mount Meru. (In Hindu mythology, Mount Meru is a golden mountain that stands in the middle of the universe. It is home to the gods.) Each of the five huge towers at Angkor Wat represents one of the mountain’s peaks. A moat around the temple represents the ocean. Lining the walkway that crosses the grounds is a railing carved to look like a snake. Three-dimensional pictures called reliefs are carved on stonewalls in the temple. These reliefs help archaeologists see how Angkor’s ancient residents dressed, how they played games, and even the type of wildlife found in the Cambodian jungle surrounding Angkor (monkeys and peacocks).

© F9photos/Getty Images Cambodia landmark wallpaper - Angkor Wat with reflection in water

“What has become of this powerful people, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” Mouhot wondered. Historians have some theories about what caused Angkor to mysteriously collapse sometime between the 1300s and 1400s. Some believe that Cambodia’s climate changed drastically causing problems with farming and food supply. Others think that the population just grew too large for farms to support them. (It is believed that Angkor supported up to a million people at the peak of the Khmer Empire.) Eventually, in 1431, armies from neighboring Thailand attacked and conquered the weakened Angkor.

In the centuries after the collapse of Angkor, the soft sandstone buildings eroded, enormous trees sprung up among towers and courtyards, and undergrowth and tropical rains destroyed all written records. In the early 1900s, local Cambodian craftsmen and archaeologists became interested in the ancient site. They began to fit fallen rocks back into position like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Bit-by-bit, they repaired temples and bridges, uncovered sunken gardens, and dug out moats. The stone gods were mended, and experts in Khmer and Sanskrit translated many inscriptions engraved on Angkor’s buildings to slowly reveal the mysteries of the Khmer.

© Stephen Studd/Getty Images Cambodia, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, aerial view

In the 1960s, Cambodia was torn by civil war. There was a lot of violence in the country, and no one guarded the monuments at Angkor. People stole statues and carvings from the site, and sold them for large amounts of money. A radical group then took control of Cambodia in 1975. The workers at Angkor were forced to leave, weapons were stored in the monuments, and a bomb hit part of the temple. After the area became more stable in 1992, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) got involved at Angkor, and gave the Cambodian government extra help conserving Angkor’s monuments.

By 2007, new radar images of the Angkor settlement showed that the Angkor site was even larger than experts had thought. The technology revealed the paths of many canals and more than one thousand ponds that showed the Khmer watering system for farming was larger than anyone had seen before.

Meanwhile, Angkor has become a great tourist attraction, with hundreds of thousands of international visitors each year. Buddhist monks wearing bright orange robes visit the temple regularly to pay their respects. Experts warn that the huge numbers of visitors are placing a lot of stress on the monuments and the land. The challenge for the future will be to honor Angkor’s majestic past, and keep it as a treasure for the whole world to value and protect.

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Kids Magazine: Swallowed by the jungle: Unearthing Angkor Wat
Swallowed by the jungle: Unearthing Angkor Wat
Wading across swamps and cutting through the dense Cambodian jungle was all part of the job for Henri Mouhot (moo-OH) in 1860.
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