Our time on this earth is but a speck to the time the mountains and oceans have been here, and not even a speck when you think about the age of the galaxies and the universe. Some estimate them to be billions of years, while others say, “but what is time?” But I want to talk about the ancients, right now. Our very distant relatives. These guys didn’t roam long ago, in relation to the age of the earth or the universe, but they certainly were around much longer before we came into the picture. They built the ancient cities, temples and roads. The ones we visit and are still in awe of. I recently visited Angkor Wat, the 7th wonder of the world and its neighbouring brother, Angkor Thom. These magnificent cities and temples were built by tens of thousands of hands, without the machines and technology that we have access to today. I found these two of great interest. There were many other incredible sites in the area, but I found these two very special. And it’s not what you think. It’s not their popularity, size or the architectural feats they were. What really peaked my interest was their proximity. Also that one was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and the other to Buddha. Why would these two incredible cities been built a stone’s throw away, part of the same empire and yet with unique devotions?
Construction of Angkor Wat began in the early 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire. It was to be his state temple and eventual mausoleum. He broke from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. The site was built on an area spanning 162.6 hectares (1,626,000 meters squared; 402 acres). The temple took over 30 years to build. It has became a symbol of Cambodia appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. It also still plays an important religious role in Cambodia. Although Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
One of the first Western visitors to the site was António da Madalena, a Portuguese friar who visited in 1586 and said that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” In the mid-19th century, the temple was effectively rediscovered by the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot, who popularised the site in the West through the publication of travel notes, in which he wrote:
“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
Meaning literally “Great City”, Angkor Thom was the most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire. At it’s height it is believed to have sustained a population of 80,000 to 150,000 people. The city was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire in the late 12th century, and became the centre of his massive building program. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride. The architecture, the location, and the fact that it was once a great and had now fallen into disrepair, and mostly abandoned is incredibly interesting.
Built in the Bayon style, manifested in the large scale of the construction, as well as the widespread use of laterite, in the face-towers at each of the entrances to the city and in the naga-carrying giant figures which accompany each of the towers.
As most cities do, they eventually fall to a greater foe. The Ayutthaya Kingdom, led by King Borommarachathirat II, sacked Angkor Thom, forcing the Khmers under Ponhea Yat to relocate their capital southeast to Phnom Penh.
What fascinated me was that these two incredible cities were just 3.4 kilometres away from each other. I don’t know if you see a trend here, but is this like when two gas stations are across the street to compete, with hopes of promoting their business? Or when two churches face each other. These massive cities and temples took decades to build. A highway connect the cities, still well intact to this day and used to shuttle tourists between the two. Once a rivalry, the proximity of the two cities has helped bring in millions of dollars of revenue to Siem Reap and its locals.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
We have much to learn from the ancients. I am always in awe when I get the opportunity to visit places like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. I think of how at one time these centres were bustling with activity. The hundreds of thousands of residents must have thought they were at the centre of the world, and their kingdom and city would last forever. But eventually it fell. When I look at the state of Cambodia now it brings even greater fascination. How do a people go from such greatness to such a struggle? Visiting these types of places also reminds me that my place in the world is but so small, my time is limited and others who came before me had incredible vision and passion. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s an amazing gift that we can look back and learn from these examples. You can’t help but think, how good you’ve got it, and yet so much to learn. Hopefully we can continue to learn from the ancient peoples and the magnificent cities, temples and roads they built that are now abandoned.