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Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire


Angkor picture
Angkor picture

Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire from the early 9th century to the mid-15th century in what is now Cambodia. The name is also used in reference to the empire itself.

As the religious, cultural, and administrative center of a prosperous and sophisticated kingdom, Angkor grew to be one of the world’s largest cities in the late 12th century (when it was known as Angkor Thum), comprising an estimated one million residents. Angkor’s kings erected magnificent temple complexes and constructed an intricate network of canals, moats, and barays (reservoirs). Today Angkor is recognized as one of the world’s most valuable cultural sites and as a national symbol of Cambodia. In 1992 Angkor was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site covers some 400 sq km (200 sq mi).

The historic site of Angkor is located 320 km (200 mi) north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s present capital, in the northwestern part of the country. It occupies a fertile plain that is bordered by the Kulen Mountains on the north and the Tônlé Sap (Great Lake) on the south. The Siĕmréab River, which drains the plain, winds through Angkor. The provincial capital of Siĕmréab lies 6 km (4 mi) south of the ruins and serves as the arrival and departure point for visiting Angkor.

The name Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit word nagara (meaning “city”) and is pronounced Nokor or Ongkor in Khmer and Angkor in English. The state temple of the first city of Angkor was Phnom Bakheng, a temple on a hill whose structure symbolizes the mountain that stands at the center of the world according to Hindu cosmology. Successive kings built temples devoted to various Hindu and Buddhist deities, and, as Angkor expanded, new population centers grew up around the temples that served as social, economic, religious, and political centers. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and the temples within Angkor Thum are the main temple complexes at Angkor. To the north, east, and west of these central structures lie three vast barays, linked by canals throughout the central zone.

The temples and barays of this central area make up Angkor National Park, which was established in 1925 by the French, who had administrative jurisdiction over Cambodia at that time. The park includes more than 40 monuments open to visitors.

Angkor's expansion


Angkor Vat Temple
Angkor Vat Temple

In 802 ad a Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) prince known as Jayavarman II consolidated several autonomous principalities in the Angkor region, founding the Khmer Empire and initiating the Angkor period. He moved his capital several times before settling at Hariharalaya (present-day Phumĭ Rôluŏs), 12 km (7.5 mi) southeast of Siĕmréab. At the end of the 9th century, Yasovarman I moved the capital to Angkor and named it Yasodharapura, after himself. Angkor remained the center of the Khmer Empire for most of the next 500 years.

The successors of Jayavarman II created a tradition of large-scale construction that united political power, territorial expansion, and religious belief. Khmer culture assimilated several religious traditions: Hinduism and Buddhism, which arrived from India beginning around the 2nd century ad, and animism, a belief in spiritual forces that was practiced universally in Southeast Asia before the Indian religions appeared. Although all three forms of worship were sometimes practiced simultaneously during the Angkor period, the preferred religion of the ruling king predominated. Each of the Cambodian monarchs identified or associated himself with a particular god. Early kings favored the worship of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, whereas in the late 12th century the kings’ religious preferences shifted to Mahayana Buddhism. Each king built a state temple dedicated to his patron divinity to solidify his symbolic relationship with that god. Each also constructed at least one temple dedicated to his ancestors to ensure the continuation of the royal line.

Some kings further emphasized their power by constructing barays to symbolize their glory. The largest of these reservoirs, the West Baray, is 8 km (5 mi) long and 2.3 km (1.4 mi) wide. Historians have long theorized that the barays and canals of Angkor were part of a centralized water system used for large-scale irrigation. Some believe the system allowed the people living on Angkor’s fertile plain to raise as many as three crops of rice a year, supporting a large population and thus providing a sufficient tax base to fund the kings’ prolific construction. However, there is little archaeological or historical evidence to support this theory, so the purpose of the waterways remains a subject of debate.

Temple of Angkor
Temple of Angkor

The Khmers first followed the Indian architectural tradition of building all royal and religious structures of wood. Wood was perishable, however, and by the 9th century brick replaced it as the main building material for temples. Later Khmer builders added stucco and sandstone to some areas for decoration. By the 10th century, sandstone, quarried from the Kulen hills, replaced brick as the primary building material for religious structures. Its fine-grained texture was particularly suitable for carving, permitting the sharp rendering seen on reliefs at Angkor Wat. Within 200 years the source of high-quality sandstone had been depleted. It was replaced by a softer stone that produced deeper but less sharp carving, exemplified on the reliefs at the Bayon temple in Angkor Thum. "Cambodia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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