The Pyramids of Giza, Macchu Pichu, and the Great Wall of China are all ancient treasures. But then there’s Angkor Wat. This holy site is one of the most enigmatic locations on the face of the planet. We’re going to try and unlock the secrets behind this ancient mystery.
Officially Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction, Angkor Wat is a stunning complex of temples, and its staggering beauty is matched by an even richer history. To this day, archeologists are continuing to unearth its secrets…
Numbers Don’t Lie
The size of Angkor Wat clearly illustrates just how impressive this ancient structure is. These marvelous ruins cover over 248 square miles. However, tourists often miss this key detail. As a result, many visitors only end up visiting a handful of the most iconic temples and miss out on so much of the complex. Originally, the temples, city, and palace were surrounded by a protective wall, which sadly, collapsed over time. But when exactly was Angkor Wat created in the first place?
Making Of A Masterpiece
Archeologists have developed a vivid understanding of how Angkor Wat was constructed. The largest religious monument on the planet was built somewhere between 1113 and 1150 AD and the measures that were taken to realize this incredible vision are absolutely staggering, to say the least. Over 5 million tons of sandstone were used, formed into Khmer bricks and glued together using a vegetable mix instead of mortar. However, what made this architectural marvel even more impressive was what wasn’t used to build it…
As it was built in the 12th Century, the Khmer people of the time were limited to what resources they could use and much manual labor was required. This civilization simply lacked the help of machinery that modern-day builders are used to having. It is believed that in total, over 300,000 workers and 1,000 elephants worked over the course of 35 years to complete the stunning complex. But what exactly was the site used for during the heyday of its civilization?
A Royal Operation
Although the purpose of Angkor Wat has gradually evolved over time, it has always maintained a significant spiritual quality for the people who lived in and around it. Khmer King Suryavarman II commissioned the construction of the site to be his official state temple. It was originally built as a Hindu temple where followers served the god Vishnu. However, the King was considered almost like holy figure and upon his death, it became his mausoleum. This wouldn’t be the end of the changes…
Let’s Get Spiritual
What made Angkor Wat unique was that it was a holy site for the God Vishnu. Before then, temples were primarily built to worship another God, Shiva. Amazingly, the temple dedicated to Vishnu is only preserved one on the complex and remains a sacred site to this day. Towards the end of the 13th century, the philosophy of Angkor Wat changed from Hinduism to Buddhism. Today, it is one of the holiest sites in Buddhism. However, there are some unique quirks about the temple…
Stranger Than Fiction
There are some peculiar details about Angkor Wat that have perplexed researchers for many years. For example, the complex faces the west, which is usually a Hindu symbol for death. This strange shift in direction has been a source of major debate amongst archeologists and historians. One mainstream explanation is that Vishnu is considered the Supreme God Head. As all other temples face east in the direction of their master, it makes sense for Vishnu to face west.
Every Image Tells A Story
One thing that makes Angkor Wat so fascinating is its storytelling quality. The complex is laden with sculpted reliefs that tell eight of the most important stories in Hinduism, including The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which tells the story of the beginning of time. Another interesting detail about these reliefs is that they read counterclockwise, a strong indication that the temple was originally used for funeral purposes. It’s not just the insides of the complex that are a sight for sore eyes…
If you look at the entirety of Angkor Wat from above, you can see just how intricate the design actually is. The wall separates the temple from the surrounding moat that protects it from outsiders. The complex consists of a main sanctuary, three galleries, and five towers. These towers are symbolic of the five peaks surrounding Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu and Buddhist gods. However, there is something else that the complex is supposed to represent…
Not only is the architecture of Angkor Wat supposed to symbolize Mount Meru, it is also supposed to be an axis-mundi. This means that the king and the architects intended the temple to be a midway point between earth and the spiritual realm – like a gateway to heaven. From Suryavarman II’s point of view, this meant that visitors would consider Angkor Wat to be the center of the universe. As a result, the architects applied a touch of sheer ingenuity to the design…
Microcosm Of The Universe
In Hinduism and Buddhism, a mandala is a visual representation of the universe. One of the fundamental rules of many eastern houses of worship is that they must be designed to be in sync with the universe in the same way that a mandala is. Therefore, Angkor Wat perfectly alines with the planets. Visitors believed that if the temple was cosmically connected, it would be the epicenter of everything that was dear to the civilization, such as religion, politics, and astronomy.
It would take a couple of centuries before the Western world had its first glimpse of Angkor Wat. The first to discover the incredible structure was a Portuguese monk by the name of Antonio da Madalena. He arrived at the site in 1586 and three years later, he documented his experiences and shared them with historian Diogo do Couto. He tried to renovate Angkor Wat but ultimately failed. However, Antonio wasn’t the first non-native to see the holy site…
A Chinese emissary named Zhou Daguan had already stepped foot in Angkor Wat long before Antonio de Madalena. He arrived in 1296 and after spending a year in the region, wrote down his experiences. The book, which was written a few years later, is the earliest written account of life in Angkor Wat, eventually being translated into English. Peter Harris had the translation published under the title A Record of Cambodia. Once again, rumors about the holy site went quiet, for a while at least…
Legend Has It…
There are many legends surrounding the nature in which Angkor Wat came to be. One suggests that the Hindu deity Indra ordered the construction of the site as he wanted a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea to live in. However, Zhou Daguan wrote in his works that he had spoken with locals who claimed that a holy being had appeared out of nowhere and created the monument overnight. For a while, researchers only had myths and legends as information…
The Forgotten Temple
For the next few hundred years, Angkor Wat became nothing more than a legend. Buddhist monks would often pass through the ruins, unaware of its origins or significance to their own history. They were unable to decipher the unkept reliefs and structures that were now laden with vines and greenery. However, one Frenchman was eventually told about this unknown, lost treasure and was determined to seek it out. But was he successful in finding this mysterious location?
Finally, 1860 came around, and a French explorer by the name of Henri Mouhot discovered the site, fully aware of what he was looking for. Tragically, the explorer died from a fever a year later during his stay in Laos. However, his discovery was not in vain, and the world learned about Angkor Wat through his posthumous works. His book, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam, was the go-to book for those who wanted to see the ancient ruins and is still a significant text to this day.
In his book, Mouhot compared the site to other places he had visited in his lifetime. “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,” he wrote. “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.” There was no denying how impressed he was with this place.
Casualties Of War
For years, Cambodia was subject to many battles, primarily because of the Khmer Rouge – an era of communism in Cambodia that stretched nearly half a century. Sadly, Angkor Wat fell victim, on numerous occasions, to the crossfire during the Cambodian conflicts. It was believed that shells had hit temples and caused serious damage to the holy monument. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the darkest time in Angkor Wat’s relatively peaceful history. But what happened next?
Seeds Of Restoration
After years of damage from both war and natural causes, people finally started to realize the importance of this ancient landmark. In 1908, the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) launched the Conservation d’Angkor (Angkor Conservancy), which sought to reconstruct and conserve the site. Minor efforts to conserve site continued for the next 60 years until major restoration began in the 70s. Despite political tensions during the Khmer Rouge, Angkor Wat would eventually become a fully active temple as well as a tourist attraction by the 90s.
Desperate Need Of Protection
The full restoration was taken to the next level when Angkor Wat became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. After decades of poor security regulations, many parts of the complex were either directly or indirectly damaged. There were many cases of heads being decapitated from the statues of gods, paving the way for a lucrative illegal trade. Although the site was put on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, it was eventually removed in 2004. Here’s one reason why…
Temple Of Business
Sok Kong Important Export Company, better known as Sokimex, is a private Cambodian company that has officially run Angkor Wat since 1990. The company is heavily involved in a variety of industries such as petroleum distribution, hotel management and even has an airline – Sarika Air Services. Sokimex essentially rented the site from the Cambodian government and due to its huge success in tourism has become one of the biggest companies in Cambodia. However, there is something seriously wrong at play here…
Although Angkor Wat is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting over two million visitors per year, only 28% of ticket sales are given back to the temple complex. As a result, the site requires much-needed funding from foreign aid. In order to address another area of the problem – the severe damage caused by the excessive amount of visitors, limits are being enforced based on the number of people that can be at the site at any given time.
Despite these potential regulations, an incredible 50% of international tourists visit Cambodia each year because of Angkor Wat. Since 1850, Cambodians have demonstrated their sheer pride in the monument after using it as the main emblem of the national flag. Apart from Afghanistan, it is the only country that has its most famous monument on its flag. But the national pride in the site doesn’t stop there, as it can also be found on many versions of Cambodia’s currency – the riel.
One of the darkest times in American history came in the 60s, when the Vietnam War was in full effect. However, Jacqueline Kennedy put everything on the line when she went to Angkor Wat during this violent time. In her words, it was a “lifelong dream” to see the site. In the image on the right, you can see Jackie walking alongside archeologist Bernard Philippe Groslier as they approach the Bayon Temple. But this wasn’t the only time that Angkor Wat had a huge cultural impact on someone…
Did you know that Angkor Wat wasn’t originally called Angkor Wat? As the first people to create the temple complex only understood Sanskrit and the local version of the language, they referred to the site as Vrah Visnuloka, or Brah Bisnulok. This translates into “sacred dwelling of Vishnu,” which makes perfect sense. However, Angkor Wat, which is the Khmer name, means “Temple City,” with Angkor meaning “city” (coming from the Sanskrit word “nagara”) and Wat meaning “temple grounds.”
Despite its growing reputation as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world – Angkor Wat had a personal setback. On July 7, the results of a vote to determine the New Seven Wonders of the World were announced. Although the Cambodian site made the shortlist, it narrowly missed out on the final list. The seven winners consisted of The Great Wall of China, Petra, Christ The Redeemer, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal.
In recent times, Australian researchers carried out a study called the Great Angkor Project and made some fascinating discoveries. After laser scanning and excavations, the team discovered that the temple was much bigger than they originally anticipated. They also found a unique structure that was unidentifiable. The structure was described as patterned and having “rectilinear spirals.” The team was unable to determine the purpose of the structure or what it actually was, but that wasn’t all that they found…
The Hidden Towers
Members of the Great Angkor Project also unearthed several towers on the west side of the complex. They were buried, but the reason remains unclear. One theory is that those who originally built the structure used those towers as an interim shrine. Then, once the construction was complete, they had their perfected house of workship. As a result, they took the previously used towers and gave them a burial. However, it probably wasn’t ritualistic, as cremation is generally common practice.
Angkor Wat has actually been used in many avenues of pop culture. This image, for example, is from when Angelina Jolie portrayed archeologist Lara Croft in the movie adaption of the hit video game Tomb Raider. The temple Ta Prohm is renowned for its large, thick vines that grip onto the ruins. It was used in one of the movie’s scenes and the most amazing thing was that over the course of a week, Paramount Studios was charged $10,000 per day to shoot there.
Despite all the obstacles that have come its way over hundreds of years, Angkor Wat is still standing, and remains one of the most sought-after landmarks on the planet. Its reputation as a holy monument only seems to improve its reputation and although regulations are being put in place for visitor control, nothing seems to the stop the consistent increase of tourists that want to flock to this enchanted part of the world. There is no place quite like Angkor Wat.