Angkor (1992)

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Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 sq. km, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. 

These include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings. 

Cambodia 1967. Angkor Vat. Scott #174, overprinted on Scott #155. Cambodia 1967. Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom. Scott #175, overprinted on Scott #156.

UNESCO (France) 1993. Archaeological Park at Angkor, Cambodia.

The giant faces carved on the Bayon temple at the Angkor Thum complex represent both the Buddha and King Jayavarman VII (ruled about 1130-1219). Although a Buddhist temple, Angkor Thum was modeled after the great Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat. 

Angkor was the 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. 
  • Cambodia 1954. East Gate at Angkor Thom. 

Cambodia 1954. East Gate at Angkor Thom.

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. 

Cambodia 1998. Prasat Prerup. Cambodia 1998. Prasat Bayon.  Cambodia 1998. Angkor Vat.

Cambodia 1967. Baksei Chamkrong at Rolouoh. Scott #173 overprinted on Scott #153.

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 Phumi Rôluos), 12 km (7.5 mi) southeast of Siemréab. 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. 
  • Cambodia 1967. Baksei Chamkrong at Rolouoh. Scott #173 overprinted on Scott #153.

Early kings favored the worship of the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, visualized today in the Temple Dances, 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.

Cambodia 2004. Temple Dancers of Combodia, representing worshipping of the Hindu Gods Vishnu and Shiva. Stamp #1 of three. Cambodia 2004. Temple Dancers of Combodia, representing worshipping of the Hindu Gods Vishnu and Shiva. Stamp #2 of three. Cambodia 2004. Temple Dancers of Combodia, representing worshipping of the Hindu Gods Vishnu and Shiva. Stamp #3 of three.

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. 

Cambodia 2002. Prasat Payon with carved sandstone sculptures.

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.

Preah Ko, a brick temple at Phumi Rôluos dedicated to Shiva, characterizes the architecture of the early Angkor period. Built by Indravarman I in 879, its tall, square tower rests on a low pedestal and displays fine stucco decoration and sandstone deities in niches. 

Phnom Bakheng, the first of the temples to be built at Angkor, illustrates the symbolic function of many Khmer temples. Yasovarman I erected Phnom Bakheng in the late 9th century on a natural hill overlooking the plain of Angkor. From the crest of the hill, the temple rises in five square tiers. The top tier is crowned with five shrines, one in the center and one on each corner. This structure symbolizes Mount Meru, which according to Hindu belief is the sacred home of the gods at the center of the universe. By extension it also represents the center of the kingdom over which Yasovarman ruled, associating the king with the gods and celebrating his power. 
  • Cambodia 1967. Preah Ko. Scott #172, overprinted on Scott #152.

Cambodia 1967. Preah Ko. Scott #172, overprinted on Scott #152.

The unity of Angkor Wat’s composition, as well as its balance, proportion, and decoration, make it an architectural masterpiece. 

Cambodia 2002. Angkor Vat.

Khmer artistic skill reached its peak with Angkor Wat (“City Temple”), built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II. The king’s workmen labored for more than 30 years to erect the temple dedicated to Vishnu. Like Phnom Bakheng and other temples, Angkor Wat was built to represent Mount Meru. Its three walled areas enclose one another and rise successively in height toward a central spire that towers 55 m (180 ft) above the ground. Virtually every surface is covered with carvings depicting characters and episodes from Hindu legends. The unity of the temple’s composition, as well as its balance, proportion, and decoration, make it an architectural masterpiece. 
  • Cambodia 2002. Angkor Vat. 

The West became aware of Angkor through the published diaries and drawings of Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist who visited Angkor in 1860. France acquired administrative jurisdiction over Cambodia in 1863. After surveying Angkor to determine its extent and layout, the French worked for nearly 75 years, starting in the beginning of the 20th century, to preserve the monuments. In 1972 French archaeologists were forced to leave Cambodia during the upheaval caused by civil war. Damage to Angkor’s monuments during the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communist movement) regime of 1975 to 1979 was minimal. 

In the 1970s most of Angkor’s monuments began to suffer from neglect and looting. An enormous amount of Khmer art was transported across the border into Thailand and then sold on the international market. In the mid-1980s an international appeal for assistance in preserving Angkor inspired organizations from India and Poland to undertake preservation work on Angkor Wat and the Bayon. Offers for assistance increased following the end of the civil war in Cambodia in 1991. In recent years, international foundations and countries, including France, Japan, and Germany, have been helping the Cambodian government conserve sites. Advanced research techniques such as aerial photography, a geographic information system (computer system that records and analyzes geographic data), and satellite-based radar imaging enable archaeologists to construct maps of the ancient city and to detect ruins in inaccessible areas of the jungle.

Sources and links: 

There are no other World Cultural Heritage properties in Cambodia. Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Cambodia Section, for further information on this site. 

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Revised 18 jul 2006  
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