Historical overview

Seat of the Khmer Empire

The Angkorian period may be said to have begun shortly after 800 A.D., when the Khmer King Jayavarman II announced the independence of Kambujadesa (Cambodia) from Java and established his capital of Hariharalaya (now known as "Roluos") at the northern end of Tonle Sap. Through a program of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, he achieved a unification of the country bordered by China (to the north), Champa (now Central Vietnam, to the east), the ocean (to the south) and a place identified by a stone inscription as "the land of cardamoms and mangoes" (to the west). In 802 Jayavarman articulated his new status by declaring himself "universal monarch" (chakravartin), and, in a move that was to be imitated by his successors and that linked him to the cult of Siva, taking on the epithet of "god-king" (devaraja). Before Jayavarman, Cambodia had consisted in a number of politically independent principalities collectively known to the Chinese by the names Funan and Chenla.

In 889 CE, Yasovarman I ascended to the throne. A great king and an accomplished builder, he was celebrated by one inscription as "a lion-man; he tore the enemy with the claws of his grandeur; his teeth were his policies; his eyes were the Veda." Near the old capital of Hariharalaya, Yasovarman constructed a new city called Yasodharapura. In the tradition of his predecessors, he constructed also a massive reservoir called a baray. The significance of such reservoirs has been debated by modern scholars, some of whom have seen in them a means of irrigating rice fields, and others of whom have regarded them as religiously charged symbols of the great mythological oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. The mountain, in turn, was represented by an elevated temple, in which the "god-king" was represented by a lingam. In accordance with this cosmic symbolism, Yasovarman built his central temple on a low hill known as Phnom Bakheng, surrounding it with a moat fed from the baray. He also built numerous other Hindu temples and ashramas, or retreats for ascetics.
Over the next 300 years, between 900 and 1200, the Khmer empire produced some of the world's most magnificent architectural masterpieces in the area known as Angkor. Most are concentrated in an area approximately 15 miles east to west and 5 miles north to south, although the Angkor Archaeological Park which administers the area includes sites as far away as Kbal Spean, about 30 miles to the north. Some 72 major temples or other buildings are found within this area, and the remains of several hundred additional minor temple sites are scattered throughout the landscape beyond. Because of the dispersed, low-density nature of the medieval Khmer settlement pattern, Angkor lacks a formal boundary and its extent is therefore difficult to determine. However, a specific area of at least 1,000 km² (386 square miles) beyond the major temples is defined by a complex system of infrastructure including roads and canals that indicate a high degree of connectivity and functional integration with the urban core. In terms of spatial extent (although not in terms of population) this makes it the largest urban agglomeration in human history prior to the Industrial Revolution, easily surpassing the nearest claim, that of the Maya city of Tikal. In fact, in terms of its urban sprawl, medieval Angkor even approaches the size of modern Los Angeles.

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Earthwalkers’ · Sala Kanseng Village · Sangkat No. 2 · Siem Reap ·
Photogallery: TIM CROCKATT