Uncovering Angkor

The story of the "rediscovery" of Angkor is a misnomer; the temples were never lost. They have always been known and used by Cambodians. Nonetheless, the tale is like something from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, the 19th-century English author of King Solomon's Mines and other adventure stories.

Haggard's stories may have been set in Africa, but they evocatively parallel what was happening in Asia at the time he was writing. French colonists and missionaries in Cambodia in the early and mid-19th century heard stories from locals of a lost city deep in the jungle. Most shrugged off the stories as myth, but some adventurers, fired by romantic visions of treasure, hacked their way through the jungle and indeed found ruins, although they could make nothing of these strange piles of stone. It was left to a French botanist, Henri Mouhot, to begin serious investigation of the ruins. Mouhot traveled to Bangkok in 1858 with support from the British Royal Geographic Society. His original intention was to collect samples of the region's unique flora and insects. He ended up going much farther afield than Bangkok—supposedly, a French missionary he met in Battambang told him of the lost city, and he was guided to the site via Tonle Sap in 1861. Mouhot filled many journals with impressions and sketches of the ruins and his notes were published in 1863, bringing the city back onto the world's radar.

Mouhot could only wonder at what type of race created such massive structures—he didn't seem to think that present-day Cambodians could have done it—but subsequent intensive international research soon revealed that Angkor had been the capital of the mighty Khmer Empire for more than three centuries, from its founding around AD 880 to the early 13th century, when it fell into decline in the shadow of a growing neighboring power, Siam.

Research also revealed that Angkor was the scene of one of the world's greatest feats of irrigation technology: thousands of experts, workers, and slaves constructed a system of reservoirs and canals to serve a city larger than medieval London or Paris. They built two huge storage basins, the Eastern and Western Barays, each covering about 17 square km (6½ square miles). Today only the Western Baray contains water, but both give an indelible impression of the sheer size of the original enterprise.

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