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Angkor Civilization: The Ancient Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia

A Civilization Based on Water Control


East Gate at Angkor Thom

The East gate of Angkor Thom featuring a giant face at the famous temple area of Angkor Archeological Park on December 5, 2008 in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ian Walton / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Oblique aerial view of remnant Angkorian urban features. Classic "Village Temple" Configuration, Angkor Wat (Cambodia)

Courtesy Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (c) 2007
Bayon Temple, Late 12th Century, King Jayavarman VII

Bayon Temple, Late 12th Century, King Jayavarman VII

Courtesy Mary Beth Day

The Angkor Civilization (or Khmer Empire) is the name given to an important civilization of southeast Asia, including all of Cambodia and southeastern Thailand and northern Vietnam, with its classic period dated roughly between 800 to 1300 AD. It is also the name of one of the medieval Khmer capital cities, containing some of the most spectacular temples in the world, such as Angkor Wat.

The ancestors of the Angkor civilization are thought to have migrated into Cambodia along the Mekong River during the 3rd millennium BC. Their original center, established by 1000 BC, was located on the shore of large lake called Tonle Sap, but a truly sophisticated (and enormous) irrigation system allowed the spread of the civilization into the countryside away from the lake.

Angkor (Khmer) Society

During the classic period, the Khmer society was a cosmopolitan blend of Pali and Sanskrit rituals resulting from a fusion of Hindu and High Buddhist belief systems, probably the effects of Cambodia's role in the extensive trade system connecting Rome, India and China during the last few centuries BC. This fusion served as both the religious core of the society and as the political and economic basis on which the empire was built.

The Khmer society was led by an extensive court system with both religious and secular nobles, artisans, fishermen and rice farmers, soldiers, and elephant keepers: Angkor was protected by an army using elephants. The elites collected and redistributed taxes, and temple inscriptions attest to a detailed barter system. A wide range of commodities were traded between Khmer cities and China, including rare woods, elephant tusks, cardamom and other spices, wax, gold, silver and silk. Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) porcelain has been found at Angkor: Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) white wares such as Qingai boxes have been identified at several Angkor centers.

The Khmer documented their religious and political tenets in Sanskrit inscribed on stele and on temple walls throughout the empire. Bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, Bayon and Banteay Chhmar describe great military expeditions to neighboring polities using elephants and horses, chariots and war canoes, although there doesn't seem to have been a standing army.

The end of Angkor came in the mid-14th century, and was partly brought about by a change in religious belief in the region, from Hinduism and High Buddhism to more democratic Buddhist practices. At the same, an environmental collapse is seen by some scholars as having a role in the disappearance of Angkor.

Road Systems among the Khmer

The immense Khmer empire was united by a series of roads, comprised of six main arteries extending out of Angkor for a total of ~1,000 kilometers (~620 miles). Secondary roads and causeways served local traffic in and around the Khmer cities. The roads which interconnected Angkor and Phimai, Vat Phu, Preah Khan, Sambor Prei Kuk and Sdok Kaka Thom (as plotted by the Living Angkor Road Project) were fairly straight, and constructed of earth piled from either side of the route in long flat strips. The road surfaces were up to 10 meters (~33 feet) wide and in some places were raised to as much as 5-6 m (16-20 ft) above the ground.

Angkor, The Hydraulic City

Recent work conducted at Angkor by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) used advanced radar remote sensing applications to map the city and its environs. The project identified the urban complex of about 200-400 square kilometers, surrounded by a vast agricultural complex of farmlands, local villages, temples and ponds, all connected by a web of earthen-walled canals.

The GAP newly identified at least 74 structures as possible temples. The results of the survey suggest that the city of Angkor, including the temples, agricultural fields, residences (or occupation mounds), and hydraulic network, covered an area of nearly 3,000 square kilometers over the length of its occupation, making Angkor the largest low-density pre-industrial city on earth.

Because of the enormous aerial spread of the city, and the clear emphasis on water catchment, storage and redistribution, members of the GAP call Angkor a 'hydraulic city', in that villages within the greater Angkor area were set up with local temples, each surrounded by a shallow moat and traversed by earthen causeways. Large canals connected cities and rice fields, acting both as irrigation and roadway.

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