the ruins of angkor -- 9/14/21

Today's selection -- from Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. The wonders of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom:
"When I arrived in Phnom Penh during Cambodia's dry season in January, I stumbled through the streets in a jet-lagged daze, barely seeing the dense city around me. My mind was on thousand-year-old Khmer temples, their golden facades crumbling into worn stone blocks and imprisoned by thickly braided tree roots. These structures, from the Khmer Empire's capital at Angkor, have been synonymous with the myth of lost cities for at least two centuries. You can even find Lara Croft exploring the legend­ary ruins of the Angkorian temple Ta Prohm in the first Tomb Raider movie. But unlike Roman civilization, Khmer traditions are not lost or dead. The culture that blossomed at Angkor -- a form of Thera­vada Buddhism combined with centralized state power -- continues to shape many aspects of Cambodian life today. Once I'd gotten some sleep, I could see it on the streets of Phnom Penh, the city where Khmer royals fled in the 15th century as Angkor fell apart. Today, the nearly 600-year-old capital's buildings are obscured by tangles of electrical cables instead of tree roots, and fences around modern-day palaces are topped with coiled razor wire so fine it shimmers in the sun like jewels.

"Phnom Penh is joined to Angkor by the Tonle Sap River, which winds north from the modern city before widening into the Tonle Sap Lake that provided the ancient capital's farms with nourishing floodwaters every year. Eleven hundred years ago, Angkor was one of the biggest metropolises in the world, thronging with nearly a mil­lion residents, tourists, and pilgrims. When the 13th-century Chi­nese diplomat Zhou Daguan visited, he described elaborate city walls, breathtaking statues, golden palaces, and vast reservoirs with artificial islands. And yet even as Zhou fought his way through crowded streets to witness the king's sumptuous processions, the city was pregnant with its own demise. The Khmer kings were losing their hold over the empire's provincial capitals abroad, and neglecting the city's cru­cial water infrastructure at home. Some years, Angkor's dams burst during rainy season; other years, silt choked the canals and slowed the flow of mountain water to a trickle. And each time this happened, repairs got harder. Farming got harder. Trade slowed down, and polit­ical tensions heated up. By the mid-15th century, the city's population had fallen from hundreds of thousands to mere hundreds.

Main temple reflected in the northern reflection pond. Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

"Though obvious in retrospect, it was the kind of incremental catastrophe that nobody could recognize until it was too late. That's what makes Angkor's abandonment so haunting. On a day-to-day timescale, people living there wouldn't necessarily have noticed the city's dramatic transformation. There was no giant sign proclaiming the end of life as they'd known it; instead, there was a mounting pile of annoyances and disappointments. Nobody was fixing the canals, and the reservoirs were flooding. Some of the once-thriving neighbor­hoods had fallen empty and silent. There were no more fun parades on festival days. Younger generations would realize they had fewer economic opportunities than their elders had. In the 14th century, an Angkorian kid with talent might grow up to become a full-time musi­cian or scholar at court. Or she might have a thriving business selling spices on the heavily trafficked roads to temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. But by the late 15th century, young Angkorians had few choices. Mostly they grew up to be farmers. Some became priests or monks, tending what remained of the faded temples.

"In the soft apocalypse at Angkor, we can see directly what happens when political instability meets climate catastrophe. It looks chillingly similar to what cities are enduring in the contemporary world. But in the dramatic history of the Khmer culture's coalescence and survival, we can see something equally powerful: human resilience in the face of profound hardship.

"Somehow, Angkor managed to exist at a size bigger than many mod­ern cities for hundreds of years, despite the fact that this region of Cambodia is known for its climate extremes, with rainy season floods and dry season droughts. While their kings waged wars abroad and fought internecine battles in court at home, the Khmer people razed the tropical jungle and replaced it with an orderly city grid, complete with elevated, flood-proof houses and a canal network for drinking water and irrigation. The Khmer built towns, hospitals, and bureau­cracies at a rate that would have made Rome's emperors jealous."



Annalee Newitz


Four Lost Cities


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2021 by Annalee Newitz


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