Angkor's Destiny

How did Angkor, which was one of the largest settlements before the industrial revolution, lose its importance?

Remaining within the borders of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma today, Angkor was formed by the Khmer civilization and is a region that includes the world’s most important temples. Each an architectural masterpiece, these temples and settlement centers have been included within the framework of the UNESCO World Heritage. It is known that Angkor began to be established in the 9th century A.D. Later towards the middle of the 15th century it began to be abandoned to its fate and the forest, covering almost the whole city, hid it for close to 400 years. Known as a legend by a few discoverers and the locals until Henry Mouhot, a French traveler, rediscovered it in 1860, it then began to emerge into the open.

Angkor’s main settlement stretched over a 1000 square meter area and it was the biggest human settlement made before the industrial age. Later within several centuries this civilization was erased from history. Was the ancient kingdom ruined by war? Or did it push nature’s limits?
Although the answers are not fully known, scientific research made on Angkor, which is adorned with canals, temples and very esthetic structures, gives us some clues. In regard to this settlement, an important part of which is still hidden in the forest, a group of researchers from the University of Sidney are working on what they call the Greater Angkor Project. The work in which radar and satellite photographs are used together with ultrasonic investigation has brought to light more than 74 temples, hundreds of houses and other structures. This work shows that man’s consuming nature with abandonment had a share in the extinction of Angkor approximately 600 years ago.


The only source of life for those living in Angkor was agriculture. Especially rice. For this reason, water was vital. Consequently, Angkor was designed as a city of canals. Made with an architectural concept that even amazes researchers today, the canals were the main veins of the water carrying and storage system. In order to provide long availability of the water reserves, as large as 60 million cubic cisterns were made. Also this canal structure had the capacity to prevent floods that resulted from the irrevocable Monsoon rains in this area.
Normally this system worked perfectly and, nurturing the civilization, it enlarged it. However, at the end the Angkor settlement reached a critical growth limit. In order to develop the infrastructure, nature began to be destroyed. And according to the theory, nature did not hesitate to take revenge.

While making research on trees in the area close to 1000 years of age, Brendan Buckley and his team at Columbia University made an interesting find. The rings in the trunks of the trees were clues that would help us understand the climate conditions in the years from 1250-2008. The team’s work showed that there was a 30 year period of drought from 1330-1360. This period was exactly when the Khmer civilization began to retrogress. In addition, long draughts were determined that occurred several times from 1400-1420.
It was the architectural structures in Angkor and its surroundings that allowed for this discovery. Formerly constructing cisterns with constantly increasing volumes, the Angkor people later decreased the volume of the cisterns to 5 million cubic meters. In other words, it was understood that the water ratio fell in a very serious way. In addition, the canal system continued to expand and spread to different areas. In other words, the Angkor people overhauled the canals and began to change their structure in order to reach water. There are signs that dams and bridges were repaired and strengthened.


All these findings produce this picture: Angkor grew and expanded. During this process man abused nature. The great famine that followed caused the structure of canals, the city’s main system, to change. This destroyed the stability of the canal system. The extreme growth of the system caused a loss of control over the water. The system lost its ability to control the water from the Monsoon rains and could not prevent flooding. In other words, the water control system, the most valuable asset of Angkor and Khmer during the early periods, in a sense prepared their demise. Instead of analyzing the problems they were experiencing and developing solutions, the Angkor people chose to abandon the area and establish the same system in another region, but with larger dimensions this time.

In addition to the natural disasters experienced -just as with every developing civilization- socio-economic disintegration began for the Khmers. The central temples in the Khmer system were main centers in both religion and the economy. The revenue system was based on agricultural taxation. With time the Khmers were introduced to the trade developing in the region. A middle class and later bourgeoisie formed. The familiar tax system began to be inadequate. The bourgeoisie became more powerful as it acquired property and it began to escape from the influence of the central government. Meanwhile Buddhism which was spreading rapidly in the region took the Khmer Civilization under its influence. The presence of all these social and economic developments led to the Khmers passing to a decentralized structure and the ruin of the centralized administration system. The internal conflicts that arose with the dwindling influence of the system and the oppression and plundering of enemies led the people to settle in smaller, protected areas as opposed to large central settlements.

The people of the Angkor region had flourished with water for centuries, established unbelievable architectural systems to control the water and sufficed with what nature provided them. At the point they began to exceed these limits, they prepared their own end.

Angkor Temples/Ömer s. Bakır

I first went to the Angkor region in 2002. From the moment I set foot on this region which I only knew from books I had read and photographs I had seen, I was so impressed that the first thing I did upon my return was to make plans to go back to Angkor. With its amazing architectural success, mystical atmosphere, nature, calm inhabitants, impressive ceremonies and legends, Angkor was described for centuries by one language and another as a lost city. Since this legendary city was rediscovered to date, it has continued to be one of its own region’s and the world’s most important cultural heritages. There are dozens of large and small temples in the Angkor region. The five most important ones you need to see at first are: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan. Among secondary temples I can mention are the following: Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan, Pre Rup, Banteay Samre, and Ta Som.