Henri Mouhot,a young French explorer sailed from London to south-east Asia back in April 1858. For the following three years he traveled a lot, finding extraordinary exotic jungle insects that still bear his name.Today he would be all but forgotten were it not for his journal that published in 1863. Two years later when he died of fever in Laos he was just 35 years old.
Mouhot’s account captured the public imagination, but not because of the beetles and spiders he found but they were gripped by his wide descriptions of vast temples inside the huge jungle
He introduced the world to the lost medieval city of Angkor in Cambodia and its ever-loving awe-inspiring splendor.In his account he wrote that one of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.It just describes how beautiful those buildings are.His descriptions strongly established in popular culture the beguiling fantasy of swashbuckling explorers finding forgotten temples.
The Cambodia today is very famous for these buildings. The largest, Angkor Wat, constructed around 1150 is still the biggest religious complex on Earth, covering an area four times the Vatican City.Every year two million tourists visits this place and its a huge boost Cambodia’s tourism
In the late 12th Century, Angkor was a bustling metropolis covering 1,000 sq km. Angkor was the former capital of the Khmer empire which, ruled by warrior kings, dominated the region for centuries – covering all of present-day Cambodia including Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. A few scanty inscriptions suggested the empire was founded in the early 9th Century by Jayavarman II, a great king and that his original capital was Mahendraparvata somewhere in the Kulen hills, a forested plateau north-east of the site on which Angkor would later be built.
In 1860s Angkor Wat was virtually unheard beyond local monks and villagers. The notion that this great temple was entirely unknown for a million people who lives in a city around this .It took over a century of extremely tiring and demanding archaeological fieldwork to fill in the map. The lost city of Angkor began to reappear, street by street. But even then significant blanks remained.
In 2013,archaeologists announced a set of new discoveries about Angkor and an even older city hidden deep in the jungle beyond this.An international team, led by the Dr Damian Evans from University of Sydney had mapped 370 sq km around Angkor in unprecedented detail.The entire survey took less than two weeks.
Lidar,a sophisticated remote sensing technology was used in revolutionising archaeology, especially in the tropics.The Lidar device was mounted on a helicopter criss-crossing the countryside and it fired a million laser beams every four seconds through the jungle canopy, recording minute variations in ground surface topography.The outputs were staggering.The archaeologists found unnoticed cityscapes engraved on to the forest floor, with temples, highways and elaborate waterways spreading across the landscape.These new discoveries have profoundly transformed our understanding of Angkor, the greatest medieval city on Earth.
Dr Evans says “You have this kind of sudden eureka moment where you bring the data up on screen the first time and there it is – this ancient city very clearly in front of you,”
The lidar survey of the hills revealed ghostly outlines of unknown temples and an elaborate and utterly unexpected grid of ceremonial boulevards, dykes and man-made ponds.The most significant of all was evidence of large-scale hydraulic engineering, the defining signature of the Khmer empire.At the end of the 9th Century,Khmer engineers were storing and distributing vast quantities of precious seasonal monsoon water using a complex network of huge canals and reservoirs.The consistent monsoon provided food security and made the ruling elite fantastically rich.
For the next three centuries they channelled their wealth into the greatest concentration of temples on Earth.Preah Khan,a temple was constructed in 1191, contained 60t of gold. Its value today would be about $3.3bn.
But despite the city’s immense wealth, trouble was developing.its vital hydraulic network was falling into disrepair at the worst possible moment despite the Angkor’s temple-building programme.At the end of the medieval period saw dramatic shifts in climate across south-east Asia.Tree ring samples shows thath there were sudden fluctuations between extreme dry and wet conditions and the lidar map reveals catastrophic flood damage to the city’s vital water network.Angkor entered a spiral of decline from which it never recovered.
In the 15th Century, the Khmer kings abandoned this city and moved to the coastal area and built a new city, Phnom Penh, the present-day capital of Cambodia.Hence the life in Angkor gradually decreased.
When Mouhot arrived he could only found some of the great stone temples, many of them in a state of disrepair.Nearly everything else,from common houses to royal palaces were destroyed.