Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, which ruled a large portion of Southeast Asia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries A.D. Following its peak in the twelfth century, Angkor began a long decline until only Angkor Wat was still in use by the sixteenth century. The dozens of Hindu-Buddhist temple complexes and hundreds of smaller structures were swallowed by the jungle. Documented beginning in the 1850s by French archaeologists, art historians, and architects, their evocative descriptions and drawings of the buildings they found in the overgrown vegetation brought these temples to international attention and were the inspiration for many over the course of the next century. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Angkor has been a great focal point of the rebuilding efforts in Cambodia. WMF and many international teams have worked closely with Cambodian professionals and the APSARA Authority to document, conserve, and protect these astonishingly beautiful and important buildings. Since 1990, WMF has sustained a comprehensive conservation, training, and education program at Angkor. WMF’s program at Angkor is designed to advance the conservation of one of the most important historic monumental complexes in the world, to train Cambodians in the conservation and stewardship of their country’s heritage, and to help the governmental organization APSARA build its management capacity.
1996 World Monuments Watch
In 1989, World Monuments Fund sent an initial field mission to Cambodia to survey Angkor and evaluate the damage the archaeological park had suffered after 20 years of civil strife and international isolation. The team discovered that the temples were relatively unaffected by the upheaval that shook Cambodia, although Angkor’s caretakers were not so fortunate, as most, along with many other educated Cambodians, died under the Khmer Rouge. In the wake of the Khmer Rouge period, the ancient complex lapsed further into decay among jungle vegetation. Encouraged by the Ministry of Culture, WMF developed a set of recommendations to address fundamental preservation issues at Angkor. In the more than twenty years since, WMF has focused on four key areas at Angkor: the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery within Angkor Wat, the temple’s most prominent bas-relief; Phnom Bakheng, Angkor’s oldest temple and the place where tourists flock to admire the view at sunset; Preah Khan, an outstanding example of a large linear temple complex in a jungle setting; and Ta Som, a relatively smaller complex that is rich in architectural and sculptural detail. In 1996, WMF also listed Angkor Archaeological Park on the World Monuments Watch, our flagship advocacy program for cultural heritage at risk; a nomination that underscores the value and continued relevance of this spectacular place.
Angkor is as inspiring today as it must have been when it was a thriving city. The conservation work at Angkor that began more than 20 years ago was an extension of the great concern for Cambodia in the wake of the Khmer Rouge period. Angkor Wat, the most famous of the many temples in the archaeological park, is illustrated on the national flag and remains dear to Cambodian citizens. Today Angkor Archaeological Park is the most visited heritage site in the country and hundreds of Cambodians work daily to safeguard this national treasure and World Heritage site. The conservation work is important because of its historic and cultural value, but it also represents a great symbol of the rebirth of the country after a dark period and contributes significantly to the national economy and the lives of Cambodians who work as engineers, architects, archaeologists, conservators, guides, and guards, deriving income from the conservation, training, education, and tourism activities that take place every day for the benefit of the community and visitors.
New support for continued conservation
In February 2019, the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust announced $2 million total in funding to support preservation efforts at five WMF projects, including Angkor Archaeological Park. Funds will advance the restoration of Phnom Bakheng and the creation of a new decorative ceiling for the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery at Angkor Wat.