Fifteen Years at Angkor

Angkor, a vast Hindu-Buddhist temple complex in north-central Cambodia, is among the most magnificent architectural wonders of Southeast Asia. Founded more than a millennium ago, this ancient city was the one-time seat of the mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled most of the region between the ninth and fifteenth centuries a.d. For all its splendor, the site, spread over more than 310 square kilometers, was all but lost to the outside world until French archaeologists began excavating in the early years of the twentieth century. With the outbreak of war in the 1970s and subsequent takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge, all work ceased and the archaeological park went completely without maintenance, finally succumbing to the jungle again.

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. We discovered that the temples were relatively unaffected by the upheaval that shook Cambodia, though Angkor’s caretakers were not so fortunate. Among the estimated 1.8 million Cambodians to die during the Khmer Rouge period were those with training and experience in operating the Angkor archaeological park and other heritage sites in the country. When the strife ended in 1978, less than a dozen Khmer custodians of Angkor had survived. Beleaguered Cambodia remained socially and economically isolated from the rest of the world for more than a decade. During this period of abandonment of more than 15 years most of the ancient complex lapsed into further decay amidst jungle vegetation.

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