History of Angkor
Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 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 the peak of its power in the twelfth century, Angkor began a long decline until only Angkor Wat temple was still in use by the sixteenth century. Over time, the dozens of Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes and hundreds of smaller structures that made up Angkor were swallowed by the jungle.
Angkor was re-documented beginning in the 1850s by French archaeologists, art historians, and architects. In the early 1900s, during French colonial rule over Cambodia, a commission to restore the site for tourism purposes was established. This group also oversaw ongoing archeological projects. Major efforts at the site begin in the 1960s when Cambodia was beginning the transition from colonial rule to a limited form of constitutional monarchy.
History of Angkor
Civil war broke out in Cambodia in the 1970s, and with the subsequent takeover of the country by the Khmer Rouge, these efforts came to a halt and all work at Angkor ceased. Among the estimated 1.8 million Cambodians who perished during the Khmer Rouge period were those with training and experience at Angkor Archaeological Park and other heritage sites in the country.
A generation of Angkor’s caretakers were devastated. When the strife ended in 1978, less than a dozen Khmer custodians of Angkor had survived.
Cambodia remained socially and economically isolated from the rest of the world for more than a decade. During this period, no work was done at Angkor.
World Monuments Fund at Angkor
In 1989, World Monuments Fund (WMF) sent an initial field mission to Cambodia to survey Angkor and evaluate the damage that the archaeological park had suffered after 20 years of civil strife and international isolation.
Encouraged by the Ministry of Culture, WMF developed recommendations to address fundamental preservation issues at the temple complex of Preah Khan and WMF began field work there in 1991.
World Monuments Fund at Angkor
Since then, WMF has partnered with the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor (APSARA) to build a comprehensive conservation, training, and education program at Angkor.
WMF’s program is designed to advance the preservation of one of the most significant historic monumental complexes in the world.
World Monuments Fund at Angkor
Over thirty years later, WMF has trained and currently employs more than 100 full-time conservation technicians and specialists, most of whom live in the park’s villages and mentor younger workers. Today, the Angkor Archaeological Park is the main driver of tourism in Cambodia.
Since our first engagement at Angkor, WMF has worked at four sites within the complex. Long-term stewardship is a key goal of the preservation work at Angkor and WMF strives to ensure that local management has the capacity to care for these structures long into the future. The training of young Khmer architects, engineers, and archaeologists, and the employment of a local workforce is the keystone of our work at Angkor.
The Preah Khan temple complex situated at the northern edge of the Angkor Archaeological Park is one of the most significant buildings erected during the ancient Khmer empire and was dedicated by the great King Jayavarman VII to his father in 1191. Preah Kahn is a rectangular temple that occupies 138 acres and is surrounded by a protective moat and fortified walls decorated with monumental carved stone garudas—bird-like creatures associated with the Hindu god Vishnu.
At Preah Khan, WMF has created a visitor center and restored the garudas that surround the temple.
Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas or gods in Hindu mythology. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs.
World Monuments Fund has worked on the beautiful Churning of the Ocean of Milk Gallery of bas-reliefs, located in the Third Enclosure of the temple complex of Angkor Wat.
Churning of the Ocean of Milk Gallery
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk Gallery includes 76 yards (70 meters) of intricately sculpted bas-reliefs. The relief depicts the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) at the bottom of the ocean working to churn the ocean of milk to create amrita, the elixir of immortality.
The devas and asuras churn the ocean using the giant five headed serpent king Naga as a rope. He wraps around the peak of Mount Mandara, shown at the center of the relief, the axis of the churn. Mount Mandara rests on top of a giant turtle, which prevents it from sinking into the ocean, with Vishnu at the center. The churning produces both the elixir of immortality and the apsaras or nymphs.
Photo: Darrenp / Shutterstock.com
Conservation work at Angkor Wat
Between 2008 and 2012, WMF and APSARA collaborated to conserve the roof, developing a sophisticated system for removing stones, repairing them, and returning them to the roof. Previous conservation efforts had used concrete that compromised the traditional Khmer water drainage system and introduced other incompatibilities.
Our team was able to remove the concrete and return the drainage system to its original function. Close collaboration with WMF, the APSARA Authority, and the many professionals working together at the site demonstrate that preservation is a collective activity.
Ta Som Temple
The Khmer temple of Ta Som is located at the eastern end of the Northern Baray at Angkor and was built at the end of the 12th century during the reign of the powerful Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. Little is known of the history and purpose of Ta Som. The site is relatively small compared with the many other temples built under Jayavarman’s reign. WMF began conservation work at Ta Som in 1998, focusing on training and site presentation.
Since WMF began work at Ta Som, all four of the Temple’s entrances were made accessible to the public, the four towers were stabilized, and all the debris that prevented access to the temple was removed. This improved access to, and presentation of the site’s finely carved stone sculptures, and adds to the public’s enjoyment of the site.
Each temple at Angkor has a different character and Ta Som’s smaller scale and beautiful sculpture ensure that visitors are treated to a unique piece of Angkor’s history.
Phnom Bakheng is Angkor’s oldest temple and represents Mount Meru, the cosmic center of the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism.
It was built as a state temple between the late 9th and early 10th centuries, when King Yasovarman constructed it as the centerpiece of his new capital, Yasodharapura, later absorbed into Angkor.
In addition to its architectural and historical significance as the first mountain-style temple built at Angkor, Phnom Bakheng is also popular today for its sunset views.
Phnom Bakheng is one of the greatest examples of Khmer architecture, but more than many other Khmer temples, its popularity has put it in jeopardy. Though the rapid rise in tourism has brought welcome economic growth to Cambodia, wear from constant foot traffic threatens the temple’s stability.
With enhanced visitor management, Phnom Bakheng can become a sustainable tourist destination that continues to be a cultural and economic benefit to the community.
Over the past decade, conservation at Phnom Bakheng has focused on structural stabilization and waterproofing of the eastern elevation of the temple, as well as repairing foundations where needed.
Conservation at Phnom Bakheng
The meticulous process involved documentation of current conditions, removing terrace stones, pinning bedrock, waterproofing the foundation with PVC membrane, cleaning the stones, and ultimately placing them back. New stones—either retrieved from the side of the hill of Phnom Bakheng or acquired from the site’s original quarry—were also inserted in areas of loss when necessary. Completion of the eastern half was achieved after ten years of work and was completed in 2019.
With the eastern side completed, work on the western side has begun. The work on the western side is estimated to take at least seven years, given the enormity of the structure and the amount of work required.
Leadership support for the conservation of Angkor Archaeological Park has been provided by the U.S. Department of State, Ralph E. Ogden Foundation/ H. Peter Stern, The Henry Luce Foundation, Estate of Donald I. Perry, and The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust.
Additional generous support was provided by American Express, Ms. Eleanor Briggs, The Brown Foundation, Charities Aid Foundation of Canada, Drs. Lois de Menil and Georges de Menil/DM Foundation, The International Music and Art Foundation, Virginia James, Mrs. Betty Wold Johnson and Mr. Douglas Bushnell, The Starr Foundation, Wendy and Bob Brandow, Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Brewer, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Friends of Heritage Preservation, Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Miller and The Peter Norton Family Foundation.