Angkor Wat is a spectacular temple in southwest Cambodia, built by the vanished Khmer empire. It was constructed during the reign of king Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1113 to at least 1145. In those days, it was customary for the Khmer Empire to maintain a state temple at the heart of the city. However, when Suryavarman assumed power, the existing Baphuon state temple was dedicated to Shiva. Suryavarman worshiped Vishnu, and wished to honor him with a new temple south of the existing capital. This new state temple came to be called Angkor Wat, meaning "The city that is a temple."
The land occupied by the temple measures 1300 meters north-south, and 1500 meters east-west. Unlike other Khmer temples, the entrance faces west toward Vishnu. A person entering the temple first approaches an entrance causeway that takes him across the 200 meter wide moat. On the opposite shore is an entrance pavilion measuring 230 meters north-south. Its central bays have three passages that elephants could fit through for royal processions. Past the entrance gate is a long causeway that runs for over 300 meters, decorated with mythical snake-like animals called naga. On either side are isolated buildings called "libraries" though their true function is unknown (image 7). Near the temple are two small pools.
The actual temple sits on a sandstone plinth a meter above the ground. Its perimeter is decorated with naga balustrades (image 18, foreground). The outer wall of the temple is called the "first enclosure," and sits on a plinth 3.3 meters high. A continuous gallery runs along the outside face of the wall (image 16). The inner face is decorated with 700 meters of continuous bas reliefs.
Just to the east of the west gate of the first enclosure is a series of four rooms arranged in a cruciform(images 22-24). Each room is surrounded by a continuous gallery and has a sunken floor where ponds used to be. The southern arm of the cross was once called the "Gallery of a thousand Buddhas" because until very recently, the Khmer faithful left Buddha statues here. Most of these were destroyed during the recent civil war. North and south of the "western cruciform" are two more "libraries."
The second enclosure rests on a base 5.8 meters high. It is linked to the Western Cruciform by a series of stairs. Inside this courtyard are still more "libraries," smaller than the previous ones.
The inner enclosure rests on a two-tiered pyramid 11 meters tall. The stairs are extremely steep (see image 31). The upper terrace has a continuous gallery that encloses an inner cruciform of four rooms. Five towers jut from the upper tier in a quincunx arrangement (like five dots on a pair of dice). The cruciform used to contain a number of separate shrines, but they look like passageways now since the wooden doors are gone. The central tower is 65 meters above ground level.
Angkor Wat lies 5.5 kilometres (3.4 mi) north of the modern town of Siem Reap, and a short distance south and slightly east of the previous capital, which was centred at Baphuon. It is in an area of Cambodia where there is an important group of ancient structures. It is the southernmost of Angkor's main sites.
The initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king's state temple and capital city. As neither the foundation stela nor any contemporary inscriptions referring to the temple have been found, its original name is unknown, but it may have been known as "Varah Vishnu-lok" ( literally "Holy Vishnu Location", Old Khmer Cl. Sanskrit") after the presiding deity. Work seems to have ended shortly after the king's death, leaving some of the bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. Thereafter the empire was restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII, who established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon respectively) a few kilometres to the north.
In the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually moved from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist use, which continues to the present day. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned, its preservation being due in part to the fact that its moat also provided some protection from encroachment by the jungle.
One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said that it "is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of." In the mid-19th century the temple was visited by the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot, who popularised the site in the West through the publication of travel notes, in which he wrote:
"One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged."
Mouhot, like other early Western visitors, found it difficult to believe that the Khmers could have built the temple, and mistakenly dated it to around the same era as Rome. The true history of Angkor Wat was pieced together only from stylistic and epigraphic evidence accumulated during the subsequent clearing and restoration work carried out across the whole Angkor site. There were no ordinary dwellings or houses or other signs of settlement including cooking utensils, weapons, or items of clothing usually found at ancient sites. Instead there is the evidence of the monuments themselves.
Facade of Angkor Wat, a drawing by Henri Mouhot
French postcard about Angkor Wat in 1911
Angkor Wat required considerable restoration in the 20th century, mainly the removal of accumulated earth and vegetation. Work was interrupted by the civil war and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s and 1980s, but relatively little damage was done during this period other than the theft and destruction of mostly post-Angkorian statues.
The temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia, and is a source of great national pride that has factored into Cambodia's diplomatic relations with France, the United States and its neighbour Thailand. A depiction of Angkor Wat has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version circa 1863. From a larger historical and even transcultural perspective, however, the temple of Angkor Wat did not became a symbol of national pride sui generis but had been inscribed into a larger politico-cultural process of French-colonial heritage production in which the original temple site was presented in French colonial and universal exhibitions in Paris and Marseille between 1889 and 1937.
The splendid artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate on 11 August 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. This quickly led to Cambodia reclaiming lands in the northwestern corner of the country that had been under Siamese (Thai) control since 1351 AD (Manich Jumsai 2001), or by some accounts, 1431 AD. Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time.
During the midst of the Vietnam War, Chief of State Norodom Sihanouk hosted Jacqueline Kennedy in Cambodia to fulfill her "lifelong dream of seeing Angkor Wat."
In January 2003 riots erupted in Phnom Penh when a false rumour circulated that a Thai soap opera actress had claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.