Angkor Civilization

The Ancient Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia

The East Gate at Angkor Thom
Ian Walton / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Angkor Civilization (or Khmer Empire) is the name given to an important civilization of southeast Asia, including all of Cambodia and southeastern Thailand and northern Vietnam, with its classic period dated roughly between 800 to 1300 AD. It is also the name of one of the medieval Khmer capital cities, containing some of the most spectacular temples in the world, such as Angkor Wat.

The ancestors of the Angkor civilization are thought to have migrated into Cambodia along the Mekong River during the 3rd millennium BC. Their original center, established by 1000 BC, was located on the shore of the large lake called Tonle Sap, but a truly sophisticated (and enormous) irrigation system allowed the spread of the civilization into the countryside away from the lake.

Angkor (Khmer) Society

During the classic period, the Khmer society was a cosmopolitan blend of Pali and Sanskrit rituals resulting from a fusion of Hindu and High Buddhist belief systems, probably the effects of Cambodia's role in the extensive trade system connecting Rome, India, and China during the last few centuries BC. This fusion served as both the religious core of the society and as the political and economic basis on which the empire was built.

The Khmer society was led by an extensive court system with both religious and secular nobles, artisans, fishermen and rice farmers, soldiers, and elephant keepers: Angkor was protected by an army using elephants. The elites collected and redistributed taxes, and temple inscriptions attest to a detailed barter system. A wide range of commodities was traded between Khmer cities and China, including rare woods, elephant tusks, cardamom and other spices, wax, gold, silver, and silk. Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) porcelain has been found at Angkor: Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) whitewares such as Qinghai boxes have been identified at several Angkor centers.

The Khmer documented their religious and political tenets in Sanskrit inscribed on stelae and on temple walls throughout the empire. Bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, Bayon and Banteay Chhmar describe great military expeditions to neighboring polities using elephants and horses, chariots and war canoes, although there doesn't seem to have been a standing army.

The end of Angkor came in the mid-14th century and was partly brought about by a change in religious belief in the region, from Hinduism and High Buddhism to more democratic Buddhist practices. At the same, an environmental collapse is seen by some scholars as having a role in the disappearance of Angkor.

Road Systems among the Khmer

The immense Khmer empire was united by a series of roads, comprised of six main arteries extending out of Angkor for a total of ~1,000 kilometers (~620 miles). Secondary roads and causeways served local traffic in and around the Khmer cities. The roads which interconnected Angkor and Phimai, Vat Phu, Preah Khan, Sambor Prei Kuk and Sdok Kaka Thom (as plotted by the Living Angkor Road Project) were fairly straight and constructed of earth piled from either side of the route in long flat strips. The road surfaces were up to 10 meters (~33 feet) wide and in some places were raised to as much as 5-6 m (16-20 ft) above the ground.

The Hydraulic City

Recent work conducted at Angkor by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) used advanced radar remote sensing applications to map the city and its environs. The project identified the urban complex of about 200-400 square kilometers, surrounded by a vast agricultural complex of farmlands, local villages, temples and ponds, all connected by a web of earthen-walled canals, part of a vast water control system.

The GAP newly identified at least 74 structures as possible temples. The results of the survey suggest that the city of Angkor, including the temples, agricultural fields, residences (or occupation mounds), and hydraulic network, covered an area of nearly 3,000 square kilometers over the length of its occupation, making Angkor the largest low-density pre-industrial city on earth.

Because of the enormous aerial spread of the city, and the clear emphasis on water catchment, storage, and redistribution, members of the GAP call Angkor a 'hydraulic city', in that villages within the greater Angkor area were set up with local temples, each surrounded by a shallow moat and traversed by earthen causeways. Large canals connected cities and rice fields, acting both as irrigation and roadway.

Archaeology at Angkor

Archaeologists who have worked at Angkor Wat include Charles Higham, Michael Vickery, Michael Coe and Roland Fletcher; recent work by the GAP is based in part on the mid-20th-century mapping work of Bernard-Philippe Groslier of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO). The photographer Pierre Paris took great strides with his photos of the region in the 1920s. Due in part to its enormous size, and in part to the political struggles of Cambodia in the latter half of the 19th century, excavation has been limited.

Khmer Archaeological Sites

  • Cambodia: Angkor Wat, Preah Palilay, Baphuon, Preah Pithu, Koh Ker, Ta Keo, Thmâ Anlong, Sambor Prei Kuk, Phum Snay, Angkor Borei
  • Vietnam: Oc Eo
  • Thailand: Ban Non Wat, Ban Lum Khao, Prasat Hin Phimai, Prasat Phanom Wan


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