Ancient Cambodia

Cambodia has a rich and fascinating history. The first humans in Cambodia were Stone Age hunters and gatherers. However farming was introduced into Cambodia about 2,300 BCE. The first farmers in Cambodia used stone tools but from about 1,500 BCE the Cambodians used tools and weapons made from bronze. By about 500 BCE they had learned to use iron.

The first civilization in the area arose about 150 CE in the Mekong River delta in South Vietnam. This civilization was known to the Chinese who called it Fu-nan. While Fu-nan was trading with the Chinese Cambodian society grew more sophisticated. Settlements grew larger. So did kingdoms.

By the beginning of the 7th century CE all of Cambodia was highly civilized. At first Cambodia was divided into rival states. However at the beginning of the 9th century a king named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

The People of Angkor

Cambodia’s Angkor period is defined by the six century rule of the Khmer Empire. The dawn of the Khmer civilization is the subject of an ongoing historical debate, but many scholars consider the reign of King Jayavarman II to be the impetus for a unified Khmer people. His kingship began sometime in the late 8th or early 9th Century when a Brahman priest named Jayavarman II the chakravartin, or universal monarch over Cambodia. Despite the celebrity of Jayavarman II in Cambodian history, the details of his rule are rooted deeper in the sand of legend and lore than in the firm soil of historical fact.

Following the obscure kingship of Jayavarman II, the Great Indravarman seized the Khmer throne. Indravarman’s rule is characterized by the design and construction of a complex irrigation system, remnants of which still exist today. Under Indravarman’s rule, the young Khmer Empire began conceiving the trademark Angkor architectural style, identified by its strong devotion to Hindu and Buddhist religious concepts. Ingeniously, the Khmer irrigation system was used to embellish the Khmer temples in the form of massive reflection aqueducts and water storage ponds. More than 1,000 years after the rule of Indravarman, we still use water to reflect our buildings, homes, temples, and monuments.

Indravarman’s son, Yasovarman, continued the work of his father, constructing some of the most important temple complexes of the Common Era. Yasovarman is identified as the inaugurator of the Phnom Bakheng and the Lolei Temples. Under his rule, the capital of the Khmer Empire was established in Angkor.

Building the Angkor Wat Temple Complex

From the rule of Yasovarman to the 12th century design and construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex, the Khmer people evolved into the most significant religious, military, and social civilization in Southeast Asia. Their authority blanketed all of modern-day Cambodia, reaching into Vietnam, China, and across the Bay of Bengal.

King Suryavarman II was responsible for the construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex. He dedicated the temple to Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavite Hinduism, which remained its patron deity until the Cambodian people consecrated Angkor Wat to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th - 15th Century. Under Suryavarman II, the temple complex also served as the capital of the Khmer Empire and a strategic military post. Curiously, the original name of the temple remains unknown. Historians have not been able to locate any artifacts or inscriptions that refer to the temple complex by name.

The enormity of Angkor Wat was conceived and constructed with a level of precision and intention that continues to evade the modern mind. Some scholars believe that the temple complex was built to take advantage of Angkor’s water-rich agricultural potential. Other scholars attribute the construction of Angkor Wat to the Khmer belief in earth-star harmonization. The temple’s ground plan replicates the position of the stars in the Draco constellation.

Large portions of the Angkor Wat temple complex remain unfinished. Historical theory suggests that construction ended when Suryavarman II died. Regardless of why construction ceased, the temple’s unfinished status adds to Angkor Wat’s mysterious appeal.

Angkor Wat after the Khmer Empire

Since the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th Century CE, Angkor Wat has remained one of the most significant religious structures in the world. In 1431 the Thais captured the Cambodian capital, Angkor. Afterwards it was abandoned and new capital was founded at Phnom Phen. By the mid-16th century Angkor was overgrown by the jungle and it was accidentally re-discovered by a Cambodian king. 

The history of the Khmer Empire exists in the stone of Angkor Wat alone. Written inscriptions of the temple’s history, if they ever existed, have escaped modern examination. After the Thai takeover, Buddhist monks continued to preserve and uphold the sacred status of Ankgor Wat, but they overturned the original dedication of the temple to Hindu deity Vishnu. In Vishnu’s stead, the gods and concepts of Buddhism became the ruling principles of Angkor Wat.

In 1860, the French led an expedition into the heart of Cambodia inspired by the European hunger for exploration and discovery. Since the mid 1800s Europe and the West have been spellbound by the ancient city of Angkor Wat. The French pioneered an Angkor Wat restoration project in 1908 that continues to this day.