Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
References: Alison Behnke, Eleanor Mannikka
Project Year: 0
Photographs: Essential Architecture
From the architect. A major symbol of Cambodia itself, Angkor Wat is one of the oldest temples in the world that still functions as the significant religious center it was built to be. Constructed in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-1150), Angkor Wat was a state temple and capital city for the community, first as a Hindu establishment and eventually becoming a Buddhist temple.
The style of Angkor Wat is the epitome of classical Khmer architecture. The two primary ties between this temple and architecture of the Khmer style is the temple mountain and gallery temples.
It was inspired by the home of the gods in Hindu mythology, called Mount Meru. It is surrounded by a moat and a wall 3.6km long, and the three rectangular galleries are distinguished by level changes of the ground.
Angkor Wat is located 5.5km north of the modern town of Siem Riep, and a short distance south from the previous capital centered on Baphuon. Uncharacteristic to most other Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west. However, the bas-reliefs and numerous devatas that adorn its walls are similar to others. Initially Hindu-inspired, the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhist use in the 14th or 15th century.
Around the time of its conversion it was known as Preah Pisnulok after the posthumous title of Suryavarman. The modern name, which came about in the 16th century, is translated to mean "City Temple."
Upon its discovery in the mid-19th century by a French explorer by the name of Henri Mouhot, the temple was described in the following words: "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."
The true history of Angkor Wat was not pieced together until epigraphic evidence accumulated and restoration work was carried out, as it was originally dated around the same era as Rome. In the 20th century, there was considerable restoration done to the vegetation and surrounding land, which was interrupted by a civil war.
Angkor Wat is the only building that appears on any national flag, and has been since its first introduction around 1863. The incredible use of sandstone shows the confidence and skills gained by the architects and craftsmen of the time.
Characteristic elements of the temple include the ovigal, towers shaped like lotus buds, half-galleries which broaden passageways, axial galleries to connect enclosures, ad circiform terraces along the main axis of the temple. Laterite was used to construct the outer wall, and in hidden structural elements. Decorative elements include devatas (apsaras), bas-reliefs, and narrative scenes carved on pediments and walls.