A lost treasure,a forgotten temple in the middle of nowhere, hidden rooms and corridors buried for centuries, are the very material of what dreams are made. Since Stevenson’s treasure island until the recent Spielberg’s indiana Jones saga, no-one remains indifferent to the search for hidden wonders or forgotten secrets. Well, regarding the biggest religious construction in the world, no-one can say that it remained hidden and that it was found, because it is visited annually by two million tourists, and its gigantic pinnacles, emerging from the Cambodian jungle which tries to engulf the whole compound—four times larger than the Vatican City—are a rather familiar image. However, a secret still remained, and has been revealed recently, thanks to the advanced technology of nASA. to those who love to solve mysteries, it was indeed a great achievement. Until now, no-one understood why Angkor was built, apparently in the middle of nowhere. So, it was quite amazing when nASA found that it was the capital of a great empire, the most sprawling urban centre of its time. for once not defeated by a more powerful one, but by the sheer persistence of the jungle’s trees which, without any kind of respect, erased under their roots the houses of a town as big as Paris (population estimate: one million) and strangled with their branches some still smiling god-kings.

As oliver Wainwright explains in the Guardian, it was “a hunch that archaeologists have had for decades, but which was only recently confirmed in astonishing detail by an aerial laser survey, which cut through the foliage for the first time a few years ago to reveal the grid of a vast urban settlement stretching for miles around the moated compounds. it showed that the ancient Khmer capital, which flourished from the 9th to the 15th century, had more in common with los Angeles, than this series of temples standing in splendid isolation in the jungle might suggest.”
Science hates doubt—or Spielberg-like fantasies—and the hunch was proved correct. Damian evens, the Australian archaeologist who has been leading the airborne scanning survey at the École française d’extrême-orient, working with Cambodian APSArA national Authority and the ministry of Culture and fine Arts, explains that “the laser technology has been a total game-changer. our surveys have revealed the pattern of a settlement with an urban form that resembles the kind of dispersed low-density megacity characteristic of the modern world.” beyond the roads, the highways, the rest
houses and the hospitals (!), the urban area was crossed by a sophisticated system of water canals, similar to artificial rivers which allowed the irrigation of vast rice fields, the true basis of the great wealth of the Khmer empire. the temples themselves and these structures suggested that, together with the peoples of the fertile Crescent, the egyptians or the romans, they were great master builders and planners, something not expected in this remote part
of Southeast Asia. in medieval europe, in the iberian Peninsula, only the moors developed an embryo of the same kind of skills but not on this scale, nor with this kind of attention to urban planning. in fact, in comparison, rome, the master of the mediterranean, was well known as a quite chaotic city, in spite of having built imposing structures across the empire.

Second photo
Ta Prohm, a monastery/university, is now frequented by the trees.

This was the precise impression of the french explorer Henri mouhot who, in 1858, discovered the huge pinnacles of Angkor Wat among the lesser temples and the dense forest: “Grander than anything left to us by Greece or rome”, “a rival to [the temple] of Solomon, erected by some ancient michelangelo”. this central temple alone, built by King Suryavarman ii in the early 12th century has five conical towers rising above a 160-hectare precinct. Along the centuries, the towers mesmerized the experts, who thought that, to be so big, they had to be some kind of fortification. the religious symbolism of the sculpted Hindu and buddhist figures and engravings were also studied, but as a whole they didn’t make sense. the empire—which at its peak ruled over and/or vassalized most of mainland Southeast Asia, parts of modern-day laos, thailand and southern Vietnam—didn’t come to an abrupt end, as if it was a victim of war or conquest. the only thing that really ended was the construction of great temples, attributed to the conversion of the rulers from Hinduism to buddhism, a religion that does not require the same kind of carved grandeur. However, the city was still inhabited in the 17th century. Why it was later abandoned? this is the only mystery that remains. the hypotheses range from the emergence of a more accessible power centre to a bout of black plague. However, the main theories point to rather modern causes: overexploitation and climate change. According to the most accepted theory, the decline of the old megalopolis was due to its own growth, which led to progressive deforestation
in the surrounding area in order to produce more and more rice, thus leading the earth sediments to clog the irrigation system, and/or a succession of droughts caused by an alteration in the monsoons. of something we are certain: the actual population of Cambodia descends from these great builders—and the archaeologists are already excavating parts of the recently found megacity which is the best way to understand the Khmers that once lived there.

{Sources: the Guardian, Wikipedia}