The mysterious Khmer empire. How did the ancient capital of Angkor die?
The mysterious Khmer empire. How did the ancient capital of Angkor die?

Video: The mysterious Khmer empire. How did the ancient capital of Angkor die?

Video: The mysterious Khmer empire. How did the ancient capital of Angkor die?
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How this capital of the mighty and mysterious Khmer state perished, no one knows. According to one of the legends, the son of one of the priests dared to object to the cruel emperor, and he ordered to drown the impudent one in the Tonle Sap Lake. But as soon as the waters closed over the youth's head, the angry gods punished the lord. The lake overflowed its shores and flooded Angkor, washing away both the despot and all his subjects from the face of the earth.

From the air, the temple below looks like an incomprehensible brown speck against the green background of the endless forests of northern Cambodia. We are hovering over ancient Angkor. Villages are now attached to its ruins. Khmer houses on long, slender stilts that protect against flooding in the rainy season stretch nearly 30 kilometers from Tonle Sap Lake to the Kulen Hills and further north. But now our light plane descends below, and the Banteay Samre temple appears before us in all its splendor. It was erected in the 12th century in honor of the god Vishnu and rebuilt in the 1940s. Banteay Samre is just one of more than a thousand sanctuaries of Angkor, built in the era of its highest heyday, when the ambitious architectural projects of the Khmers were in no way inferior in scope to the Egyptian pyramids. Angkor became a grandiose stage on which the drama of the death of a great civilization was played out. The Khmer Empire existed from the 9th to the 15th centuries and at the peak of its power it owned a vast territory of Southeast Asia - from modern Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. Its capital, the area of which was equal to five quarters of a modern metropolis, had a population of at least 750 thousand people. Angkor was the largest city in the pre-industrial era.

At the end of the 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries reached the lotus towers of Angkor Wat - the most luxurious of all temples in the city and the largest religious building in the world - the once flourishing capital was living its last days. Scientists name a number of reasons for the decline of Angkor, the main of which are the raids of enemies and the transition to sea trade, which became a death sentence for the city located in the interior of the country. But these are only guesses: in more than 1,300 inscriptions on the walls of the temples of Angkor there is nothing that could reveal the secret of the death of the empire. However, recent excavations on the territory of the city have allowed to look at this problem in a new way. Ironically, Angkor may have been doomed due to the high level of engineering that allowed the city to cope with the seasonal flooding so common in Southeast Asia. The daily life of ancient Angkor appears before us on the bas-reliefs of temples - here are two men bending over a playing board, there a woman gives birth in a tent. Alongside these peaceful plots, there are also scenes of war. On one of the bas-reliefs, a ship filled to capacity with captive warriors from the neighboring Champa kingdom crosses Lake Tonle Sap. This event is etched in stone to commemorate the Khmer's triumph in that war. But, despite victories over an external enemy, the empire was torn apart by internal strife. The rulers of Angkor had several wives, which became the reason for the constant intrigues of numerous princes, and, in addition, they waged an endless struggle for power. These feuds, which lasted for years, were reminiscent of the War of the Scarlet and White Roses in medieval Europe. Archaeologist Roland Fletcher from the University of Sydney, one of the leaders of the "Great Angkor" project, is sure that civil strife played a fatal role in the fall of the Khmer empire. Other scholars believe that Angkor died at the hands of an external enemy.

In the annals of the Thai state of Ayuthaya, there is evidence that in 1431 it conquered Angkor. In order to somehow link together the legends about the fabulous riches of Angkor and the ruins that appeared to the eyes of the first European travelers, French historians of the 19th century, based on this fact, concluded that it was Ayuthaya that destroyed Angkor. Fletcher doubts this: "Yes, the ruler of Ayuthaya really took Angkor and put his son on the throne there, but it is unlikely that before that he would have begun to destroy the city." The palace intrigues of the rulers hardly worried their subjects. Religion played a major role in their daily life. The rulers of Angkor claimed the role of earthly henchmen of the Hindu gods and erected temples in their honor. But as in the XIII and XIV centuries, Hinduism in these lands began to gradually give way to Buddhism, one of its doctrines - about social equality - could become a very real threat to the elite of Angkor. The main currency of the country was rice - the main food of the army of workers mobilized to build temples, and those who served these temples. In the Ta-Prom complex, they found an inscription stating that this temple alone was served by 12,640 people. It also reports that annually more than 66 thousand peasants grew about two thousand tons of rice for priests and dancers. If we add to this the servants of three large temples - Pre-Khan, Angkor Wat and Bayon - then the number of servants jumps to 300 thousand. This is already almost half of the total population of Greater Angkor. And there is no rice harvest - famine and mass disturbances begin. But it could have been different: the royal court, perhaps, at some point just turned away from Angkor. Each ruler was in the habit of building new temple complexes, and leaving the old ones to their fate. It is possible that it was the tradition to start from scratch every time that caused the death of the city when the sea trade between Southeast Asia and China began to develop. Perhaps the Khmer rulers moved closer to the Mekong River, thus gaining convenient access to the South China Sea. Lack of food and religious unrest may have precipitated the fall of Angkor, but another enemy surreptitiously inflicted the brunt of the blow.

Angkor and its rulers began to flourish by learning how to manage water currents during the rainy seasons. A very complex system of canals and reservoirs was built here, which made it possible to store water for the dry months of the year and distribute its surplus during the rainy seasons. Since the era of Jayavarman II, who founded the Khmer Empire in the early 800s of our era, its well-being has depended solely on rice harvests. The economy required engineering wonders, such as the West Barai reservoir, 8 kilometers long and 2.2 kilometers wide. To build this most complex of the three large reservoirs a thousand years ago, it took 200 thousand workers who dug 12 million cubic meters of soil, and then made from it embankments 90 meters wide and three stories high. This gigantic reservoir is still filled with water diverted from the Siem Reap River. The first to appreciate the scale of Angkor's irrigation facilities was the archaeologist from the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) Bernard-Philippe Groslier, who led an expedition to map the city from the air and land. According to the scientist, these giant reservoirs served two purposes: they symbolized the pristine ocean of the Hindu cosmogony and irrigated rice fields. But Groslier failed to complete the project. The civil war, the bloody dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge and the 1979 invasion of Vietnamese troops permanently closed Cambodia and Angkor to the rest of the world. And then marauders came to Angkor, taking everything that could be taken away from there. When the architect and archaeologist Christophe Potier reopened EFEO in 1992, the first thing he did was to help Cambodia rebuild destroyed and looted temples. But Potier was also interested in the unexplored areas behind the temples. For several months he painstakingly explored the southern part of the Greater Angkor, marking on the map the buried ramparts, under which houses and sanctuaries could be buried. Then, in 2000, Roland Fletcher and his colleague Damian Evans, also from the University of Sydney, managed to obtain a radar survey of Angkor taken from a NASA aircraft. She immediately became a sensation. Scientists have found on it traces of numerous settlements, canals and reservoirs in parts of Angkor that are difficult to access for excavation. And the most important thing is the inlets and outlets of the reservoirs.

Thus, an end was put in the dispute, begun by Groslier: the colossal reservoirs were used only for religious purposes or for practical ones too. The answer was unequivocal: for both. Scientists were amazed at the grandiose designs of the ancient engineers. “We realized that the entire landscape of Greater Angkor is solely the work of human hands,” says Fletcher. Over the centuries, hundreds of canals and dams have been built to divert water from the Puok, Roluos and Siem Reap rivers to reservoirs. During the rainy season, excess water was also drained into these reservoirs. And after the rains stopped, in October-November, the stored water was distributed through irrigation canals. This ingenious system ensured the flourishing of the civilization of Angkor. According to Fletcher, it made it possible to store enough water during a drought. And the ability to change the direction of rainwater flows and collect it has also become a panacea for floods. Considering that other medieval states of Southeast Asia suffered from either a shortage or an excess of water, the strategic importance of Angkor's hydraulic structures can hardly be overestimated. But these same structures over time turned into a real headache for Khmer engineers: the complex system became more and more unmanageable. One of the evidences of the deteriorated water structures is the pond at the Western Mebon - a temple on the island in the Western Baray. The pollen discovered by archaeologists indicates that lotuses and other aquatic plants grew there until the 13th century. But then they were replaced by ferns, preferring swampy places or wet soil. It is obvious that even at the time when Angkor was at the zenith of glory, this reservoir of water for some reason dried up. “Something didn't start much earlier than we expected,” says Daniel Penny, pollen specialist and co-leader of the Greater Angkor project. Since the beginning of the 14th century, Europe has experienced severe winters and cool summers for several centuries. It is quite possible that powerful climatic shifts took place in Southeast Asia. Today, the rainy season in Angkor lasts from May to October and provides about 90 percent of the region's rainfall.

To understand the rainy seasons in the distant past, Brendan Buckley of Columbia University Earth Observatory went on an expedition to the forests of Southeast Asia in search of trees with annual growth rings. Most of the trees growing in this region do not have clearly distinguishable annual rings. But the scientist still managed to find the necessary long-lived breeds, among which the rare cypress species Tokienia hodginsii, which can reach 900 years of age and even more, was of particular value. Strongly compressed growth rings of the trunk of this tree were able to tell about a series of severe droughts that occurred in Angkor in the period from 1362 to 1392 and in the 1415-1440s. The rest of the time, the region was most likely flooded with heavy rains. It is quite possible that extreme weather dealt a fatal blow to Angkor. Judging by the state of the West Barai, by the time of sunset of Angkor, the hydraulic structures were not fully operational for more than a dozen years. “Why the system didn't work at full capacity remains a mystery,” says Daniel Penny. “But this means that Angkor has no powder left in its flasks. Droughts, interspersed with rainstorms, could not but destroy the city's water supply system. And yet, Penny believes, Angkor has not turned into a desert. The inhabitants of the Tonle Sap Lake Valley, which extends south of the main temples, were able to avoid a catastrophic scenario. Tonle Sap is fed by the waters of the Mekong River, the upper reaches of which in Tibet's glaciers are not affected by abnormal rainy seasons. But at the same time, Khmer engineers, despite their great skill, were unable to mitigate the effects of drought in the north by diverting the waters of Tonle Sap Lake there, contrary to the natural relief. They could not overcome the force of gravity. “When land is depleted in tropical countries, big trouble comes,” explains anthropologist Michael Coe of Yale University. Drought may have caused famine in northern Angkor, while rice stocks remained in other parts of the city. This could well become a reason for popular unrest. In addition, as usual, trouble does not come alone. The troops of the neighboring kingdom of Ayuthaya invaded Angkor and overthrew the Khmer dynasty at the end of the second great drought. The Khmer Empire was not the first civilization to fall victim to environmental disaster. Today, scientists are inclined to believe that in the 9th century, the Mayan civilization perished due to overpopulation and a series of severe droughts. “Basically, the same thing happened in Angkor,” says Fletcher. And modern people should learn from this history lessons. The Khmers, like the Maya, created a prosperous state, but could not withstand the challenges of the elements. We are all dependent on her.

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