Can Angkor Be Saved?

By Bequette, France | UNESCO Courier, February 1994 | Go to article overview
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Can Angkor Be Saved?

Bequette, France, UNESCO Courier

BENEATH the aircraft's wing at sunset, the broad marshy moat dotted with white egrets, the three rectangles of covered galleries, the terraces and the five high, sculpted towers of Angkor Wat are all tinged pink. We are privileged to be flying over the best-known temple of the unique complex of monuments that is Angkor--in old Khmer, the name means "the city" or "the capital". Here, on a plain 200 square kilometres in extent in north-eastern Cambodia, between the Kulen plateau and the Tonle Sap ("Great Lake"), a dozen Khmer rulers of the ninth to the twelfth centuries built seven capitals containing many temples. Some are hidden in the jungle, where they are even more inaccessible because of the presence of the Khmer Rouge, who after holding power from 1975 to 1978 and killing upwards of a million Cambodians, took refuge in this region near the Thai border. The temples are all that now remains of the ancient capitals, for only the gods had the right to stone or brick buildings. The palaces and dwellings were built of wood, and they have since disappeared without trace.


Nature, not human wrath, has destroyed these marvellously rich monuments. The heat and humidity of the tropical climate encouraged the unbridled growth of kapok and "strangler fig" trees, popularly associated with rains because their roots destroy monuments.

Today the principal temples have been freed of the vegetation that held them in its grip. Only the Ta Prohm temple has deliberately been left in the midst of the thickets in which the French missionary Charles Bouillevaux and, later, the naturalist Henri Mouhot found it in the mid-nineteenth century. Since 1898, the year in which the French Far Eastern School (the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, or EFEO) was founded, a steady stream of archaeologists have worked on the site. They patiently cleared away the undergrowth, dismantled and then reassembled the monuments, and in 1908 created the "Conservation d'Angkor" to which the most threatened statues were taken.

According to Bernard Philippe Groslier of the EFEO, a former curator of the site, "There is hardly anything in the world comparable to the Angkor complex in terms of the number, size and perfection of its buildings." But this masterpiece is in grave danger, and in 1989 the four main Cambodian political parties asked UNESCO to assume the coordination of international activities for the preservation of the monuments of Angkor. In December 1992 Angkor was placed on the World Heritage List.

In view of the scale of the conservation problems involved, UNESCO'S World Heritage Committee placed a number of conditions on Angkor's inclusion on the List, insisting that a legal framework for conservation work and a management plan should be drawn up, and that an authority should be established with the resources to manage the entire Angkor area. UNESCO'S first task was to help the government to set up a Cambodian Authority for the Protection of the National Heritage, which was formally approved in February 1993. UNESCO has also worked with the Cambodian government and a group of international experts on a Zoning and Environmental Management Plan (ZEMP) for the authorities, donors and local people as well as visitors. This comprehensive document takes into account Angkor's assets as well as the dangers threatening the site.

The archaeological treasures are particularly at risk from lichens, microscopic algae and bacteria that proliferate in the guano of the many bats living in the ruins. The ZEMP also cites the destructive effects of monsoon rains, the vegetation, and variations in the underground aquifer that influence the stability of the buildings. Other factors include uncontrolled agricultural development after deforestation, the influx of thousands of tourists and the construction of hotels to replace existing facilities that are not up to international standards. The region badly needs revenue from tourism, but there is also a risk that it may suffer from it.

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Can Angkor Be Saved?


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