Angkor (ăng´kôr), site of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, north of Tônlé Sap, NW Cambodia, for about five and a half centuries (9th to 15th), the heart of the empire. Extending over an area of 120 sq mi (323 sq km), the ruins contain some of the most imposing monuments in the world, including about a thousand temples, mainly Hindu and some Buddhist; the ancient city, however, had an extent perhaps nearly 10 times that size (according to satellite photographs published in 2007), and was home to perhaps 750,000 people. The earliest temples were constructed of brick, the later of stone, and many are covered with elaborate sculptures. The Angkor site also contains palaces and other buildings associated with the Khmer state. The first capital of the empire was founded by Yasovarman I (r. 889–900) and was centered around the pyramidal temple of Phnom Bak Kheng.
To the southeast of the original capital a new temple complex, Angkor Wat [Angkor temple], was created under Suryavarman II (r. 1113–50). Planned as a sepulcher and a monument to the divinity of the monarch and measuring about 1 sq mi (2.6 sq km), it is probably the largest religious structure in the world. Surrounded by a vast moat, the carved gray sandstone temple is approached by means of an extensive causeway bordered on either side by balustrades in the form of giant Nagas (divine serpents). This avenue leads to a magnificent entrance gate. The temple proper is reached through three series of galleries separated by paved courts. The middle series has four corner towers; above it, the highest series also has four corner towers and is joined to the central sanctuary by colonnades. Angkor Wat's rising series of towers and courtyards culminate in a 213-ft (65-m) lotus blossom-shaped central tower. The whole mass has been interpreted as representing the Hindu cosmos.
The architecture of Angkor Wat, derived from the stupa form, is enormously impressive, but the most remarkable feature of the temple compound is its sculptural ornament, covering thousands of feet of wall space. The decoration is in the form of low relief of impeccable craftsmanship, illustrating scenes from the legends of Vishnu and Krishna, with some historical events from the life of the king. More delicate in proportions than their Indian prototypes, many of the figures bear a resemblance to modern Cambodian dancers in their elegance of gesture and stateliness of pose. In 1177 Angkor was sacked by the Chams, and Angkor Wat fell into ruins.
Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–c.1218) established a new capital, Angkor Thom [the great Angkor], north of Phnom Bak Kheng. The buildings of an already existing city were used as residential palaces and governmental buildings; an excellent system of moats and canals was constructed. At the four entrances of the capital, there are gateways; they open onto four avenues that meet at the Bayon, the temple in the center of the city. Before each gateway is a bridge decorated with a balustrade in the shape of a giant Naga, supported on each side by 27 carved figures. Above the gates are carved imposing stone faces, generally thought to symbolize the Bodhisattva Lokesvara.
Jayavarman VII erected the Bayon as a Buddhist sanctuary, but it underwent alterations during a later Hindu period. The central tower bears a giant image of Buddha, which has been interpreted as the incarnation of Jayavarman VII. Surrounding the main structure is a forest of more than 50 smaller towers studded with multiple heads of the king as a Buddhist god. The buildings are covered with elaborate decoration, more spontaneously and realistically rendered than that at Angkor Wat and again illustrating historical episodes from the king's life.
Abandonment and Restoration
Angkor was raided in the 14th and 15th cent. by the Thai, and was abandoned for Phnom Penh in 1434. Overgrown by the jungle, the ruins were discovered by the French in 1861. Many of the monuments were subsequently restored to their former glory; restoration has been ongoing. The Indian government embarked on a restoration program in 1986, and in 1992 the complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nonethless, many of the structures at Angkor remain in jungle-choked ruins, and some are inaccessible due to unexploded land mines left over from the fighting of the late 20th cent.
See M. Giteau, Khmer Sculpture and the Angkor Civilization (1966); B. Groslier and J. Arthaud, The Arts and Civilization of Angkor (rev. ed. 1966); J. Myrdal and G. Kessle, Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism (1971); J. Audric, Angkor and the Khmer Empire (1972); E. F. Gardner, ed., Angkor (1986); E. Mannikka, Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship (1996); H. I. Jessup and T. Zephir, ed., Sculpture of Ankor and Ancient Cambodia (1997); D. Rooney, Angkor: An Introduction to the Temples (1998); C. Jacques, Angkor: Cities and Temples (1998) and Angkor (1999).