Let's lay down the foundations for one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world: At its height, the city of Angkor was, by several measures, the largest city of the medieval era. With a million people and a footprint larger than modern-day New York, it was arguably the world’s largest pre-industrial city. And at its center lay the magnificent Angkor Wat.
Let's take a little tour around Suryavarman II crowning achievement, the temple that took only 33 years to complete, while Europeans were taking centuries to build their cathedrals. With a two mile long wall, gates large enough to allow elephants to pass and steps so steep that the average person needed to climb them like a ladder, Angkor Wat's every feature was made to be impressive. But what lies at the heart might be surprising...
Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist pacifist, was forced to give up his pacifism and rise to the throne at the age of 60. But once seated on the throne, he built Angkor Thom. The architecture was a fusion of buddhist and hindu stylings and included a comprehensive medical system. But will Angkor be able to stand after Jayavarman VII has passed?
We've talked about the magnificence of Angkor at its peak, but how did this sprawling metropolis become a city of ruins? The city of Angkor depended on the reliability of the seasonal monsoon. Several decades of drought left them with little choice than to modify the whole water system. But when the waters returned, they returned in force. As did enemy forces. Thus begins the death spiral of the city of Angkor.
After its decline, Angkor had become the Ancient, Lost City so prominent in our pop culture. Just one problem: Angkor was neither ancient (having declined around the same time as Hundred Years War) nor lost (people still lived there!). That didn't stop the European visitors from trying to invent all kinds of stories for how this city could possibly exist, and stealing parts of the temple to bring back home. But despite all the hardships Angkor faced, it managed to become a national symbol for Cambodia and still remains to this day.