A Cambodian History Lesson

Posted on by Sralang Apsara


You may well have noticed, since it’s been widely reported in the global media, that some interesting conclusions have been drawn from research into the downfall of the Cambodian empire centred on Angkor Wat. For those of you who missed it, I’ll summarise the findings here.

Some fifteen years of research, greatly aided by aerial photography and NASA radar sensors, show that the city-complex was far larger than previously thought. Hosting a population of some half million, it covered roughly 3000 square kilometres – about the size of modern-day Singapore, or Los Angeles if you prefer, making it the biggest pre-industrial city or urban complex in the world by far (its nearest competitor in Central America was up to a mere 150 sq km). A further seventy-four temples and 168 previously unidentified sites have been uncovered together with an extremely extensive system of water management – over a thousand man-made ponds, reservoirs up to eight kilometres long and a huge complex of irrigation channels. The dimensions of the city are three times previous estimates and far outstrip the current boundary of the World Heritage site.

Of huge contemporary interest and relevance is the light the findings shed on the demise of this great empire. After six centuries, the city’s power declined rapidly in the sixteenth century; it was abandoned and the capital relocated to near Phnom Penh. The reasons for this have always remained speculative since the Khmer records are silent; older generations of historians who tended to pay too much attention to kings and wars since that is what ancient written records tend to focus on credited the fall to invading Thai armies which sacked Angkor Thom in 1453, or even to a shift to Theravadan Buddhism at the same time – the argument being that the new form of Buddhism eroded belief in the divinity of the kings, thus weakening the social fabric.

It seems more likely now that both the above situations were not the causes of, but reactions to an internal disaster. We all like our stories to centre on big characters – good guys and bad guys, but you don’t have to be Marxist to recognise that history is often driven by more subtle yet powerful impersonal forces. The new evidence lends considerable weight to the theory that no one destroyed the great Angkorean Empire – rather, it destroyed itself. The Thais picked off a civilization that had already imploded; the people lost faith in a leadership that had let them down – not so much due to political intrigue or exploitation of the masses, but by an understandable failure to anticipate the consequences of centuries of unparalleled success.

Then, as now, the Cambodian economy is utterly dependent on rice production. Feeding such a huge population necessitated intensive production of rice; furthermore, the ambitious building projects required a lot of wood for the scaffolding to construct the temples. Together, these factors resulted in a prolonged and extensive programme of deforestation. At the same time, both rice and people require fresh water hence the huge water channels and irrigation projects.

Without forest cover, the monsoon rains would wash soil into the ponds and irrigation channels which therefore required considerable maintenance. Eventually the size of the complex put so much strain on the maintenance system that the leadership failed to cope with it; with the channels clogging up and the water system failing, rice production would have taken a devastating blow. Given that rice was both the staple diet of the population and the main export, wholesale economic collapse and starvation-based desperation could have set in very quickly.

What we can see, therefore, is that what had been the world’s most advanced urban complex rapidly disappeared from history owing to its own hubris; whilst it wasn’t responsible for global warming or depletion of fossil fuel resources, it precipitated an environmental disaster involving over-population, over-construction, deforestation and soil erosion. Like Gaia, the jungle that had been destroyed returned to reassert the inexorable victory of nature. The ancient Khmers could not be expected to have had the foresight to see what was coming. We don’t have that excuse. With 21st century technology, will we prove any wiser? As has been said before, history repeats itself; it has to – nobody listens.

Sralang Apsara

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