The Surprising Discovery at Angkor Wat
António da Madelena, a Portuguese Capuchin friar, was one of the first Western visitors to Angkor Wat, the monumental and moated 12th Century Hindu-Buddhist temple in what, today, is northern Cambodia. It “is of such extraordinary construction”, he told the historian Diogo do Couto in 1589, “that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”
Europeans were baffled for centuries by what they found at Angkor
By the time of Madelena’s visit, the once mighty Khmer Empire that had built Angkor and its temple dedicated to Vishnu – mistaken by visitors even today for a walled and towered city – had fallen. Three centuries later, Europeans were baffled by what they found at Angkor. Henri Mouhout, a young French naturalist and explorer who died here in 1861 and whose writings, published posthumously, encouraged successive waves of archaeologists to Cambodia in pursuit of a lost ancient civilisation, could make neither head nor tail of what he saw.
Comparable To That Of Solomon’s Temple
“One of these temples – a rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings,” he wrote. “It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
It seemed inconceivable to Mouhout that the “barbaric” Khmers could have built Angkor Wat, let alone the other temples and palaces spread around it across some 500 acres (2 sq km). But, the Khmers did build Angkor Wat at the zenith of their once dynamic empire that, founded in 802, fell in 1431 when the rival Ayutthaya (Thai) kingdom to the north sacked Angkor. The seat of the remnant Khmer kingdom moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital today. read more at bbc.com