For centuries, legends told of an immense lost temple that was hidden deep within the jungles of Cambodia. The tales seemed almost too fantastic to be true. But one day in 1860, French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who had traveled to Cambodia and was busily wending his way through thick vegetation in search of insects and zoological specimens, came to a clearing and was astonished to behold a vast ancient structure. He had discovered the decaying, long-abandoned remains of the world’s largest religious monument – Angkor Wat.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Angkor Wat is indeed the world’s largest religious monument, but, although largely neglected after the 16th century, it was never fully abandoned. Cambodians certainly knew of its existence all along, and numerous Europeans had visited it from the 1500s onward. However, Mouhot deserves some credit – his glowing descriptions of Angkor Wat’s size and magnificence found their way into the public eye and created a worldwide awareness of the site that eventually led to its restoration during the 20th century.
Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century, and some say a divine architect constructed it in a single night. But ancient inscriptions suggest a more plausible tale – the project took 35 years and involved 300,000 laborers and 6,000 elephants. Angkor Wat began as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu and one of its purposes was to be a personal mausoleum for the great Khmer King Suryavarman II. However, it became a Buddhist temple only decades later and remains one to this day.
The size and scope of the Angkor Wat temple city are staggering. It is said to have been the largest city of the pre-industrial world and comprises a land area larger than modern-day Paris. A 2.2-mile wall and 3-mile moat surround the temple itself. The temple city was built from 5-10 million sandstone blocks weighing up to 1.5 tons each, all quarried at least 25 miles away. That is more stone than was used to build all the Egyptian pyramids combined.
Virtually all of Angkor Wat’s surfaces – walls, columns, roofs, etc. – are carved. It is extensively decorated with literally miles of storytelling reliefs. These include images of unicorns, griffins, winged dragons pulling chariots, warriors following an elephant-mounted leader, celestial dancing women with elaborate hairstyles, and approximately 1,800 depictions of specific deities.
Angkor Wat is a remarkable feat of construction that incorporates a thorough knowledge of astronomy. Never is this more evident than on the mornings of the spring and fall equinoxes, when visitors gather in front of the temple’s western entrance gate. The sun rises from behind the temple until it is centered perfectly atop the 250-foot-high pinnacle of the central tower, the most sacred point. This phenomenon occurs only on the dates of the equinoxes.
Speaking of visitors, this once “forgotten” site has become a huge tourist magnet. The number of people who visit Angkor Wat each year has grown from only 7,650 in 1993 to more than 2.5 million today. Not surprisingly, the Angkor Wat temple is depicted on Cambodia's national flag.