It’s 2012, and a group of archaeologists are flying over a previously unmapped area of Cambodian jungle. But the team have good reason to hover over this remote part of the Southeast Asian country: they suspect that something special is lurking below. The archaeologists come equipped with special laser technology, too, which they will use to uncover an incredible secret. And it’s only when they return three years later that they fully appreciate what they’ve discovered.
The area of focus for these specialists was Phnom Kulen, situated in the Cambodian province of Siem Reap. And while the jungle in the region had long been occupied by humans, no maps of the locale had ever been created prior to the archaeologists’ trip. The thick woodlands had served as an obstacle to charting efforts, for one, along with something altogether more dangerous.
During the latter half of the 20th century, you see, the jungle had been held by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. Headed by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge embarked on a cruel program of genocide that is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of almost 25 percent of the country’s population. And even when this horrifying period of Cambodia’s history finally ended, it left its mark on the land.
During the jungle’s period of occupation by the Khmer Rouge, numerous landmines were laid in the area, with some of these explosives remaining a threat to this very day. Naturally, then, it has proved too dangerous to traverse the region by foot in order to map it out. But as the archaeologists working in 2012 discovered, modern technology has been able to help on that front.
Utilizing a charting method known as LiDAR, the group flew over the jungle and fired lasers towards the ground. Then, by measuring the beams that were reflected back, they were able to create a picture of what lay beneath them. And although the image that the specialists created in 2012 didn’t give the whole picture, it was nevertheless clear that the team had flown over something special.
However, before we discover the nature of the archaeologists’ breakthrough, let’s find out more about Cambodia itself. At one time, the nation was part of the Khmer Empire, which also extended into modern Laos, Thailand and south Vietnam. During the empire’s height, then, its kings reigned over significant swathes of Southeast Asia.
And this period in Asian history is thought to have commenced in 802 A.D. – the year in which a man named Jayavarman II apparently proclaimed himself to be the chakravartin of the Phnom Kulen region. Using the term speaks volumes about the ruler’s sense of self-esteem, too, as in English it can be translated to either “king of the world” or “king of kings.”
Furthermore, throughout the course of its existence, the Khmer Empire is thought to have been strongly reliant on agriculture. Its people were largely farmers, many of whom would plant rice in the vicinity of riversides. Innovative irrigation schemes involving reservoirs and canals helped in the cultivation of the crop, too.
Fishing was also important to the Khmer Empire – particularly as many of its subjects lived near to waterways and lakes. And the catches made were often consumed in the form of a paste called prahok – essentially squashed fish sheathed in banana leaves.
The Khmer people additionally raised livestock such as pigs, cows and fowl, with the animals often being found beneath agricultural workers’ homes. Khmer houses were often positioned on top of pillars, you see, as this safeguarded the dwellings from floods.
These elevated buildings are said to have been constructed from bamboo and covered with roofs made of dried vegetation. Inside, the mother and father of the family would get a bedroom, along with any daughters that they may have had. Any boy children, by contrast, would have to sleep in whatever available spots they could find.
But, naturally, the upper echelons of Khmer society lived in much grander conditions than their farming counterparts. Their dwellings were bigger and had roofs made with wooden shingles. There were additional rooms in these buildings to boot – each of which would have been laid out in an opulent style.
Perhaps one of the most common aspects of the Khmer lifestyle, though, was trading at a marketplace. And in one particular urban center in the empire, it’s believed that the market wasn’t actually based inside a building; instead, it was out in the open, with merchants’ goods spread out on the ground.
What’s more, marketplaces throughout the Khmer Empire were apparently predominantly operated by women – suggesting, perhaps, that female citizens at the time were afforded considerable levels of liberty. That said, women in the region did tend to marry young, which accounts somewhat for the empire’s sizeable population.
And for a large part of the Khmer Empire’s existence, the city of Angkor was considered to be its capital. Otherwise referred to as Yaśodharapura, this metropolis has a lengthy history. Apparently, Angkor was at its height for roughly 600 years, with the city beginning to thrive in the ninth century A.D.
Today, the remnants of Angkor can be found close to the contemporary Cambodian city of Siem Riep. More than 1,000 examples of ruined temples still stand in the area today, in fact. And while a number of these relics are now little more than heaps of stone, others are far grander. The Angkor Wat, for instance, is still the biggest individual religious monument on the planet. But that’s not all.
Thanks to modern technology, you see, experts have determined that Angkor itself was the biggest city on Earth before industrial times. Its infrastructure was sophisticated, too, neatly linking a minimum of 390 square miles of land to a number of temples situated at the center of the metropolis. Yet this feat wasn’t actually achieved using roads.
Instead, Angkor was apparently a “hydraulic city” with a water network adept in both storage and dispersion. And this system is likely to have been crucial to irrigation efforts, helping to sustain a population estimated to have reached between 750,000 and one million.
Yet while Angkor served as the Khmer capital for much of the empire’s history, certain rulers of the realm did at times bestow that role upon different settlements. A city known as Hariharalaya was once the main seat of power, for instance, as was another called Koh Ker.
However, there may have been a further capital that ultimately became lost to history. Indeed, this mountain-based center has been referenced in ancient texts, according to French archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance. And the area in question was apparently once ruled by Jayavarman II – the founder of the empire itself.
Alongside Damian Evans of The University of Sydney, Chevance led the 2012 mapping mission that took place in the skies above Phnom Kulen. And the archaeologist certainly had the relevant credentials, as at the time he was the director of London’s Archaeology and Development Foundation – which was originally launched in a bid to discover new details about the Khmer Empire.
Perhaps the most crucial element of the mapping work, moreover, was the LiDAR technology. For a whole week, then, the archaeologists took helicopter trips into the air above the Phnom Kulen jungle, using LiDAR to create a “snapshot” of what had once been standing on the land beneath them. And in some cases, what Chevance, Evans and their colleagues discovered confirmed what other archaeologists had unearthed at ground level.
By utilizing the high-tech gadgets in their possession, the group had managed to broadly map out the city of Mahendraparvata – a pretty significant breakthrough for Khmer historians. After all, Mahendraparvata is thought to have acted as the empire’s capital during Jayavarman II’s reign.
What’s more, the data LiDAR provided essentially allowed the researchers to glimpse the ruins that lay beneath the jungle overgrowth. And in doing so, the team could now tell that the three dozen sets of archaeological fragments they’d already known about were actually linked together.
In 2013 Chevance spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald about the group’s findings, saying, “We now know from the new data [that] the city was for sure connected by roads, canals and dykes.” Yet the image of Mahendraparvata that the LiDAR results had created wasn’t quite perfect.
Ultimately, then, it was necessary for the researchers to also work from ground level, meaning plans were put in place for them to journey to the site once again. On this future occasion, the team would have to use LiDAR over a much wider space and take a closer look at the region in person.
Finally, in 2015, the specialists went back to Phnom Kulen in search of more information on Mahendraparvata. And it seems that their ground-based studies of the wooded area bore considerable fruit. As Damian Evans put it to New Scientist in 2019, the work led to “a very full and detailed interpretation of that city.”
From what the researchers had deciphered, Mahendraparvata once sprawled over a patch of land that spanned between 14 and 19 square miles wide. The city also appeared to have been built in a large grid formation – each square of which held buildings such as temples within their boundaries. It seemed, too, that there were banks that traveled from north to south and east to west.
All of this would seem to imply that Mahendraparvata was very purposely designed and constructed – implying, maybe, that the Khmer people were forward-thinking. Speaking about the layout of the city, Evans explained to New Scientist, “It shows a degree of centralized control and planning.”
Remarkably, though, the thought that looks to have been put into Mahendraparvata’s construction stands in stark contrast to what is known about other urban centers within the empire. These cities, it appears, were developed in an altogether less exhaustive manner. Evans added, “What you’re seeing at Mahendraparvata is something else. It speaks of a grand vision and a fairly elaborate plan.”
For now, it’s not entirely clear when some of the buildings at Mahendraparvata were constructed. Figuring this out, though, could be helpful in painting an overall picture of the city and its origins. As the University of Hawaii’s Miriam Stark put it to New Scientist, “The next step is to try to date all of this.”
Having said that, we have a broad account of Mahendraparvata’s history that has been drawn up based on existing knowledge. As the city of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for quite some time, its predecessor, Mahendraparvata, probably only served in the role for a comparatively short period.
And if this is indeed the case, then perhaps Mahendraparvata failed to retain its status as capital of the empire because of its location. Evans, for one, sees the area as an unlikely choice – not least because the mountainous terrain didn’t exactly make it easy to produce food.
Still, it seems that the people of Mahendraparvata tried to overcome this challenge. In fact, there’s evidence that they attempted to construct a water reservoir by adjusting the form of a valley. In the end, though, their efforts were likely in vain, and it’s believed that the project was dropped. And, ultimately, it may have been a relatively easy decision to establish a new capital elsewhere.
Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, Evans pondered how the mountainous location may have affected the city’s people. Referencing the map that he and his team had devised, he mentioned, for example, that there was a distinct lack of plants in ancient Mahendraparvata. Evans revealed, “We see from the imagery that the landscape was completely devoid of vegetation.”
Evans went on, “One theory we are looking at is that the severe environmental impact of deforestation and the dependence on water management led to the demise of the civilization. Perhaps it became too successful to the point of becoming unmanageable.” But even so, the city itself may still have thrived.
Yes, although it isn’t clear how long Mahendraparvata was inhabited for, it does appear that people continued to visit the area. Evans claims that even hundreds of years after Mahendraparvata’s foundation, there were apparently those who went to the city to try and fix it up.
And while talking to New Scientist, Evans reflected on the importance of the erstwhile capital, explaining, “The city may not have lasted for centuries or perhaps even decades, but the cultural and religious significance of the place has lasted right up until the present day.” So what happened to the Khmer Empire itself?
Well, the empire as a whole is said to have disintegrated during the 1400s. After having been weakened over the previous two centuries, the civilization is widely believed to have collapsed entirely after the city of Angkor was invaded in 1431.
Nowadays, the remnants of this old empire can be seen in the ancient temple buildings left in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. And hopefully historians will learn more about what life was like at the time by further investigating the ruins of Mahendraparvata. In any case, conservation in the region is important. As Cambodian minister Chuch Phoeun told AFP in 2013, “We need to preserve the area because it’s the origin of our culture.”