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Jewel of the Jungle

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Author Topic: Jewel of the Jungle  (Read 632 times)
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« Reply #15 on: June 25, 2007, 12:10:53 am »

Rescuing Angkor
An unprecedented effort to reclaim the ancient temples from the Cambodian jungle is racing against a tourist onslaught
By Richard Covington

In a clearing of the tropical forest near the entrance to Ta Som, an 800-year-old temple at Angkor, in northwest Cambodia, two architects are having a friendly argument. For the umpteenth time, they’re debating what to do about the towering strangler fig trees that threaten to rip apart sections of this Buddhist temple, five miles north of Angkor Wat, the most awe inspiring and best known of the 44 temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries in the 155-square-mile Angkor district. To Westerners accustomed to romantic images of the ancient religious ruins, the gargantuan roots entwined with the sculptures and doorways may have a picturesque quality. But the trees are a nightmare to the legions of people working to preserve and restore the 100 or so structures in and around Angkor. Roots split walls and crush intricate carvings. Mature trees topple, taking building chunks with them.

One of the architects, a rangy Englishman named John Sanday, shakes his head as he looks at two 100-foot strangler figs hugging the entrance to Ta Som in a gnarled embrace. The sinewy roots caused a half-inch crack in the carvings that span the lintel of a 30-foot-high portal. The bas-relief depicts Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist god of compassion and mercy. “These trees are a menace,” Sanday says. “They will live a couple of hundred years at most, and when branches break off, they’ll bring down the gate.”

“But the roots are holding the carvings and larger stones together,” says Var Morin, a courtly Cambodian and a former student of Sanday’s. “If we cut the trees down now, the gate will surely fall.”

“What if we compromise and cut away most of the trees?” Sanday says. “Then there’s less chance of a storm bringing them down.”

“Let me think about it,” Morin says. For now, the trees remain intact.

Both men work for the World Monuments Fund, a New York City-based conservation group that has been helping restore Angkor’s temples since 1989. Morin, 45, belongs to the first generation of native Cambodians to work on this national treasure in three decades. It has taken that long for the population to begin to recover from the genocide of 1975-1978, when the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist military force that gained power in the late 1960s, killed some two million Cambodians—nearly a quarter of the population. Vietnameseforces drove Khmer Rouge officials from power in 1979, but rebels loyal to the regime continued to vie for control of the country until surrendering in 1998 to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier elected prime minister the same year. Now Cambodian professionals—archaeologists, architects, restoration specialists and museum curators—are once again working to preserve Angkor, alongside experts from the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, China and India. Currently, UNESCO and a committee drawn from 30 nations are helping the Cambodian government run the restoration project. The international community expects to assist Cambodia for at least the next ten years.

There is nothing quite like Angkor. The temples are adorned by spectacular giant carved heads and elegant basreliefs of buxom celestial dancers known as apsaras. The main attraction, Angkor Wat, is surrounded by a broad moat filled with lily pads and lotus plants. Its five pineapple-shaped sandstone towers symbolize MountMeru, the Hindu-Buddhist home of the gods, amid the primordial ocean. Among other superlatives, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, rising 213 feet and covering 22 acres.

Angkor was a metropolis of a million or so people, the capital of the Khmer kingdom, which flourished for 500 years, peaking in the 12th century. (The word “Khmer” refers to Cambodia’s historically prevailing ethnolinguistic group.) The empire covered nearly all of Southeast Asia before declining by 1600. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, the jungle all but swallowed Angkor. In 1850, the ruins were rediscovered by Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, a French missionary, who cut through the jungle and published an account of his two days at Angkor Wat. But the Western fascination with Angkor as a sort of lost paradise was ignited by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who wrote about it following his 1860 expedition: “There are . . . ruins of such grandeur . . . that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” In this century, Angkor fell into disrepair under the Khmer Rouge, and for some years afterward organized thugs stole hundreds of priceless sculptures and carvings. In 1992, UNESCO designated Angkor as a World Heritage Site, one of 754 internationally protected historic and natural locations. The hundreds of security police in place since 1994 have curbed the looting.
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