Why did Angkor fall?

Gibbons wrote about the collapse of Rome. Lewis addressed what went wrong with Islam. But few have addressed why the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat were abandoned. Ancient Thai annals have led us to believe that Burmese or Siam invaders were ultimately responsible for the city’s downfall. But Australian archaeologist Roland Fletcher believes he has found a more mundane answer: the environment.

The Angkor Wat structures were probably both religious and political in nature, but they were also an integrated water-management system. Fletcher notes that the complex (stretching for hundreds of square miles) centered on three great reservoirs that diverted water from the Puok, Roluos, and Siem Reap rivers. Canals and sewage built around these rivers and reservoirs allowed for a vast urban complex with a low-density patchwork of homes and temples. At its height, Angkor was home to an estimated one million people. Yet this water system was also the achilles heal of the Empire. When the rivers dried up, a combination of infrastructure collapse and environmental degradation likely destroyed this once extraordinary medieval civilization. Rack up another case study for the Harm de Blij and Jared Diamond school of geography.

Both Younghusband and myself have traveled to Angkor Wat on seperate occasions and spent days exploring the ruins. Digging through some travel photographs, I found quite a few pictures evidencing the now desiccated waterworks that kept Angkor functioning centuries ago.

A more complete article on the subject can be read in the 10 March 2006 issue of _Science_, available in pdf here.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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7 Responses to Why did Angkor fall?

  1. lirelou says:

    An interesting theory. But one question intrigues me: If Angkor simply decayed, wouldn’t the populations living around it have retained the collective memory of who had built it, and who the rulers were? On the other hand, the tale that the ruins were built by a race of giants squares nicely with the idea of a defeat so devestating that local inhabitants at the time the French discovered the ruins wre not descended from the inhabitants of Angkor Wat, but from other Khmer groups which had subsequently moved in from distant areas.

  2. Curzon says:

    I think the argument is the infrastructure/environmental collapse made the city uninhabitable, and thus abandoned. Consider: Rome’s population was 250,000 when Alaric destroyed the aqueducts and sacked the city, but the population fell to 50,000 within a decade. Angkor was estimated to be a million.

    Certainly invasion was at minimum partially responsible for the civilization’s downfall. All we know is that only the Angkor Wat itself was continuously maintained after the city was abandoned.

    Also, forgive me for pointing out this small éditer: the first Westerners to “discover” Angkor were Portugese.

  3. ron patterson says:

    very interesting! Invasion cetainly hastened the downfall. I would suggest that the maintainence of Ankor Wat was maintanece of the cermonial /religious centers. It probably held on to its religious purpose long after it had ceased to be a population center. Very reminescent of the Mayan ruins and the network of canals found there. drought and neglect of waterways led to depopulation there also but some religous ceremonies were still held there. Did not know that it was the Portuguese who discovered Ankor Wat!

  4. lirelou says:

    Curzon, “a virtual exposition that may interest you,”:http://www.efeo.fr/Expo%20Cham/accueil.htm which concerns Angkor Wat’s neighbors.On the EFEO site. Vietnam likewise has some intersting ruins to explore, although nothing on the scale of Angkor Wat . . . yet.

  5. Jinja says:

    Some of the environmental change may have been local and man made. There certainly was social change. The growth of Buddhism made the societal need and value of monuments much less important.

    As regards abandonment and ‘discovery’, the site has been in continuous habitation for centuries, by different faiths of Khmer people. There are plenty of inscriptions and historical records in Sanskrit and Old Khmer. The record is far from perfect, but some present-day Cambodians can trace their lineage back to ancient kings.

    If you want a good attempt to visualize when Angkor was the largest city on the planet, try Geoff Ryman’s recent novel ‘The King’s Last Song’. http://andybrouwer.co.uk/ryman.html

  6. lirelou says:

    Jinja, Buddhism, per se, does not disdain great monuments, as Pagan and many other Buddhist sites attest. And carting the entire population of a city-state away does not prevent their distant racial cousins from moving in, but the cognizant record of the previously populated area would be lost to the new pioneers. Consider: The Stieng, Koho, M’nong, Sedang, Bahnar, Rengao, and Halang are Mon-Khmer tribes inhabiting the Central Highlands between Vietnam and Cambodia. Their religious praticies are tribal, though their spoken language is a Khmer dialect. Several hundred thousand Khmer live in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. These, in contrast, are culturally and linguistically identical to their cousins on the other side of the border. Had the Khmer Rouge succeeded in wiping out the Khmer nation, elements of the “Khmer Krom” who repopulated the country would have brought with them a knowledge of Khmer culture and history. But, were the “Khmer Krom” unable to do so, any repopulation coming from the Central Highlands, while remaining ethnically Khmer, would in all liklihood lose that cultural thread.

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