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    The powerful people of Angkor, the peoples impact on their land, and their development into a Hydrological society.
    The city of Angkor, in Cambodia, can be considered an urban complex and is known for its beauty and hydrological advances that have stood the test of time. Even though the city was built from mostly sandstone which experiences wear, typical for the tropical region in which it lies, Angkor and its remnants are an important part of history that allows us to discover the building techniques, city organization and hydraulic systems of the ancient. The architecture of Angkor embodied masterful building techniques and ornament that hinted at mysticism and magic. Angkor was built and existed during the Khmer Empire and was a flourishing “civilization between the 9th and 15th centuries AD.” (Coe 15) The Khmer empire flourished as a hydrological society and researchers have conducted many investigation using cutting age techniques to create a sound hypothesis to answer why they built the water infrastructures. What were some of those investigations and what led to the demise of the Khmer Empire?

    “From the 1950s onwards, Bernard-Philippe articulated his idea of Angkor as a 'hydraulic city'…. from the 1980s that description and its economic and social implications have been much debated” (Fletcher 82). The permanent capital, established by Yashodapura, of the Khmer Empire governed until the 15th century. It was later given the name Angkor (from the Sanskrit "nagara", meaning city or capital).
    Angkor had many temples, built and natural beauty on the site; most notably Angkor Vat (or also know as Angkor Wat) and the Kulen Mountains. The geographical region of Angkor has hundreds of discovered temples and remnants of monuments and other infrastructure (Angkor History 2011). The Khmer empire started to develop the first urban communities, which existed, flourished and invested significantly in water management, and understanding of the natural workings of the world. They pioneered the domestication of water. The people of Angkor were dependent upon their sophisticated water systems and hydraulic engineering practices for survival and attainment.

    The ruins of the city, now located amidst forest and farmland, contained shrines, water tanks and “more than 1000 temples including Angkor Wat, said to be the world’s largest religious monument. Angkor’s population estimated to have been over one million” (Coe 169). Angkor as a society faced two issues. One was that Angkor had to protect itself from the monsoon rains and the other was how to irrigate its agricultural land to feed such a high population. Due to the remarkable network of reservoirs, channels and embankments, Angkor was able to overcome the two problems. The Angkor-ian people were able to engineer not only the distribution of water, but “able to do so methodically and systematically across their enormous landscape on a large scale.” The large baray of the Angkor region exploited the slope of the land, which also represents their creative iniquity (Chandler 26).

    The channels and embankments they built were from a combination of materials. They used masonry, clay, sand, and any available building material collected from the Angkor plain. “The banks of the channels served as roads, while people lived along the embankments and on occupation mounds” (Coe 44). At the center of their water channel networks were vast reservoirs. It is an assumed hypothesis that the channels and waters use had ritual function as well as providing drinking water and being a source for irrigation. The function of these is a controversy between researchers and scientists, particularly the hypothesis that the water systems were formed either for a religious relationship or for irrigation.

    Their water system evolved over three centuries, during which there were considerable modifications in order to evolve to the changing landscape. Ultimately, the system could not be sustained. “The attempt to feed a population of over one million led to extensive deforestation, top soil degradation and erosion” (Coe 16). Forms of water control were not exclusive to the Angkor region or to the Angkorean period (9-14th century AD). Sambor Prei Kuk, for example, has a complex system of reservoirs. (Moore 213) “Each of the major canals begins or ends at a temple or basin within the environs of Angkor” (Fletcher 658). The reservoirs or baray, according Fletcher, did not appear to have been mostly agricultural. This reinforces Fletchers conflict that their technological innovations related to water management tradition was considered to have been an integrated process rather than an independent functioning of parts. The researchers also found vast amounts of information through the radiocarbon dating technique. One of their more interesting findings was that through their technique, scientists were able to answer specific questions to the history of Angkor. One of these findings were that embellishments that came along with their infrastructure. “We established that the remarkable urban design of the royal terraces was adopted in Angkor as early as the 10th century AD” (Fletcher 670). A lot of the research I conducted concluded that reconstructions of theories and ideas would require information they do not have; although their technique, understanding and discovery have been improved with technology and time. Researchers wanted to find objectives and motives to base their understanding of why they would build temples and the urban city as well as to understand what the hydrological technology was used for. The hydrological system was a system that manifested and was perfected within the Khmer region. The investigations headed by the researchers would not have been possible without remote sensing, and in aerial or satellite imagery

    Research was conducted that explored social and economic dimensions of the system, and argued that the hydraulic features had a 'double aspect'. “While undeniably part of a ritual tradition, they also clearly served a utilitarian purpose, which he assumed was to ameliorate, through irrigation, the impact of the sharp seasonality of rainfall on rice farming” (Kummu 7). “A massive water management network with three, distinct, interconnected operational zones for versatile control, storage and redirection of water has been identified, possessing the components required for systematic flood control and the distribution of water to support agriculture” (Roland Fletcher et al. 658). “The vast and populous urban complex was defined and sustained by a complex irrigation system which all fell under state control,” Kummu argued against the idea on a “number of technical grounds, notably that the baray had neither outlets nor any means of water distribution, and that the area the system could have irrigated, and hence its productive impact, would have been insignificant. Through my reading I feel as though Kummu judged Angkorian technology to be inadequate by modern engineering and agricultural standards” (Kummu 12).

    The Angkorian people were highly ritual, had many symbolic structures, social organization and fundamental cultural meanings that are reflected in their temples and architecture as well as planning. The water management network depended on elaborate configurations, which only a culture of higher understanding could bring. This finding gives me an inclination about a religious use of the hydrological system. Angkor could engineer precise, durable and innovative masonry techniques towards the management of water. I do inquire that part of the water network may have had a variety of functionality at any one time, and must have also changed function over the Khmer reign. The people of Angkor remodeled the landscape throughout the Khmer period. Its success points to its’ long developmental history indicating a tradition of the passing down od techniques, practice and practical knowledge. The history of how the water networks and city was remodeled is also critical to understanding the stresses that it confronted which ultimately led to its’ demise.

    Separating ritual and mundane functions in Angkor is not meaningful. The debates about water management should be replaced with the idea of what role the network takes on, how it was developed, the way it was managed, the degree to which the stately power managed its functions, and the “relationship between the operation of the network and the demise of Angkor” (Moore 206).

    Digs, observations and surveys of the lands, banks, channels and reservoirs at Angkor shows them to have been part of a large scale water management network. Water was collected from the hills, was then stored and might have been distributed for a wide variety of purposes. Research has pointed to a few hypothesized purposes including agriculture, flood control, and spiritual rituals. When the system experienced a water overflow, the water was diverted and carried away to lake Tonle Sap, which is just south of Angkor. The water network, reservoirs and channels had various additions and modifications through the Khmer Empire. The people of Angkor have invented the greatest water management systems that any society has ever formulated. Unfortunately, the city fell and became environmentally destabilized due to the hydraulic systems that glorified them.


    Angkor History. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Web. September 18, 2011.

    Coe, M. 2003 Angkor and the Khmer civilization. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. p. 15, 16, 32-36, 44, 168-171.

    Chandler, David P. 1983 A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Col: Westview Press. P. 17, 18, 26.

    Fletcher, R., Penny, D., Evans, D., Pottier, C., Barbetti, M., Kummu, M., Lustig, T. & Authorityfor the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA)Department of Monuments and Archaeology Team. 2008 The water management network of Angkor, Cambodia. Antiquity 82, 658–670.

    Fletcher, R., et. al., The water management network of Angkor, Cambodia. Antiquity v. 82 (September 2008) p. 658-70

    Kummu, M. 2003. The natural environment and historical water management of Angkor, Cambodia. Paper presented at the 5th World Archaeological Congress, Washington D.C., USA. p. 2, 7, 11-13.

    Moore, E. “Water Management in Early Cambodia: Evidence from Aerial Photography.” The Geographical Journal Vol. 155, No. 2 (Jul., 1989): 204-214. Web Journal. September 18, 2011.

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