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Below the jungle of Phnom Kulen a big suprise: Mahendraparvata - a city as big as Phnom Penh
Many secrets still surround the famous temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia, the Khmer empire and its decline. They are hard to uncover by archeologists, as in the Khmer world masonry was used almost only for the construction of religous monuments, whereas urban structures around the temples, even the royal places of Angkorian kings, were made of earth, wood and thatch. Not much has remained of these structures.
Therefore the surprise was big, when The Guardian revealed in June 2016, that Archaeologists have found "multiple, previously undocumented medieval cities not far from the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat". Only two days later the Australian archaeologist Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney's archaeological research centre in Cambodia, published his findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
To be exact: Surprising was how big these cities seemed to have been. Evans and his team were able to map them, due to a laser based technology called Lidar: by scanning vast areas from airplanes with laser. Lidar works by firing rapid laser pulses at the ground, measuring the time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. This method revealed multiple cities between 900 and 1,400 years old below the tropical forest floor. The Khmer Archaeology Lidar Consortium has revealed the surface of an area of 370 square kilometres.
Known so far: Elephants in the jungle at Srah Damrei and Damrei Krap
The first discoveries had been published in 2013, after the first flights with Lidar hat been analyzed. Then Evans and his team announced that they had uncovered a complex urban landscape connecting medieval temple-cities, such as Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, to Angkor. It was confirmed what archaeologists had long suspected: that there was a city beneath Mount Kulen, hidden under villages,
rice fields, grasslands and the jungle. On the slopes of Phnom Kulen ("Litchi mountain"), a sandstone plateau 40 kilometres northeast of Angkor Wat, so far isolated ruins in the jungle, about ten temples, and ancient inscriptions simple and relatively small basic brick towers, massive statues of elephants and lions at Srah Damrei ("Elephant Pond") and a moss-covered elephant at Damrei Krap ("Kneeling Elephant"), and carvings of lingas on the bottom of the streams had been discovered. These were the remains of the ancient royal capital Mahendraparvata ("Mountain of the Great Indra").
Picture by Gareth Bogdanoff
Already famous: Lingas in a stream at Phnom Kulen. Now part of a bigger picture.
For centuries pilgrims have come to the mountain of Phnom Kulen, that was considered a holy place. It was here, where King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer empire be declaring it independent from Java and where he was declared Chakravartin (“ruler of the Khmer world”). From here he let build his capital near where Angkor Wat stands today. But Evans research showed, that Mahendraparvata was built before the reign of Jayavarman. "This is where it all began, giving rise to the Angkor civilisation that everyone associates with Angkor Wat," Evans said. The scan with Lidar showed a complex urban landscape connecting medieval temple-cities, such as Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, to Angkor. Highways – the largest one 60 meters wide and eight kilometers long – ran through Mahendraparvata, which had a massive pyramid at its center.
During the last year the search with Lidar was extended. This showed, that only a part of Mahendraparvata had been discovered before. So today Evans says: "This time we got the whole deal and it’s big, the size of Phnom Penh big." Mahendraparvata was sprawling over dozens of square kilometres.
Vast city structures were found at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay as well. Lidar allowed to document a larger urban network, a grid of main and secondary roads linking temples, dikes, reservoirs, channels and human settlements. So far two dozens unknown temple sites were discovered. The village of Anlong Thom lies in the middle of this big city - none of the around 1200 villagers has known it. The expedition team has dated Mahendraparvata's origins to 802 AD. Mahendraparvata predates Angkor Wat by about 350 years.
Map by Journal of Archaeological Science
Areas scanned with Lidar: Orange 2012, red 2015
Map by Journal of Archaeological Science
There have been many reactions after these findings so far. Michael Coe, emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University, was quoted: "I think that these airborne laser discoveries mark the greatest advance in the past 50 or even 100 years of our knowledge of Angkorian civilisation.” Peter Sharrock, who is on the south-east Asian board at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said: "This urban and rural landscape, linked by road and canal networks, now seems to have constituted the largest empire on earth in the 12th century.”
Parts of the history of the world have to been rewritten after these findings in South East Asia. And the mystery, why and how the Khmer empire later collapsed, remains and has become even bigger.
Read more about the interpretation of the Lidar findings:
Lidar is Magic: Part 1
Lidar is Magic: Part 2 – Cool new finds
Read more about Angkor and The Khmer Empire:
What do we know about Angkorian society?
Off the beaten path at Angkor: A walk along the wall around Angkor Thom
The city around Angkor Wat