Angkor’s Founding City Revealed on Mount Kulen

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Age website)

A graphic representation showing the urban structure of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen mountains. (Screenshot of the Sydney Morning Herald website)

A group of archaeologists from the Greater Angkor Project in Australia have discovered the precise location and extent of Mahendraparvata, one of the founding Angkorean cities, according an exclusive report by the Sydney Morning Herald. Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របព៌ត) – now with its own Wikipedia entry – was founded by King Jayavarman II on the now “mist-shrouded” Phnom Kulen mountains around time of the Khmer Empire’s founding in 802. The urban structure of the ancient city was discovered using a modern airborne laser-scanning technology called lidar.

Damian Evans who leads the research, explains the significance of the find:

”This is where it all began, giving rise to the Angkor civilisation that everyone associates with Angkor Wat.”

The mountain city predates the nearby lowland city of Angkor and Angkor Wat by 350 but appears to have similar urban features of roads, canals, temples, and orientation.

A 2007 research map by the GAP which showed Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city included Phnom Kulen within its study boundary. But it did not show anything other than scattered temples on the mountain.

Maps from a 2007 research, revealing the extend of Angkor's urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. (www.newscientist.com)

A map from a 2007 research reveals the extend of Angkor’s urban structures, and surrounding areas, including Phnom Kulen. This makes Angkor the largest pre-industrial city known. (www.newscientist.com)

Although researchers have long known about the existence and location of Mahendraparvata, the new findings suddenly put a sophisticated urban structures – roads, canals, dykes, etc – all onto a plateau-like mountain. As amazing as it is to imagine what the sprawling city of Angkor looked like during its peak in the 12th century, it is equally fascinating to ponder what an ancient Khmer ‘hydraulic plateau’ city with mountainous roads and canals looked like. Mahendraparvata is then no longer a just a collection of temples where King Jayavarman II declared the birth of the Khmer Empire, but rather it would be a hydraulic city in its own right and on the above map, would appear as an outlying suburb or satellite city of Greater Angkor. Astounding.

But why did Jayavarman II eventually descend from the mountain city to build a low-land capital at Hariharalaya near Angkor? Was Mahendraparvata a prototype for Angkor’s hydraulic structures or was deforestation also an early story for the civilization?

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

The top image shows a digital recreation of Angkor Wat, with elevation derived collected by LIDAR; the bottom image shows the raw LIDAR digital terrain model, with red lines indicate modern linear features including roads and canals. (MIT Technology Review)

It’s unclear why the King decided to move down. This finding seems to tell me that after having experimented with water management on the safely situated and self-sustaining mountain capital, the King looked down over the vast forested Angkorean plain and thought “Now let’s implement our urbanization project on a grand scale.”

But perhaps it might just have been deforestation and the beginning a starting-anew pattern that would recur throughout the Angkorean period?

In fact, the Khmer’s very tendency to over-engineer their landscapes may have led to their ultimate doom. Whenever drought killed rice and other crops, the Khmer simply moved elsewhere and built even larger canals — stretching beyond the landscape’s sustainability. Decades-long droughts in the 14th and 15thcenturies finally helped do the civilization in.

This is anyone’s guess at this point. In any case, King Jayarvarman II must have been a visionary leader who not only established the “God-King” as state ideology but also had some strong geographical and engineering understandings. It seems that the birth of the Khmer Empire was possible due to very unique historical circumstances: a toxic fusion of ambitions, ideology, scientific understanding, favorable geography, etc. What eventually brought it down, as many scholars now believe, were overengineering and equally unique circumstances of mega-droughts.

If you are really into ‘scientific archeology’ as I am, please stay tuned to Dr. Evans’ team’s research titled “Uncovering Archaeological Landscapes at Angkor Using Lidar” to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It’s like Indiana-Jones all over again!