3 - History

Chinese texts first referred to Fou-Nan, in the first denomination of what was later to become the kingdom of Cambodia, at the beginning of the Christian era - then little advanced since, in the 3rd century, "the people of the country were still naked". In its geographical location, however, it was the natural stop-over between India and China, and this contact with the two large Asiatic civilisations was to assure its rapid transformation with the impression of their double influence.

From the 3rd to the 5th century the clearly Hindu kingdom of Fou-Nan acquired a large territorial boundary - whose dynastic traditions Mr Cœdes attributes to the court of the Pallavas - establishing the capital in the region of Ba Phnom in the south-eastern part of present day Cambodia. Rich and powerful, it maintained steady relations with the Chinese - a fact proven by numerous ambassadorial missions.

Towards the middle of the 6th century, however, the feudal states became unsettled, and the most powerful of them, the Tchen-La or Kambuja (Cambodia as such), proclaimed its independence and gradually enlarged - to Fou-Nan's disadvantage - to eventually take her capital after three quarters of a century of battle during the life of Isanavarman. Gaining the throne around 615, he reigned until 644 and founded the new capital of Isanapura - probably at Sambor-Prei Kuk near Kompong Thom.

A little afterwards, and for the whole of the 8th century, the kingdom divided into two rival states; - the coastal or lower Tchen-La, comprising Cochinchina and the lower Mekong basin to the south of the chain of the Dangrek mountains, - and the inland or upper Tchen-La corresponding to the territories situated to the north of these as far as upper Laos. During this period the lower Tchen-La suffered invasion from Java and Sumatra, where the Malayan empire of Shrivijaya had become powerful. Indeed from Java, at the beginning of the 9th century, came the king - evidently there in exile - who was to re-establish the unity of the kingdom and initiate the so called "angkorian" period.

Appealing to the ancient dynasties he ruled under the name of Jayavarman II, and, proclaiming Cambodia's independence from Java, began to investigate a site for his capital - no longer in the lower Mekong basin, but in the region to the north of the Great Lake or Tonle Sap. After a trial period on the plain he cast his interest to the chain of the Mahendra (Phnom Kulen) which, with its vast eastern plateau of 10,000 hectares, offered remarkable conditions for defence against invasion. It was therefore here that, in the year 802, he established the siege of his State and laid the foundations for a new cult - that of the god king or Devaraja - by establishing, on his pyramid of Rong Chen, the first Royal Linga.

After fifty years of reign that had allowed him to unify the country, Jayavarman II, perhaps discouraged by the difficulties of access and the poor potential for the cultural development of the settlement he had chosen - and its distance from the Great Lake - descended once again to its northern shores. He died around 850 at Hariharalaya, the region of Roluos also adopted by first his son and then his nephew, Indravarman I. It was this king who built the artificial pyramid of Bakong - the first sandstone monument - and founded there in 881 the linga Shri Indresvara.

In the last few years of the 9th century, his son Yasovarman, judging his power to be sufficiently stable and seeking to create something of more permanence, finally abandoned the temporary nature of the nomadic settlement to create a veritable "puri", with defined limits and endowed with all the prestige of a capital worthy of its name. This was Yasodharapura, the first Angkor, where the "Vnam Kantal" or "Central Mount" of the inscriptions - identified after fervent research by Mr Goloubew with the hill of Phnom Bakheng - served as a base for the linga Shri Yasodharesvara, the master idol of the kingdom.

Angkor was to remain the capital during the following centuries of battle and glory, except for a period of 23 years from 921 to 944, when the king moved to Chok Gargyar (Koh Ker), a hundred kilometres to the north-east. His nephew Rajendravarman returned to Angkor and "restored the holy city that had long remained empty", building the temples of the eastern Mebon and of Pre Rup, and leaving for war with Champa where he sacked the temple of Po Nagar.

Around the 11th century, at the time when the temples of Ta Keo, Phimeanakas and the Baphuon were being built, it seems that the limits of the city were modified and that, by shifting slightly to the north, it no longer had Phnom Bakheng as its centre, but corresponded noticeably thereafter to the layout of the future Angkor Thom. During this period a foreign dynasty took the throne. Perhaps of Malayan origin, the usurper - Suryavarman I - soon enlarged the kingdom to encompass the whole southern part of Siam or Dvaravati.

The first half of the 12th century was dominated by the reign of one of the principal kings of Cambodia - Suryavarman II - whose immense architectural realisation of Angkor Wat was to mark the apogee of classical Khmer art. After having being allied with the Chams against the Annamites (Vietnamese) he then turned against them, winning a brilliant victory and gaining part of Champa.

Revenge was not long in coming, and a period of troubled times followed the death of the king, some time after 1145. Power was again seized by an usurper, and in 1177 a surprise attack by the Chams ended in the fall and the sacking of Angkor, followed by general devastation.

The invader, however, subject in his turn to a complete defeat, was expelled by Jayavarman VII who was crowned king in 1181 at the age of about 55. Champa was put under the control of the Khmer and governed by the brother-in-law of the victor who, following his conquests, then extended his power as far north as Vientiane on the Mekong and west to the basin of the Menam.

At the same time and with prodigious activity, Jayavarman VII raised Cambodia from its ruins and reconstructed its capital Angkor Thom, surrounding it with a high wall breached by five monumental gates - he rebuilt the central temple of the Bayon, built or restored to completion the monuments of Prah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, as well as others of less importance, and furnished the country with numerous hospitals.

Such effort, coming after so many bloody battles, could not but drain the facilities and energy of the nation - so that from the beginning of the 13th century, after the death of this last great king, the Khmer people fell to inertia. Gradually its princes were stripped first of their ancient conquests by their Thai neighbours, and then of their heritage. Already in 1296 the Chinese envoy Tcheou Ta-Kouan gave some indication of this growing pressure, which must have resulted in the 15th century abandonment of Angkor and the establishment of the Cambodian kings on the banks of the lower Mekong.

To continue with the history of Cambodia from this time would be to leave the bounds of this study, since the period from the 15th century to modern times has little to offer the history of archaeology. The regions of Siem Reap and of Battambang, annexed with no right by the Siamese, were restored to Cambodia in 1907. The year 1907 is not only a date of political importance - it is also since this restitution that the French scholars and architects, encouraged by the sovereign who succeeded to the throne, have been able, by methodical research and the precise technique of anastylosis, to revive the ancient relics of a glorious civilisation.