The Khmer Empire was one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia, based
in what is now Cambodia and flourishing from the 9th to the 13th century.
The empire, which grew out of former kingdom of Chenla, at times ruled over and/or
vassalized parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Its greatest legacy is
Angkor, the site of the capital city during the empire's zenith. Angkor bears
testimony to the Khmer empire's immense power and wealth, as well as the variety of belief systems that it
patronised over time. The empire's official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, until
Theravada Buddhism prevailed, even among the lower classes, after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the
13th century. Modern researches by satellites have revealed Angkor to be the largest pre-industrial urban
center in the world.
The history of Angkor as the central area of settlement of the historical kingdom of Kambujadesa
is also the history of the Khmer from the 9th to the 13th centuries.
From Kambuja itself - and so also from the Angkor region - no written records have survived
other than stone inscriptions. Therefore the current knowledge of the historical Khmer civilization is derived
archaeological excavation, reconstruction and investigation
stone inscriptions (most important are foundation steles of temples), which report on the political and
religious deeds of the kings
reliefs in a series of temple walls with depictions of military marches, life in the palace, market
scenes and also the everyday lives of the population
reports and chronicles of Chinese diplomats, traders and travellers.
The beginning of the era of the Khmer kingdom is conventionally dated to 802 AD. In this year,
king Jayavarman II had himself declared chakravartin ("king of the world", or
"king of kings") on Phnom Kulen.
Jayavarman II - the founder of Angkor
The first data on Jayavarman II came from K.235 stone
inscription on a stele in Sdok Kok Thom temple, Isan region. Dating 1053 AD. it recounts two and a half centuries
of service that members of the temple's founding family provided to the Khmer court, mainly as chief chaplains of
shivaite (Hindu) cult.
According to an elder interpretation, Jayavarman II was supposed to be a prince who lived at the
court of Sailendra in Java (today's Indonesia) and brought back to his home the art and culture of Javanese
Sailendran court to Cambodia. This classical theory was revisited by modern scholars, such as Claude Jacques and
Michael Vickery, who noted that Khmer called chvea the Chams, their close
neighbours. Moreover Jayavarman's political career began at Vyadhapura (probably Banteay Prei Nokor) in eastern
Cambodia, which make more probable long time contacts with them (even skirmishes, as the inscription suggests) than
a long stay in distant Java. Finally, many elder temples on Phnom Kulen shows both Cham (e.g. Prasat Damrei Krap)
and Javanese influences (e.g. the primitive "temple-mountain" of Aram Rong Cen and Prasat Thmar Dap), even if their
asymmetric distribution seems typically khmer.
After he eventually returned to his home, the former kingdom of Chenla, he quickly built up his influence, conquered a series of competing kings, and in 790 AD
became king of a kingdom called "Kambuja" by the Khmer. In the following years he extended his territory and
eventually established his new capital of Hariharalaya near the modern Cambodian town of Roluos. He thereby laid
the foundation of Angkor, which was to arise some 15 km to the northwest. In 802 he declared himself Chakravartin,
in a ritual taken from the Indian-Hindu tradition. Thereby he not only became the divinely appointed and therefore
uncontested ruler, but also simultaneously declared the independence of his kingdom from Java. Jayavarman II died
in the year 834 C.E. and he was succeeded by his son Jayavarman III. Jayavarman
III died in 877 C.E. and was succeeded by Indravarman I.
Yasodharapura - the first city of Angkor
Jayavarman II's successors continually extended the territory of Kambuja. Indravarman I (reigned 877 - 889 AD) managed to expand the kingdom without wars, and he
began extensive building projects, thanks to the wealth gained through trade and agriculture. Foremost were the
temple of Preah Ko and irrigation works. He was followed by his son Yasovarman I (reigned 889 - 915 AD), who established a new capital, Yasodharapura - the
first city of Angkor
The city's central temple was built on Phnom Bakheng, a hill
which rises around 60 m above the plain on which Angkor sits. Under Yasovarman I the East
Baray was also created, a massive water reservoir of 7.5 by 1.8 km.
11th century Cambodian sculpture of the Buddha
A 12 or 13th century relief at the Bayon temple in Angkor depicts the Khmer army going to war against the Cham.
At the beginning of the 10th century the kingdom split. Jayavarman IV established a new capital
at Koh Ker, some 100 km northeast of Angkor. Only with Rajendravarman II (reigned 944 - 968 AD) was the royal palace returned to
Yasodharapura. He took up again the extensive building schemes of the earlier kings and established a series of
temples in the Angkor area; not the least being the East Mebon, on an island in the
middle of the East Baray, and several Buddhist temples and monasteries. In 950 AD,
the first war took place between Kambuja and the kingdom of Champa to the east
(in the modern central Vietnam).
From 968 to 1001 AD. reigned the son of Rajendravarman II, Jayavarman V. After he had established himself as the new king over the other princes, his
rule was a largely peaceful period, marked by prosperity and a cultural flowering. He established a new capital
near Yashodharapura, Jayenanagari. At the court of Jayavarman V lived philosophers, scholars and artists. New
temples were also established: the most important of these are Banteay Srei,
considered one of the most beautiful and artistic of Angkor, and Ta Keo, the first temple of Angkor built
completely of sandstone.
After the death of Jayavarman V a decade of conflict followed. Kings reigned only for a few
years, and were successively violently replaced by their successors until eventually Suryavarman I (reigned 1010 - 1050 AD) gained the throne. His rule was marked by repeated
attempts by his opponents to overthrow him and by military conquests. In the west he extended the kingdom to the
modern Lopburi in Thailand, in the south to the Kra Isthmus. At Angkor, construction of the West Baray began under Suryavarman I, the second and even larger (8 by 2.2 km) water
reservoir after the Eastern Baray.No one knows if he had children or wives
Suryavarman II - Angkor Wat
The 11th century was a time of conflict and brutal power struggles. Only with Suryavarman II (reigned 1113–1150) was the kingdom united internally and extended
externally. Under his rule, the largest temple of Angkor was built in a period of 37 years: Angkor Wat, dedicated to the god Vishnu. Suryavarman II conquered the Mon kingdom of
Haripunjaya to the west (in today's central Thailand), and the area further west to the border with the kingdom of
Bagan (modern Burma), in the south further parts of the Malay peninsula down to the kingdom of Grahi (corresponding
roughly to the modern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the east several provinces of Champa and the countries in the north as far as the southern border of modern Laos.
Suryavarman II's end is unclear. The last inscription, which mentions his name in connection with a planned
invasion of Vietnam, is from the year 1145. He died during a failed military expedition in Dai Viet territory
around 1145 and 1150.
There followed another period in which kings reigned briefly and were violently overthrown by
their successors. Finally in 1177 Kambuja was defeated in a naval battle on the Tonle Sap lake by the army of the
Chams, and was incorporated as a province of Champa.
Jayavarman VII - Angkor Thom
The future king Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181–1219) was already
a military leader as prince under previous kings. After the Cham had conquered Angkor, he gathered an army and
regained the capital, Yasodharapura. In 1181 he ascended the throne and continued the war against the neighbouring
eastern kingdom for a further 22 years, until the Khmer defeated Champa in
1203 and conquered large parts of its territory.
Jayavarman VII stands as the last of the great kings of Angkor, not only because of the
successful war against the Cham, but also because he was no tyrannical ruler in the manner of his immediate
predecessors, because he unified the empire, and above all because of the building projects carried out under his
rule. The new capital now called Angkor Thom (literally: "Great City") was built. In
the centre, the king (himself a follower of Mahayana Buddhism) had constructed as the state temple the Bayon, with its towers bearing faces of the boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, each several metres
high, carved out of stone. Further important temples built under Jayavarman VII were Ta
Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean, as well as the
reservoir of Srah Srang. Alongside, an extensive network of streets was laid down, which connected every town of
the empire. Beside these streets 121 rest-houses were built for traders, officials and travellers. Not least of
all, he established 102 hospitals.
Zhou Daguan - the last blooming
After the death of Jayavarman VII, his son Indravarman II
(reigned 1219–1243) ascended the throne. Like his father, he was a Buddhist, and completed a series of temples
begun under his father's rule. As a warrior he was less successful. In the year 1220, under mounting pressure from
increasingly powerful Dai Viet, and its Cham alliance, the Khmer withdrew from many of the provinces previously
conquered from Champa. In the west, his Thai subjects rebelled, established
the first Thai kingdom at Sukhothai and pushed back the Khmer. In the following 200 years, the Thais would become
the chief rivals of Kambuja. Indravarman II was succeeded by Jayavarman VIII
(reigned 1243–1295). In contrast to his predecessors, he was a Hindu and an aggressive opponent of Buddhism. He
destroyed most of the Buddha statues in the empire (archaeologists estimate the number at over 10,000, of which few
traces remain) and converted Buddhist temples to Hindu temples. From the outside, the empire was threatened in 1283
by the Mongols under Kublai Khan's general Sagatu. The king avoided war with his powerful opponent, who at this
time ruled over all China, by paying annual tribute to him. Jayavarman VIII's rule ended in 1295 when he was
deposed by his son-in-law Srindravarman (reigned 1295–1309). The new king was a
follower of Theravada Buddhism, a school of Buddhism which had arrived in southeast Asia from Sri Lanka and
subsequently spread through most of the region.
In August of 1296, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan arrived at Angkor,
and remained at the court of king Srindravarman until July 1297. He was neither
the first nor the last Chinese representative to visit Kambuja. However, his stay is notable because Zhou Daguan
later wrote a detailed report on life in Angkor. His portrayal is today one of the most important sources of
understanding of historical Angkor. Alongside descriptions of several great temples (the Bayon, the Baphuon, Angkor Wat, for which
we have him to thank for the knowledge that the towers of the Bayon were once covered in gold), the text also
offers valuable information on the everyday life and the habits of the inhabitants of Angkor.
Decline and the end of Angkor
There are few historical records from the time following Srindravarman's reign. The last known
inscription on a pillar is from the year 1327. No further large temples were established. Historians suspect a
connection with the kings' adoption of Theravada Buddhism: they were therefore no longer considered "devarajas",
and there was no need to erect huge temples to them, or rather to the gods under whose protection they stood. The
retreat from the concept of the devaraja may also have led to a loss of royal authority and thereby to a lack of
workers. The water-management apparatus also degenerated, meaning that harvests were reduced by floods or drought.
While previously three rice harvests per years were possible - a substantial contribution to the prosperity and
power of Kambuja - the declining harvests further weakened the empire.
Its western neighbour, the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai,after repelling Angkorian hegemony,
was conquered by another stronger Thai kingdom in the lower Chao Phraya Basin, Ayutthaya, in 1350. From the
fourteenth century, Ayutthaya became Angkor's rival. According to its accounts, Ayutthaya launched several attacks.
Eventually it was said, Angkor was subjugated. Siamese army drew back, leaving Angkor ruled by local nobles, loyal
to Ayutthaya. The story of Angkor faded from historical accounts from then on.
There is evidence that the "Black Death" had an impact on the situation described above, as the
plague first appeared in China around 1330 and reached Europe around 1345. Most seaports along the line of travel
from China to Europe felt the impact of the disease, which had a severe impact on life throughout South East
The new centre of the Khmer kingdom was in the southwest, at Oudong (named for the first King of
Ayutthaya), in the region of today's Phnom Penh. However, there are indications that
Angkor was not completely abandoned. One line of Khmer kings could have remained there,
while a second moved to Phnom Penh to establish a parallel kingdom. The final fall of Angkor would then be due to
the transfer of economic - and therewith political - significance, as Phnom Penh became an important trade centre
on the Mekong. Costly construction projects and conflicts over power between the royal family sealed the end of the
Ecological failure and infrastructural breakdown is a new alternative answer to the end of the
Khmer Empire. The Great Angkor Project believe that the Khmers had an elaborate system of reservoirs and canals
used for trade, travel and irrigation. The canals were used for the harvesting of rice. As the population grew
there was more strain on the water system. Failures include water shortage and flooding. To adapt to the growing
population, trees were cut down from the Kulen hills and cleared out for more rice fields. That created rain runoff
carrying sediment to the canal network. Any damage to the water system would leave an enormous amount of
In any event, there is evidence for a further period of use for Angkor. Under the rule of king
Barom Reachea I (reigned 1566–1576), who temporarily succeeded in driving back the Thai, the royal court was
briefly returned to Angkor. From the 17th century there are inscriptions which testify to Japanese settlements
alongside those of the remaining Khmer.
A plan of Angkor Wat created by a Japanese pilgrim from c. 1623 to 1636
The best-known tells of Ukondafu Kazufusa, who celebrated the Khmer New Year there in 1632.