Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Efforts to save Angkor

With the news in the last few days that the Angkor complex in Cambodia was much larger than was first thought, I found this article from the New Scientist in 1989 that details some of the efforts being made at that time to save what we know as the jewel of the complex, Angkor Wat itself. The article, by Russell Ciochon and Jamie James is a large one, so I've reprinted it in full in the comments section. However, here's the opening paragraph to wet your tastebuds:

Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, in western Cambodia and one of the world's greatest cultural treasures, is quietly disintegrating. Dense jungle vegetation is literally ripping it apart, while fungi consume its stones. Angkor Wat, the principal monument of the group and the national symbol of Cambodia, has a chance of survival: an enormous programme of restoration supervised by the Archaeological Survey of India has been in progress since 1986. But the other masterpieces of Khmer architecture are neglected. By day, cattle graze at the Baphuon and Phimeanakas; at night Khmer Rouge guerrillas set land mines in the holy precincts of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.
[courtesy of The New Scientist 14 October 1989]

1 comment:

Andy said...

The battle of Angkor Wat: Cambodia's national symbol
14 October 1989
From New Scientist Print Edition by RUSSELL CIOCHON and JAMIE JAMES

Indian archaeologists are repairing the temple of Angkor Wat under armed guard. But the Khmer Rouge are not the only problem. Rival archaeologists are attacking the Indians for ruining what's left of Cambodia's national symbol.

ANGKOR, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, in western Cambodia and one of the world's greatest cultural treasures, is quietly disintegrating. Dense jungle vegetation is literally ripping it apart, while fungi consume its stones. Angkor Wat, the principal monument of the group and the national symbol of Cambodia, has a chance of survival: an enormous programme of restoration supervised by the Archaeological Survey of India has been in progress since 1986. But the other masterpieces of Khmer architecture are neglected. By day, cattle graze at the Baphuon and Phimeanakas; at night Khmer Rouge guerrillas set land mines in the holy precincts of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

A quarter of a century ago, these monuments were well cared for by the Preservation d'Angkor, the local archaeological institution founded by the French at the turn of the century. The institution still exists, but today Cambodia is a very poor country, isolated from most of the rest of its region and the world. Conservation of archaeological sites is a low priority in a nation where most areas still lack electricity, clean drinking water and basic medicine. As the future of Cambodia hangs in the balance, a geopolitical football at diplomatic conferences and on the brink of civil war, the country's heritage, the classic architecture of the Khmer empire, is on the verge of dissolution.

This summer, we visited Angkor as guests of the foreign ministry of Cambodia. We were given rare access to the monuments, many of which have been closed since the war in Indochina and the subsequent reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge. While Angkor Wat is open to day-trippers from Phnom Pehn, most of the monuments are still closed, or are open for a few hours to those who can afford to pay hundreds of pounds for an armed escort. Yet we were given great freedom to visit the ruins, often in the company of 40 or 50 Cambodian soldiers, armed with machine guns, bazookas and grenade launchers, so that we could carry the message to the rest of the world that Angkor is in desperate need of international aid.

What we saw shocked us. Photographs of Angkor taken just 20 years ago showed the monuments in a fairly good state. Although some of the monuments obviously needed major work, especially to clear away the dense and destructive vegetation, at least the line was being held. Now, except for Angkor Wat, many of the monuments look just as they did when French explorers discovered them, a little more than a century ago. If conservation is left much longer, the damage will be irreversible.

At Angkor Wat, Indian conservators are trying to halt the destruction and restore the most famous of the Khmer sites to the state it was when it was completed, near the end of the 12th century. Fourteen Indian scientists, with a crew of 450 Cambodian workers, have completed their third season at Angkor Wat. Employing simple, commonly used techniques, the Indians' purpose is twofold.

Their first objective, unquestionably a vital one, is to destroy the vegetation that has taken root within the monument. As we walked through the exquisitely carved galleries and pavilions of Angkor Wat, B. S. Nayal, the archaeologist in charge, pointed out some slender green shoots growing up between the stones. 'These plants appear very harmless, but inside there are wide, flat roots. They grow very quickly, and just pull the monument apart. The vegetation appears harmless, but in reality it is quite dangerous.'

Wherever necessary, the crew disassembles the stones, carefully numbering each one before removing it. They then eradicate all the vegetation in the cleared area with sulphuric acid, and put the structure back together again. The Khmer workmen who are reassembling the pavilions and galleries use exactly the same construction techniques that their ancestors used to raise the monument 800 years ago. Primitive technologies such as the battering ram are employed side by side with modern machines brought by the Indians, such as the diesel crane used for lifting massive lintels.

The Indians' second objective at Angkor Wat is to restore the monument's stone surface, almost every inch of which is carved with some of the finest sculptures in the Indian sphere of the ancient world. 'We are giving Angkor Wat a new lease of life,' said Nayal. The first step is to remove the mosses and lichens growing on the surface and then bring back the original colour of the sandstone. The next task is to clean the sandstone with a weak solution of ammonia.

One of the most destructive influences at Angkor is the fungi that cover the sandstone. Throughout the monument, fungus is consuming the exquisite bas reliefs: in some places a fingernail is enough to flake off stone. The Indians are treating the vulnerable surfaces with sodium pentachlorophenate and zinc silicofluoride, chemicals that kill the fungi. Once cleaned, they coat the stone with a sealant such as polyvinylacetate (PVA), which, the Indians say, will protect the stone from the elements and from further fungal invasion for five to ten years.

While these methods appear harmless enough, some observers have criticised them sharply. Claude Jacques, a French epigrapher and historian who worked at Angkor for nine years, has visited Angkor three times this year and is unimpressed. 'The Indians' work is very careless. I find it quite poor,' he said. Jacques considers the enormous task of cleaning the stones almost a waste of time. 'This cleaning is not urgent. Angkor Wat has existed for hundreds of years, and now the Indians are putting all of this work into cleaning it, when they say themselves it will only last for five years.' Meanwhile, urgent problems are being ignored. 'Angkor Wat must be reinforced. There are walls that are in danger of crashing down. Yet that seems not to be a problem for the Indians,' said Jacques.

Nayal suggests that there is a touch of sour grapes in the disapproval of Jacques and other French critics of his project. 'I do not think the French are happy. They would like to be here, I think,' he said wryly. Indeed, the French, who virtually ruled Angkor as a fiefdom for nearly a century, from the time the monuments were rediscovered at the end of the 19th century until well beyond 1954, when Cambodia gained its independence, would like very much to return to Angkor. The Cambodian Ministry of Culture has allowed French scholars and scientists to work at the Baphuon, an 11th-century pyramid that is in a state of ruin. But as France does not recognise the current government in Cambodia, French conservators - technically civil servants - are not allowed to work there.

While the French accomplished many excellent things in their years at Angkor, some of their work has not stood the test of time. In particular, their attempts to bolster those 'walls in danger of crashing down' are almost as objectionable to some, including Nayal, as the problem itself. The outer galleries at Angkor Wat are sinking into the ground faster than the central mass, which causes the walls to lean and puts severe strain on structural joints. To shore up the walls as the ground beneath them subsided, French conservators poured concrete pillars and buttresses, in some cases over sculptural reliefs. To contain cracking pillars, the French wrapped iron bands around them: these have rusted and warped over the years. The results, everyone agrees, are ugly and they are irreversible. No one can say what might have happened if the work had not been done, however: ugly or not, without these repairs Angkor Wat might have fallen into a state of advanced dilapidation.

Another questionable French innovation was to install a cement roof in the southern gallery of Angkor Wat. 'I do not know what the basis of that decision was. In any case, it is certain that the original roof was made of wood,' criticised Nayal. We saw a few fragments of the original woodwork at the Preservation d'Angkor museum: our guide told us that most of what little original wood was still left at Angkor Wat 15 years ago was used for firewood by Khmer Rouge forces who camped there. In defence of the French, the procedures they used may have been acceptable in their day. If French archaeologists were working at Angkor now, they would no doubt be as eager as anyone to undo the bad deeds of their predecessors.

Nor are the French the only critics of the Indians' work: some Western specialists in conserving stone monuments fear that the compounds the Indians are using could be damaging in the long term. Seymour Lewin, of New York University, has studied the effects of chemicals on stone for the past 25 years. According to Lewin, 'The chemicals they are using are not uncommon, but they are potentially very hazardous. Zinc silicofluoride, for example, has been shown to be harmful if it is not completely removed from the stone, and it is almost impossible to remove. As for sodium pentachlorophenate, it may produce sodium chloride as a by-product, and salt is dangerous to stone.'

Lewin's most alarming words are reserved for polyvinyl-acetate. 'That's bad,' he said. 'Moisture inevitably seeps in and builds up underneath the impermeable coating. That produces spalling - flaking and blistering of the stone surface. Chemicals such as PVA produce a splendid effect for five years. It's only after 10 or 15 years that one sees the damage. At first there is yellowing; then the stone opens up and cracks. The integrity of the work is seriously damaged.' The Hospital of Saints Paolo and Giovanni in Venice provides a clear warning of what may happen in Cambodia: a stone sculpture on the outside of the building treated with PVA is now blackened and falling apart.

Carol Grissom, a stone conservator working at the Smith-sonian Institution in Washington DC, also criticises PVA, although she is more restrained. 'It's probably not doing any good, but it may not be doing a huge amount of damage,' she said. Nayal and his associates say that they have been using these methods for years in India, with no ill effects. Stan Czuma, the curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the Cleveland Art Museum, Ohio, recently visited Angkor Wat as a member of an expert panel to evaluate the Indian restoration. Czuma says that he was 'quite favourably impressed. It is important work: the fungi that are growing on Angkor Wat must be removed, or they will eventually destroy the monument.' It is inevitable that the restoration of such an important site should generate controversy; only time will tell if the Indians are saving Angkor Wat or damaging it.

A black market in art

Before our visit, we had heard dire reports about serious damage inflicted during the war, but they proved to be greatly exaggerated. One pavilion at Angkor Wat, hit by a stray American shell, still lies in ruins; and bullet holes in a bas relief in the eastern gallery are souvenirs of a shoot-out between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese in 1979. Aside from those aberrations, the monuments of Angkor were left untouched by the war.

Far more damage has been inflicted by art thieves working out of Thailand since the war ended. The plunderers have taken virtually every head that could be lopped off. A famous statue at the royal city of Angkor Thom, called the Leper King, was removed to the museum of Preservation d'Angkor after it was decapitated. Our guide told us that the museum had replaced the statue with a replica made of cement. A few weeks later, thieves made off with the worthless head of the ersatz Leper King!

While Angkor Wat undergoes its thorough restoration by the Archaeological Survey of India, the decline of the other monuments of Angkor continues unchecked. For while Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of Khmer stone structures, it is only one of 215 sites in the immediate region, many of them in their way quite as important as Suryavarman's mausoleum. The Bayon, the sculptured stone mountain at the centre of Angkor Thom, is celebrated for its enormous (about 4 metres high) stone faces of its builder, Jayavarman VII, wearing an enigmatic Buddhic smile. Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, two rambling monuments almost as large as Angkor Wat, were also erected by Jayavarman VII as mausoleums for his mother and father, respectively. These are utterly neglected, and the damage wrought by nature is evident there and everywhere.

When we visited East Mebon, a 10th-century pyramid on an artificial island in the middle of the ancient baray, or reservoir, we wanted to see the monument's famous statues of elephants. To reach them, we had to hire a local man to cut a path through the impenetrable screen of brush, more than 3 metres high, growing on the surface of the pyramid. While hundreds of workers are making Angkor Wat look brand new, Preah Khan is disappearing into the jungle. When our guide pointed out its libraries (the generic name for the two-storey outbuildings by the entrances of the most important sites), we could not see them. We were standing less than 10 metres away, but vegetation had completely overgrown them.

A rather exact analogy would be to imagine that St Peter's basilica were being refurbished crypt to belfry, while all other churches in Rome were being converted to blocks of flats or torn down for car parks. There is some room for optimism, however: in the autumn of 1990, a team of Polish conservators is scheduled to begin work at the Bayon. The group is currently restoring a group of Cham temples in Da Nang, Vietnam, which ought to be the perfect preparation for work at Angkor. Yet why is more not being done? The main obstacle is political: so long as Western powers continue to withhold recognition from the Phnom Penh government, any sort of official aid is out of the question. So it is up to private citizens and agencies to sponsor any effort to rescue Cambodia's crumbling temples.

Another problem is that everyone seems to want to 'get a piece' of Angkor Wat, which is now in the hands of the Archaeological Survey of India. (India is the only non-aligned country to recognise the current Cambodian government.) In Phnom Penh, we met Ouk Chea, the director of the department of antiquities, who commented: 'Foreigners come, but they only want to work on Angkor Wat. In our opinion, we gave it to the Indians, and we don't want a war over it.' It is an absurd situation. In the Mediterranean, for example, archaeologists must wait years for a chance to work at a tiny corner of an insignificant site, while in Cambodia masterpieces are declining day by day. Ouk Chea states the facts with succinct clarity:

'We have more than one thousand monuments in my country. Many of them are in very bad condition, but we do not have the trained people to care for them. Pol Pot killed them. So we appeal to friendly countries to help us. The door is always open to a helping hand. Angkor is not just for Cambodia but for the whole world.'

* * *

Suryavarman and the temple of gloom

ANGKOR WAT was built when the empire of the Khmer was at its greatest, stretching from the South China Sea to modern Thailand, as far north as the uplands of Laos and as far south as the Malay Peninsula. King Suryavarman II built it as a funerary temple for himself, and dedicated it to the Hindu god Vishnu, whom the king represented on Earth and with whom he was integrated on his death.

The largest stone monument in the world, Angkor Wat is a contemporary of the cathedrals at Chartres and Canterbury. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, Khmer architects never discovered the true arch, but what they lacked in interior space they more than compensated for in the creation of impressive vistas; the towers of Angkor loom through the jungle, weird and elegant. A schematic representation of the towers appears on Cambodia's flag.

Like the great monument-building civilisations of the ancient world, the Khmer were ruled by an absolute sovereign who held sway not only in the affairs of this world but also in religious matters. The king of Kambuja, to give the empire its Khmer name, was not so much a head priest as a living god, and the great monuments of Angkor were all intended to embody that transcendental power, and to awe the king's subjects into unquestioning submission.

In the case of Angkor, however, as in other such autocratic cultures, the government's power weakened as the state became occupied with the construction of monuments to celebrate the monarch. So much of the nation's manpower was devoted to the transport and sculpturing of stone that there was little time left over for growing food. Ultimately, this led to the downfall of the Khmer, as their more vigorous neighbours, the Thai and the Cham, swept into Khmer territory, sacking temples and palaces and enslaving the people.

Russell Ciochon is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa. Jamie James is a freelance journalist. They are writing a book, with John Olsen, about their prehistoric cave excavation in northern Vietnam, to be published in Britain by Unwin Hyman.