I realize of course that I am quite blessed to be able to visit Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat with the first two months of the year, two stunning experiences in the realm of historic buildings and the remnants of ancient civilizations.These World Heritage sites of course record remarkable civilizations and deserve conservation due to their multiplicity of values, including the familiar historic and artistic values, but in many ways it is useful to consider their engineering prowess, because they are the remnants of significant civilizations.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for some 600 years, and it was a city of a million when Paris was a city of 30,000; Angkor Wat itself, the Vaishnavite temple of Suryavarman II, is the world’s largest religious structure, covering some 500 acres, the centerpiece for a city of 1,000,000.
model of Angkor Wat at Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
While we have the monuments, we no longer have the city, sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned to the jungle and local worship. What made the city possible were the massive Barays or reservoirs, the largest 6 miles by 1 mile, completely manmade and allowing the Khmers to produce three rice crops per year, a feat occasionally achieved further down the Mekong today.
baray from airplane at Angkor, 2001
Similarly, what made Machu Piccu possible was another engineering marvel, a terraced irrigation system that still operates at certain Sacred Valley sites today. Like the roads of the Romans, the canals of the Chinese and the railroads of 19th century America, it is this less glamorous infrastructure that made the monuments possible.
But what also strikes me about these sites a half world apart is their visual beauty. Machu Picchu is a ruin of course, abandoned after less than a century and destroyed before the advancing Spanish. The variously restored and ruined houses and temples are not stunning individually, but the natural setting that hosted them is impossibly beautiful.
It is a visual beauty, framed by the backdrop of Huayna Picchu, and it remains a stunning vision from quite a distance throughout its approach: there is not a single good angle to see it from but a wealth of choice spots to enjoy its vista.
Similarly, Angkor Wat was designed with incredible visual sense, the heights of the central quincunx of prasats (towers) raised to an elevation that was both a sacred Vaishnavite number (54) but also allowed them to remain visible and dominant throughout the long approach across a 600-foot moat and another thousand feet of procession through gates and past heavily decorated galleries.
Aside from their brilliant irrigation and agricultural systems, when it came to buldings the Khmer were in horrible engineers, laying their stone without interlocking it, ignorant of the true arch and simply replicating in stone structures that originated in the completely different engineering world of wood. Their laterite interiors and heavy sandstone exteriors are thus often in collapse.
But despite this poor engineering, a far cry from the precise masonry joints of the Inka, Angkor is visually impeccable, arranged to be apprehended as impressively in the flat jungle as Machu Picchu is in the high mountain. In a tropical climate, it is an exterior architecture of towers and narrow corbelled galleries connecting them.
And the decoration is of course exquisite, especially the famous bas reliefs of the third gallery, almost 13,000 linear feet of dense battle and processional scenes at least 8 feet in height.
Put your money on the Pandavas. Kauravas don’t stand a chance
Jayavaman VII tried to top Angkor Wat a century later with the 54 towers of the Bayon, his Buddhist temple at the center of his city, but the engineering was equally suspect and the visual sense requires the original gilding to be appreciated from afar: only with the complex as you reel from the giant Buddha heads with their Mona Lisa smiles at every turn do you finally apprehend its majesty.
In heritage conservation, Angkor itself – a vast archaeological park incorporated dozens of temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries – is a great challenge. When I first saw it in 2001, there were over a million visitors a year.
Now there are likely 3 million this year and 5 million within the next five, a challenge even for stones spread across a landscape as large as several cities. Machu Picchu has similar challenges with its numbers.
This will require a renewed focus on the heart of the discipline of heritage conservation – which is the management and planning of not only physical restoration but of management and use policies. In some ways it is simpler (although not simple and not without debate) to determine how to physically conserve a monument.
The greater challenge is how to manage the new city of tourists which has emerged to provide the site with an economic use, a use that can in fact threaten the resource itself. This was the challenge that cities like Charleston, New Orleans and Santa Barbara tackled in the 1930s, providing the basis for the modern policies which allow us to preserve the past as a vital part of our present life.