National Geographic : 2009 Jul
Angkor s daily rhythms also come to life in sculptures that have survived centuries of de- cay and, more recently, war. Bas-reliefs on tem- ple facades depict everyday scenes---two men hunched over a board game, for instance, and a woman giving birth under a shaded pavilion--- and pay homage to the spiritual world inhabited by creatures such as apsaras, alluring celestial dancers who served as messengers between hu- mans and the gods. e bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. e scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle. Although Angkor won that clash, the city was riven by rivalry, which heightened its vul- nerability to attacks from Champa to the east and the formidable kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west. Khmer kings had several wives, which blurred the line of succession and resulted in constant intrigue as princes vied for power. "For centuries, it was like the Wars of the Roses. e Khmer state was o en unstable," says Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and co-director of a research effort called the Greater Angkor Project. Some scholars believe that Angkor died the way it lived: by the sword. e annals of Ayut- thaya state that warriors from that kingdom "took" Angkor in 1431. No doubt the prosper- ous Khmer city would have been a rich prize: Inscriptions boast that its temple towers were clad in gold, as Zhou s breathless account con- rms. To reconcile tales of Angkor s wealth with Lotus owers and Hindu deities carved in stone mark the holy site of Kbal Spean in the Kulen Hills, the source of two rivers that nourish the Angkor oodplain.