What helped the Khmer Empire achieve colossal success in the pre-industrial world
What helped the Khmer Empire achieve colossal success in the pre-industrial world

The Khmer Empire once covered most of Southeast Asia, and its capital was the largest city in the pre-industrial world. The secret of their success was hydraulic engineering. They have curbed the monsoon and used it to their advantage. The water management system has been designed to collect and store water throughout the year. That is why the Khmer people had food, water supply, sewerage and transportation networks.

Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and a symbol of the Khmer Empire. \ Photo: nytimes.com

Jayavarman (Jayavarman) II was proclaimed emperor of the new Khmer Empire at a ceremony in Phnom Kulen (Phnomkulen) in 802 AD. It united the two main kingdoms of Chenla and most of the smaller principalities that existed before. Most of Cambodia is flat, but the Kulen Hills rise above the plains north of Tonle Sap.

For the new emperor, uniting small states, the defensive advantages of this area were obvious. But Phnom Kulen provided more than just military advantages, it was also revered by the Khmers as sacred and provided two resources that the Khmers could manipulate to their advantage: stone and water.

Khmer Empire (map). \ Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

Jayavarman II spent most of his reign subjugating and fortifying his new Empire, and he built his capital, Mahendraparvata, on Phnom Kulen. His successors were much safer and moved the city from the hills to the plains north of the Tonle Sap floodplain, now known as Roluoh (Roluos). The capital later moved to Angkor again as hydroengineers became complete masters of the climate and landscape for hundreds of years.

Ancient Cambodia was a largely Hindu nation. It was Indianized hundreds of years before the Khmer Empire came into being. Therefore, Jayavarman II decided to hold his coronation in Phnom Kulen to legitimize his rule. He was then known as Phnom Mahendra. It was a representation of Mount Meru in Hindu cosmology. The name of the city of Jayavarman, Mahendraparvata, means "Mountain of the Great Indra."

Kbal Spin on the hills of Kulen and Phnom Kulen have sacred carvings on the banks of the rivers that bless the water and make it fertile. \ Photo: lonelyplanet.com

Mount Meru was the habitat of the Gods, somewhat similar to Mount Olympus among the ancient Greeks. Being crowned there, he became not just a ruler, but also a deity, he was a God-king (God-emperor). His successors were also God-kings, but converted to Buddhism.

Cambodia's climate shows that little agricultural work is required during the dry season. The construction of the temple not only occupied the population, but also reinforced the idea that the ruler was also God. For his people, this meant that working for the emperor was working for God and accumulating merit points for the next life.

Map of waterways and objects of Angkor. \ Photo: ancientwatertechnologies.com

The Khmer Empire had a culture of relative gender equality, with women scientists and soldiers. Jayavarman VII's two wives, Queen Indradevi and Queen Jayarajadevi, were architects and teachers at his university. The women, according to the Chinese diplomat, were masters of their craft. Thus, they used the talents of the entire population, not just one gender. They supplemented this with the labor of a huge slave population (all but the poorest families had slaves).

The Khmer Empire, like modern Cambodia, ate rice and fish. Tonle Sap provided a huge proportion of protein in a variety of marine animals and fish. Products from the lake, including dried fish, were exported to China by the Khmer Empire.

Bronze statue of Queen Indradevi. \ Photo: dharmasculpture.com

Rice was the main crop and the Khmer Empire succeeded in growing rice. They could harvest three or four crops a year thanks to their mastery of water control. They planted deep-water, medium- and shallow-water rice crops. Shallow water crops will grow and be harvested first, then medium to deep water. This gave them fresh rice all year round and a surplus for export. The Khmers grew herbs and vegetables around their homes in whatever the plant might contain, and their water management ensured that they could irrigate vegetables and fruit trees all year round.

The climate is tropical with two seasons due to monsoons: wet and dry. Because the country is surrounded by mountains, this limits the amount of orographic rainfall reaching the area north of Tonle Sap during the dry season. This causes the landscape to be swampy during the rainy season and dry and dusty during the dry season. It can go for months without precipitation at all and resembles Australia in a drought.

A large area of ​​Angkor showing the hydraulic network with Phnom Kulen. \ Photo: cyclebodia.com

Cambodia is basically an accumulation of silt washed away by the Mekong River over millions of years, in the past it was one vast floodplain. It is surrounded by mountains, but most of the country is flat, and in the center is Tonle Sap Lake, which looks like the last remnants of water in a puddle. The Mekong River divides modern Cambodia in the middle and joins the Tonle Sap River at Phnom Penh. During the rainy season, due to the large amount of water flowing down from the north, the Mekong River causes the Tonle Sap River to reverse, which in turn inflates the great lake.

A lidar scan in Cambodia has identified ancient cities, including the capitals Angkor and Phnom Kulen. \ Photo: ingenieur.de

Much of central Cambodia is still a floodplain, and the large Tonle Sap Lake can increase in size up to sixteen times during the rainy season. This huge accumulation of silt, deposited annually, has made the countryside fertile, but in the dry season, the silt turns to dust as the ground dries up, shrinks and cracks. But the Khmers found a way out here too.

The Kulen Hills rise above this flat landscape and are visible for miles around. They are made of sandstone, and there is a large plateau at the top. The sandstone absorbs and retains monsoon water and breaks down to provide enough deep, fertile soil to feed a large population.

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat prevents the water table from falling and the temple from flooding. \ Photo: fineartamerica.com

The genius of the Khmer Empire was their ability to build huge structures like Angkor Wat on a land that grows and shrinks every year. The Khmers designed the temples to float, supported by groundwater that prevented them from sinking under their own weight. Huge reservoirs were built, rivers diverted and a system of canals built - the entire landscape was changed.

The river flowing through Siem Reap is one of the main arteries of the canal connecting the capital of Angkor with Tonle Sap. Now over a thousand years old, and only slightly changed course south of the city, a testament to the genius of the builders.

The river was just one of the massive canal networks that were dug throughout the area. The canals were a transport network that transported everything from people to the massive stones needed to build temples and monuments in the city of Angkor. They were also a source of food, water and waste for the houses built with them. The bridges across the canals were built with tall, narrow arches. They can be completely or partially blocked in order to control the rate of passage of water through them. There was a bridge, a dam, a sluice and a dam wall at the same time.

Stone Bridge of the Khmer Empire. \ Photo: twitter.com

West Baray, the only remaining reservoir, is large enough to be seen from space. During the Khmer Empire, it was mirrored by an East Barai of the same size and at least two other smaller reservoirs in the area. These huge man-made lakes collected huge amounts of water during the monsoons and helped prevent flooding. They provided water all year round to keep canals running and to irrigate crops and orchards.

When flying to Siem Reap at certain times of the year, you can see a grid of canals in the rice fields. The rice turns green over the former canals as the soil deepens.In fact, the extent of the Khmer Empire's hydraulic system can only be assessed from the air. And the image from NASA finally showed the true extent of this landscape manipulation.

West Baray and Angkor Wat moat, direct routes of the main canals and Tonle Sap from space. \ Photo: earthobservatory.nasa.gov

What was discovered was a landscape that was not natural at all, but was extensively altered from the Kulen Hills to Tonle Sap. It also bore evidence of a network of highways leading into the wider Khmer empire. This needed to be studied in more detail, and the first lidar scans for archaeological landscape surveys were carried out in 2013 and 2015. They showed a city on Phnom Kulen, the city of Mahendraparvata Jayavarman II, which had an estimated population of eighty thousand, and another, the large city of Angkor.

The complex city of Angkor housed hospitals and universities, and had contacts and diplomatic relations with China and the kingdoms surrounding them. Delegates and traders from all over Asia could be found in the city of Angkor. This city surpassed everything that was in Europe at that time.

The extent of the changed landscape around Angkor, from the Kulen Hills to Tonle Sap. \ Photo: khmertop.news

The Khmer Empire, a master of hydraulic engineering, manipulated its landscape to curb the rhythm of the monsoons and was the main power in Asia for 500 years. Their civilization rivaled the Romans in their engineering achievements and even surpassed them in some ways.

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