The Civilization of Angkor / Edition 1

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In the late sixteenth century a mythical encounter was reported during an elephant hunt in the dense north of the Tonle Sap, or Great Lake of central Cambodia. King Satha of Cambodia and his retainers were beating a path through the undergrowth when they were halted by stone giants and a massive wall. The King, the fable reported, ordered six thousand men to clear away the forest overgrowth around the wall, thereby exposing the city of Angkor—"lost" for over a century.

Subsequent reports from Portuguese missionaries described its five gateways, with bridges flanked by stone figures leading across a moat. There were idols covered in gold, inscriptions, fountains, canals, and a "temple with five towers, called Angor." For four centuries, this huge complex has inspired awe among visitors from all over the world, but only now are its origins and history becoming clear.

This book begins with the development of the prehistoric communities of the area and draws on the author's recent excavations to portray the rich and expansive chiefdoms that existed at the dawn of civilization. It covers the origins of early states, up to the establishment, zenith, and decline of this extraordinary civilization, whose most impressive achievement was the construction of the gilded temple mausoleum of Angkor Wat in the twelfth century, allegedly by 70,000 people.

Drawing on the latest research on prehistoric archaeology, epigraphy, and art history, Charles Higham has written a clear and concise history of this remarkable civilization.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
Charts the structure and development of this fabulous empire.
Combines archaeological and literary evidence in tracing the rise and abandonment of Angkor (in A.D. 1431. Cambodia's ancient monuments at Angkor are so familiar that we can all chuckle at this comment of a Portuguese author in 1609: 'I confess I hesitate to write this,it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.' Yet few of us know much about the civilization's origins. Let Higham fill you in.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520242180
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 207
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Higham has been active in archaeological research in Southeast Asia since 1969. He has published a series of final excavation reports and is the author of four major syntheses of the region's prehistory, The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia, The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia, Early Cultures of Southeast Asia, and Prehistoric Thailand (written with Rachanie Thosarat). He is a Fellow of the British Academy, James Cook Fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and visiting scholar at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


During the sixteenth century, barely a hundred and fifty years after it had been abandoned, Portuguese traders and missionaries became aware of a great stone city hidden deep in the forests of northern Cambodia. They had come upon temples where a much older religion than theirs had flourished, a sacred city, which included the largest of all religious monuments. Reaching up through the jungle canopy, the five lotus towers of Angkor Wat would have inspired awe then as they do now. One of the first visitors was Antonio da Magdalena, a Capuchin friar, who explored the ruined city in 1586. Three years later, he gave Diogo do Couto, the official historian of the Portuguese Indies, an account of his visit and then, sadly, lost his life when shipwrecked off the coast of Natal in 1589. Do Couto, however, set down the friar's recollections thus:

This city is square, with four principal gates, and a fifth which serves the royal palace. The city is surrounded by a moat, crossed by five bridges. These have on each side a cordon held by giants. Their ears are all pierced and are very long. The stone blocks of the bridges are of astonishing size. The stones of the walls are of an extraordinary size and so jointed together that they look as if they are made of just one stone. The gates of each entrance are magnificently sculpted, so perfect, so delicate that Antonio da Magdalena, who was in this city, said that they looked as if they were made from one stone the source of which is, amazingly, over 20 leagues away. So you can judge thelabour and organisation dedicated to construction. There are written lines which record that this city, these temples, and other things were built by the order of 20 kings over a period of 700 years. On the sides of this city are monuments which must be royal palaces on account of their sumptuous decoration and grandeur. In the middle of the city is an extraordinary temple. From each of the gates, there is a causeway of the same width as the bridges, flanked by canals, fed by the great moat round the city. The water originates from the north and east, and leaves from the south and west. The system is fed by the river diverted there. Half a league from this city is a temple called Angar. It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of. There are many smaller towers of similar style, in the same stone, which are gilded. The temple is surrounded by a moat, and access is by a single bridge, protected by two stone tigers so grand and fearsome as to strike terror into the visitor.

Other Portuguese missionaries were similarly awestruck by the scale of all they witnessed. In the words of Marcello de Ribadeneyra in the first account of Angkor in a Western language, published in 1601:

We suppose that the founders of the kingdom of Siam came from the great city which is situated in the middle of a desert in the kingdom of Cambodia. There are the ruins of an ancient city there which some say was built by Alexander the Great or the Romans, it is amazing that no one lives there now, it is inhabited by ferocious animals, and the local people say it was built by foreigners.

Three years later, Gabriel de San Antonio described inscriptions that no one could read, and stone houses, courts, rooms and elevations, which appeared to be Roman. Father Antonio Dorta and Father Luys de Fonseca had spent many days there, he said, and they noted the fountains, canals and temples and the bridges supported by stone giants. 'There is a temple with five towers, called Angor.'

Many uninformed guesses were subsequently offered as to the nature of the monuments and their origins, virtually none of which gave credit to the Cambodian people. A common theme is that they could not possibly have been responsible for such splendour. An account published in Madrid in 1647 stated that 'A learned man supposed these to be the work of Trajan.'

The results of years of painstaking research have now replaced these early speculations. We now know that Angkor was the capital of a civilization, which in its prime, from AD 800 to 1400, commanded the rich lowlands of Cambodia and much of modern Thailand. Its god-kings lived in cities built to represent the mythical mountain home of the Hindu gods, surrounded by huge moats that symbolized the encircling oceans. We can gain a compelling image of life in the city of King Indravarman III from a remarkable contemporary account. In 1296, Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor, saw Angkor when it bustled with activity. He described a royal procession with King Indravarman holding preah khan, the sacred sword. In his own words:

When the king goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing flowered cloth, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lighted. Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields, the king's private guards, and carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold, come next. Ministers and princes are mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas. After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback and on elephants. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant's tusks are encased in gold.

He visited the gilded palace and the towers of gold and bronze, and admired the 'tomb of Lu Pan', a monument we now call Angkor Wat. The lotus towers, the long galleries of bas-reliefs, the surrounding walls and broad moat not only excite admiration, but provide an understanding of court rituals—even their conceptions of heaven and hell. Zhou Daguan also visited the Bayon, the great temple mausoleum of King Jayavarman VII, which lay at the centre of the city. Then as now, the reliefs carved in stone provide a rich insight into the daily life of the inhabitants: we can see men quietly playing chess, visit the interior of a Chinese merchant's house, or pass by a pavilion where midwives attend a woman in childbirth.

What was Angkor?

This book sets the supreme architectural achievement of the civilization of Angkor in its historic context. It begins deep in the prehistoric past, and explores Angkor from its earliest foundations, the stages that culminated in Angkor Wat, and beyond, to trace its decline and abandonment. What could have motivated the architects and labourers who toiled in the oppressive heat, hewing huge sandstone blocks and bringing them 30 kilometres to the northern shores of the Great Lake, the Tonle Sap, from the Kulen Hills? What mind conceived of a massive reservoir measuring 8 x 2.2 kilometres? Who carved the inscriptions, and what is their message? The first Portuguese missionaries could only guess, but after over a century of dedicated research, the inscriptions have been translated, the stones cleared and restored, the names of the kings and their dynasties returned from oblivion and some of the above questions answered.

Angkor is the name conventionally given to the cities and the associated monuments that lie between the Tonle Sap and the Kulen Hills. The word derives from the Sanskrit nagar, meaning 'holy city'. Viewed from the air, it is possible to detect the outlines of cities, reservoirs and temples, which reflect constant urban renewal. New temples continued to be built there over a period of at least seven centuries from about AD 700.

Illuminating an extinct civilization is a demanding and challenging endeavour, but also one with special rewards. This is particularly the case for the Western scholar where the civilization of Angkor is concerned, because the people, the religion, the environment, indeed virtually all aspects of its life and culture are alien. It means drawing on research in many field, such as prehistoric archaeology, epigraphy, art history and the study of comparative religions, covering a span of 2000 years, which can be divided into four phases. Civilization at Angkor had its origins in the prehistoric Iron Age, which began about 500 BC. The second phase started in about AD 150, when the earliest state, often referred to as Funan after early Chinese reports, was forming in the Mekong Delta. This state declined due largely to changing trade patterns. It was superseded by the third phase which, from AD 550 to 800, saw several leaders competing for power in what may be called the core area of Angkor, the low-lying plains of central Cambodia from the delta to the Great Lake and up to the confluence of the Mekong and Mun rivers in north-east Thailand. This period is often called Chenla, again after the name used in Chinese documents. The fourth phase followed the establishment of a royal centre north of the Great Lake at Angkor.

Before describing this sequence, it is necessary to review certain key issues, which penetrate the fabric of the civilization of Angkor and allow for a deeper understanding of its history. These help to answer three questions: what is a state, how does it come into being, and how is it maintained?

The origins of states

Most anthropologists recognize that states evolve from chiefdoms, in which leaders dominate a social web where individuals are related by kinship. They usually involve a central settlement in which the chief resides, and one or two categories of smaller, dependent settlements. The chief is usually distinguished by symbols of status, and will often be accorded elaborate mortuary rites.

In a state, although kin ties remain, people are also identified by their class within a complex social network in which there are at least two endogamous groups, one comprising the ruling elite. The royal tier will usually be accorded a divine origin and the ability to communicate with the gods. There are four levels of settlement hierarchy from the capital down through provincial centres to villages. The king usually will live in a palace, and play an important role in rituals. His court absorbs surplus production from a much larger sustaining area than in a chiefdom, and high-ranking members of the court are recognized by special titles, offices and symbols of status. The regulation of labour and the appropriation of surplus production is essential in the support or maintenance of the administrative machinery for an enforceable legal system, an army, full-time priests and state temples.

Recent instances of state formation have stressed the importance of warfare, the control of power and trade,qualities of leadership and command of ritual. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history of the Yao people in Malawi illustrate these clearly. Although these people lived far from South-East Asia, the recorded course of their development is so similar to what we think might have occurred in the Mekong Delta that their experience will be briefly summarized here.

Traditionally, the Yao lived in inland villages dominated by women. A group of sisters, who defined their relationship through maternal ancestry, would appoint their oldest living brother as the village headman. Villages rarely exceeded fifty or sixty inhabitants, for this social system encouraged young aspiring leaders to leave and found their own settlement.

The situation changed radically as Arab traders began to explore the coast to the east. They sought ivory and slaves, and in return, supplied the Yao with beads, cloth and metal wire. Traditionally, the headman controlled trade, in which role he provided the blessing of the ancestors on traders when they left his village, often on hazardous journeys. He also had the right to distribute goods on their return. At the same time, the headman's prestige was measured by the size of his village, and the number of his followers. A demand for slaves engendered much tension among the Yao and their neighbours. Male slaves would be sent down to the coast to be sold. Female slaves could be kept by the chief as his own, thereby increasing his retinue. It is recorded that one chief, Mataka I Nyambi, owned 600 houses in eight villages, one house for each of his wives.

The transition form village headman to great chief was swift, happening in the space of half a life span. As the emerging chiefs expanded their domains and increased their power through trading for guns, so they adopted the exotic manners and customs of the Arab traders. This enhanced their prestige in the eyes of their followers. Some accepted Islam,and changed their names: chief Monjesa became Zuraf. Sultan Che Mataka had exotic trees planted, and changed the name of his capital to Mwembe, meaning 'tree of the coast'. Chief makanjila had his palace built in the Arab style. They began to use Arab writing to keep their records. As towns developed from villages, it became necessary to grow more food, and irrigation water was brought to their fields. When Sultan Che Mataka died, he was accompanied in his grave by thirty boys and girls, dressed in special cloth. They were armed with guns and powder horns, and accompanied by offerings of salt and beads.

Similar changes in behaviour in South-East Asia should leave archaeological traces, or alert us to the significance of the words contained in inscriptions and eye-witness accounts. The first prerequisite in seeking the origins of Angkor is to define a period when there were competing chiefdoms. Archaeological signatures of this are a dense distribution of large settlements, rich burials of the elite and the material remains of warfare. Evidence for palaces, records of taxation, the control of labour to construct public buildings and agricultural improvements, as well as the adoption of an exotic Indian writing system and language, or of the appointment of followers over dependent settlements, signal the emergence of a state. Once formed, a state had to maintain itself. Many archaic states had brief lives, often characterized by construction activity and territorial expansion, followed by contraction or subjugation by rivals.

Influence from India

One of the most contentious issues in the historiography of the Angkorian state is the depth of its debt to Indian religion and political philosophy. Some early interpretations of the state of Angkor stressed the seminal role of India in its formation and nature. Beguiled by the ubiquitous imagery of Shiva and Vishnu, central gods in the Indian pantheon, and the use of Sanskrit, the priestly language of Hinduism, Indianization was put forward as a possible process to explain the origins of Angkor. There is no doubt that the people of South-East Asia exchanged goods and ideas with India from at least 350 BC. But it will be seen that the local rulers chose to adopt Indic gods and language to their own advantage rather than having Hinduism imposed upon them from outside. Indeed, for most of its history, the rulers of Angkor professed devotion to ancestral divinities and Hindu gods rather than to the Buddha. Therefore, an understanding of Hindu religion, ritual and the importance of merit is necessary to clarify the content of many Angkorian inscriptions.

The Hindu sacred texts, or puranas, describe the universe as being centred upon Mount Meru, ringed by a series of concentric circles. The first is known as jambudvipa, the land of the rose apple tree, beyond which lies the salt-water ocean, and so through various realms until one reaches outer darkness. There are also seven layers below the surface, under which lie the realms of hell. The social anthropologist Stanley Tambiah has suggested, on the basis of the Thai states of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, that the capital represented Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, ringed by mountains (walls) and oceans (moats). The cosmos is inhabited by many kinds of beings, including divine nymphs or apsaras, and mythical snakes, the nagas. The king was the divine intermediary between the world of gods and people. Reincarnation is a central feature of Hinduism, and accumulating merit through a worthy lifestyle, or making offerings to the gods, determines one's place in any of these realms after death.

The myriad gods of the Hindu pantheon are worshipped through the medium of the puja, or offering. Such merit-making centres on a gift of food, fruit, flowers, clothing or, in rare cases, meat or symbolic blood, which increases the donor's store of merit. The image of the deity is awakened, bathed, rubbed with sesame oil and provided with fresh clothing. It is entertained throughout the day by musicians and dancers, praised and worshipped. Lamps are burnt, tapers rotated before the god, and the priest will bring his burning lamp to devotees for them to place their hands over it and receive blessing and merit. In the evening, the god is feasted, undressed and retired for the night.

Temples are not only immensely rich but important spiritual and economic institutions. They traditionally derived wealth from land assigned them by the king, from meritorious donations and fees for religious services. Within their walls, temples are virtually self-contained communities with their own bathing tanks, offices, dispensaries, schoolrooms and even banks.

Merit can also be accrued by making pilgrimages to the great temples and holy locations, such as the source of the Ganges. Death is marked by pinda, offerings of rice to the dead over a period of ten days, to reconstruct the body so that it can leave its temporary abode in the land of ghosts and join the realm of the ancestors. Astrological observations are a vital part of determining the course of one's life. The use of a twelve-year cycle is widespread in India and South-East Asia. In India, the cycle is determined by the motions of Jupiter; in South-East Asia it is characterized by twelve animal names of remote origin. The cycle remains particularly auspicious today as in the past.

There are key pan-Hindu gods and countless regional deities. This is essential to understanding why there are so many named gods in Angkorian inscriptions, many being of local or ancestral origin. Vishnu is the supreme god, who descends to the world of mortals in many guises. One of these, a turtle, was very popular at Angkor, as Vishnu represented thus supported the world during the churning of the ocean of milk to obtain the elixir of immortality. Shiva is a second major god, who became popular at Angkor. He may be represented in many forms, the most popular being as a linga, an erect stone phallus within a yoni, or vulva, symbolic of the union of Shiva with sakti, his dynamic energy.

The manifestation of royal and divine essences in the form of the royal linga at Angkor reflects the way in which esoteric ritual could augment status. It is also vital to understand that the gifting of food, clothing and oil to a temple was a way for the donor to accumulate merit and ensure a harmonious reincarnation. Such rituals, in theory, also materially helped bind the provinces to the palace and the state temple, the representation of Mount Meru. While this principle was doubtless acknowledged by all, the civilization of Angkor was still fractured by conflict and instability. In the central court, there was the problem of rights of succession. There was no tradition of primogeniture, and in a situation where kings were polygamous, descent through the female line remained significant. Thus the potential for factionalism and dissension was ever present. This was exacerbated where royal claimants, or provincial aristocrats, could build up regional loyalties and power bases.

The importance of rice

Another contentious and most important issue is the organization of agriculture. States are fuelled by the energy supplied by agricultural surpluses. In Cambodia, this means the cultivation of rice and, as we well see, the inscriptions contain countless allusions to the ownership of rice fields and the supply of grain to the regional and central temples.

There are two opposed schools of thought on how agriculture was organized. One proposes that the massive reservoirs at Angkor were controlled by the king, and were used to irrigate rice fields for three or even four harvests a year. The other denies any state-directed irrigation and argues in favour of the dispersed rain-fed system seen today, supplemented by various other harvesting methods that do not call on irrigation controls. Advocates of the former see royally inspired irrigation not only as a key factor in the rise of the civilization of Angkor, but in its collapse as the network failed. The latter viewpoint sees the reservoirs as playing a symbolic role by representing the oceans surrounding the home of the gods.

None of these variables exists in isolation. By weaving together the many strands that made up the civilization of Angkor, and seeking a pattern to the changes that took place over two millennia, it will be possible to understand why such monuments as Angkor Wat were built and what they meant to those who saw the golden towers in their heyday. We can also seek answers to why this holy city had been abandoned and consumed by the jungle when the first Portuguese missionaries passed in wonder through its great stone gates.

Excerpted from The Civilization of Angkor by Charles Higham. Copyright © 2001 by Charles Higham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: 'One of the Marvels of the World'
2. The Prehistoric Period in South-East Asia: 2300 BC-AD 400
3. The Earliest Civilization in South-East Asia: AD 150-550
4. The Early Kingdoms of Chenla: AD 550-800
5. The Dynasty of Jayavarman II: AD 800-1000
6. The Dynasty of the Sun Kings: AD 1000-1080
7. The Dynasty of Mahidharapura: AD 1080-
8. The Civilization of Angkor
References for Further Reading


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