News

Medieval Angkor - a moral tale for the modern megalopolis


14 July 2006

The Greater Angkor Project has uncovered overwhelming evidence that Angkor was the biggest single pre-industrial complex on the planet. Photo Michael Coe.
The Greater Angkor Project has uncovered overwhelming evidence that Angkor was the biggest single pre-industrial complex on the planet. Photo Michael Coe.

There are many parallels between the modern megalopolis and Angkor, the medieval Cambodian city which is the focus of a four-day conference at The University of Sydney conference from 18 July.

Angkor responded to growing population pressures with sprawling low density development and by clearing ever more land to grow food. Combined with a fragile water system and global climate change, these pressures made the once booming city unlivable.

"The field work that I've recently done with my international colleagues in the Greater Angkor Project has uncovered overwhelming evidence that Angkor was the biggest single pre-industrial complex on the planet," says Associate Professor Roland Fletcher, one of the conference convenors.

"Based on radar images taken by NASA technology, we've discovered that by the time it was abandoned some 500 years ago Angkor was the Los Angeles or greater New York of its time, covering an area of 1,000-square kilometres."

"We now know low density urbanism is not unique to the industrial world. To sustain 750,000 people, the Khmers cleared large tracts of forest to grow rice. They also built huge canals up to 100 metres wide and 40 kilometres long that criss-crossed the city to control flooding and distribute water. "

This infrastructure sustained a patchwork of homes and temples, with the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat rising above it all in the centre. But the rigidity and complexity of the canal systems - which were also the city's freeways - left them vulnerable to collapse, particularly when the medieval warm phase of the 15th century turned into the little ice age from the 16th century on.

"Our field work is leading us to conclude the city was abandoned when destabilised river flows (due to land clearing) and new monsoon patterns (due to climate change) made the site unsustainable. As the canals filled with sand, it appears water broke through their embankments, badly damaging this essential infrastructure."

Today, Angkor is firmly on the world's tourist trail and the centre of Cambodia's booming tourist industry. With 20,000 people living and farming within the World Heritage site, the biodiversity of Angkor and the surrounding Tonle Sap region is threatened once again.

Although the Greater Angkor Project is primarily funded through the Australian Research Council, Associate Professor Fletcher and his colleagues also work closely with the Cambodian government authority that manages the Angkor-Siem Reap region, organisations such as UNESCO, as well as with business and non-profit partners.

Over 120 delegates are expected to attend the conference, with large contingents arriving from Cambodia, North America and Europe.

Angkor virtually brought back to life

One of the conference highlights will be the world's first unveiling of a new 3D simulation of the city and what its daily life could have looked during its heyday in the 12th century.

In his groundbreaking work, Monash University lecturer Mr Tom Chandler makes hundreds of ancient Khmers come to life and march with their elephants across his computer screen, past intact villages in a long royal procession.

He will be presenting his latest work at 5pm on Wednesday 19 July in the McRae Room, Main Quadrangle.


Contact: Kath Kenny

Phone: 02 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100