Natalie Paris, The Daily Telegraph, July 11, 2013
Since the early 20th century there had been a suspicion that a city lay hidden under villages and rice fields at Phnom Kulen, a mountain plateau 25 miles northeast of Angkor Wat.
The royal capital city of Mahendraparvata, one of the first of the Angkor period, was identified in a report last month by the US National Academy of Sciences, after the area was mapped with laser scanning technology for the first time in 2012.
The city is part of a massive urban complex that links the famous temples of Angkor Wat with other, lesser known sites, such as Beng Mealea.
Stéphane De Greef, a cartographer, told Telegraph Travel why the city he helped discover is so important.
What exactly have you found?
The main site we discovered is the ancient royal capital of Mahendraparvata, sprawling over dozens of square kilometres. It is one of the first cities of the Angkor period but, until last year, all that remained of the city were isolated ruins in the jungle, and a fascinating legend of an ancient city no-one had ever seen.
There was a chance that Phnom Kulen, a mountain plateau 25 miles northeast of Siem Reap, was home to an important historical site, as indicated by ancient inscriptions and the presence of 30 small temples. But the evidence was lacking to actually connect these temples and confirm the hypothesis of a large archaeological site.
The discovery of a royal capital hidden in plain sight under a mosaic of rice fields, grasslands and forests for centuries, is one of most amazing Khmer finds of last few decades.
Cambodian people have been building rural villages over it, fishing in its channels and cultivating rice around its ruins for years. Unknowingly, they were living and farming in a rural setting at the exact same place where their ancestors, more than a thousand years ago, were living in a large urban environment.
How can you reach the city ruins?
There are no real roads to get to the middle of the Phnom Kulen plateau, so they can only accessed by dirt bike. There are also many minefields around as the plateau was occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers for 30 years and was the site of many fierce battles between them and the Cambodian Army.
What do we know about the city?
The LiDAR imagery (scanning technology) that we acquired in April 2012 helped us realise that the temples we already knew about were part of a much larger urban network, a grid of main and secondary roads linking temples, dikes, reservoirs, channels and human settlements.
It could be compared to a series of churches and chapels disseminated over a European medieval city, along roads, between hamlets and busy markets.
About 10 temples are currently visible and have been known since the early 20th Century. Most at Phnom Kulen are simple, basic brick towers of relatively small dimensions, so tourists will find them less impressive compared to those at Angkor.
The general temple outline (averaging 40 x 40m) is often visible on LiDAR imagery, but the central part, usually a brick tower 10 to 20m high, is almost systematically collapsed. But their current state of decay is at odds with their incredible historical importance.
Who lived there?
More research need to be conducted to answer this question with certainty, but as of now, the most likely answer is that this city, and the temples built around it, date back to the 9th Century and the reign of Jayavarman II.
This royal capital city is often cited as the birthplace of the Angkorian era. But these were the early years of the empire, and we realise we have still a lot to learn about their origin and culture. The discovery is therefore of tremendous value as it provides a missing piece of very large proportions in the reconstruction of the past.
How are the excavations going?
Excavations started in early 2013, during the dry season, and the results are still being assessed. More campaigns will be conducted year after year, considering the extent of the site.
The ‘treasures’ that archaeologists may find are not what one would expect in terms of gold, jewels and precious statues. They are, however, invaluable in terms of history and culture, helping us understand how the people lived at the time, which gods they worshipped, how the city was built, and why it was abandoned.
- Stéphane De Greef is the cartographer for the Archaeology and Development Foundation
- Read our Trip of a Lifetime guide to Angkor Wat
Trips to Phnom Kulen
The tourists who are currently travelling to Phnom Kulen, as offered by travel agencies, are transported by car to religious sites that have been known for a century. Very few foreign visitors actually make it to the temples currently located inside the lost city we recently discovered as the journey is difficult and there is not much to photograph.
However, the non-profit travel company AboutAsia( aboutasiatravel.com ) offers academic trips with a study leader from the team that discovered the city, to previously known sites on the Kulen mountain. These include the 10th-Century stone elephant of Srah Damrey, a large monolith statue located in the forest; and the 10-12th Century 1000 Lingas river carvings.
The four-night itinerary also includes a visit to Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and the Landmine Museum, Banteay Kdei temple and Tonle Sap lake. Also included are four nights’ b & b accommodation at a five-star hotel, an expert local guide and sunset drinks on the gondolas of Angkor Thom moat, from £430 per person, excluding flights. Prices for a trip alongside a study leader from the team that discovered the city are available on request.
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