Khmer Empire, around 1150. Water flows over a sacred riverbed. It spills in waterfalls over images of the gods, running past faces peering out of nearby rocks. Clear and clean, it burbles over symbols of the god Shiva, blessing it as it sweeps downstream to the jewel of the Khmer Empire. To the City of God Kings, to the city of Angkor. It joins a massive canal network, passing rice fields, monumental wooden palaces, enormous reservoirs, schools, hospitals, and gridded roads, some of which are 250 feet wide. And then, there are the temples. Huge stone edifices carved with gods and heavenly beings washed white in plaster and shining with gold leaf. Yet on the canal are huge blocks floating downstream on bamboo rafts, quarried to build something even grander: A palace so massive that when it’s one day abandoned and its name forgotten, people will simply refer to it with the Khmer words for ‘Temple’ and ‘City’; The sacred metropolis of Angkor Wat. [Music: Birth of the People] At its height, the city of Angkor was by several measures, the largest city of the medieval era, with a million people and a footprint larger than modern-day New York. It was arguably the world’s largest pre-industrial city. It contained roads as wide as modern airport runways and reservoirs that remain, to this day, the largest [hand-cut] on the planet. An urban sprawl of 390 square miles, dominated by rice farms supporting its population. And it even had a network of public hospitals, providing free medical care in its later days. And of course, at its center, stood the massive structure of Angkor Wat, a building complex containing more stone than the Great Pyramid of Giza and covering four times the acreage of Vatican City. A place that since its construction nearly 900 years ago, has never been usurped as the largest religious structure on Earth. But given all that grandiosity, it’s amazing that Angkor is rarely mentioned alongside other famous cities of the medieval world, like Baghdad, Constantinople, and Tenochtitlan. The main reason for that up until a decade ago is that we didn’t really grasp how large Angkor really was. Apart from a few stone dedications inscriptions and accounts from Chinese diplomats, our understanding of Angkor comes from studying their architecture, religious artwork, and archaeological sites, which has been difficult. See, apart from public infrastructure and temples, all the buildings in Angkor were made of wood, a material that quickly disintegrated once the Khmer abandoned the city to the jungle. On top of that, political instability has kept the site inaccessible to modern archaeologists. After World War II, Cambodia experienced decades of conflict, ranging from Anti-Colonial insurgencies, a civil war, spillover from the Vietnam War, the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and a military intervention by Vietnam itself. And at certain points, the temples themselves became battlefields, with fire fights leaving bullet holes in Angkor Wat. Even today, excavation is difficult due to the land mines and unexploded ordnance left behind by the conflict. But in 2007, an archaeological team flew over the Angkor area and scanned it using L.I.D.A.R. a system that gathers distances via a pulsed laser. With that data gathered, they deleted the layer of return signals that had bounced off the tree canopy and were left with something previously invisible: The mega city of Angkor; a city founded by God Kings that harnessed the monsoon. The Kulen Hills, circa 802 CE. A holy man has come from India to conduct a ritual. This man is from a century-long line of Hindu traders and missionaries who brought their beliefs to this remote kingdom. And the man who invited him, the man at the center of this ritual, is Jayavarman II. Once only one of a collection of Khmer Kings, Jayavarman is a ruler on the rise. After battling his former overlords to the East and moving Northwest, he’s consolidated power among other ethnic Khmer kingdoms through marriage, alliances, and war. His rule, however, is not steady. Other Khmer kingdoms still resist him. And right now, he’s still technically in full retreat. Over his life, he will move his capital 5 times, and his latest center, a strategic stronghold in the Kulen Hills, was chosen for its defensibility. But this ritual will give him the legitimacy he so desires. The Brahmin finishes and transfers the sacred Linga, the symbol of the god Shiva, to Jayavarman. He is now the manifestation of Shiva, the supreme lord excellent, the Universal Monarch, and god-king of the rising Khmer Empire. He will raise cities and build a type of Indian temple foreign to the region, one shaped like the sacred five peaked Mt. Meru, the Olympus of the Hindu universe. And around it, he will build a moat representing the mythical sea of milk said to surround those sacred peaks. Now, his building projects were small in comparison with what would come later, but Jayavarman did 2 critical things. First, he legitimized Khmer power by introducing the Cult of the God-King, and second, by building his new capital, he’d initiated centuries of city building in what would come to be known as the empire’s “Angkorian Period.” But to build a vast city in the Cambodian Wilds, these newly-minted Angkorians, as we call those Khmer who dwelled in the capital, would need to tame the natural environment. See, Cambodia is a monsoon ecosystem, with extremely dry and wet periods. During the dry season, the earth can turn dusty and temperatures rise over 100 degrees. While in the wet peroids, torrential rains inundate banks, reverse courses of rivers, and raise lake levels by 30ft. In fact, villages along the Great Lake are still built on 30 foot stilts today. However, much like the Nile’s floods helped enrich its banks with fertile mud, these seasonal floods were key to rice cultivation. To create a sustainable kingdom, Jayavarman’s successors would need to harness the power of the monsoon and bend it to their will. Therefore, they broke ground on an intricate hydraulic system meant to channel the water into the largest hand-cut reservoirs in the world. They engineered canals, dikes, and spillways at precise angles, taking advantage of gravity to divert water from nearby rivers and streams in the mountains, effectively creating the current environment of the Angkor region. During the wet season, spillways would evacuate excess water, and during the dry season, stored water could be used for agriculture and would soak into the surrounding earth, replenishing dried-out soil. And actually, surface evaporation may have even helped bring groundwater to the surface. But these works were not just practical. They also served a religious purpose, with the mountain-shaped temples at the center of each reservoir mirroring the divine mountain. And the water itself was sacred. During the dry season, craftsmen ventured into the hills to create the striking monument we saw at the opening of this episode. When the streams disappeared, sculptors would gather at the convergence of two streams and carve hundreds of Linga on the dry bed. By running over them, the water would be blessed by Shiva and imbued with the sacred act of creation. “So what is a Linga, exactly?” you ask. Well, a Linga is a penis. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) The symbol of Shiva. Its corresponding female symbol is the Yoni, a sort of square vessel the Linga sits in. Together, they show the creative, life-giving power of the gods. In most rituals, they’d wash it with milk. Hinduism: Not shy about biology. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Anyway, it must have worked, because the society that this sacred water built, was one of the most creative in Southeast Asia. They quarried great blocks of sandstone out of the Kulen Hills, carving them out by hammering long iron poles into the rock, before sending them downstream on bamboo rafts. When they arrived at the building site, laborers, either drafted labor or prisoners of war, would finish and assemble the blocks, grinding one on top of the other, back and forth, until they sat smooth. And groups of artisans would then carve bass reliefs in the soft face of the sandstone. For decades, the Khmer kings expanded their capital. They built religious retreats, which also served as schools, and perfected their own style of temple carving. “Now, why so much focus on temples?” you ask. Well, because they were administrative centers as well as religious institutions. Collecting taxes, coordinating local projects, and sending any extra revenue to the royal treasury. But all that building meant that the old capital was starting to get crowded. By the time the 4th Khmer monarch came along, beating his rival to the throne in a great naval battle, he’d had enough. So he decided to move the capital North, closer to the water sources and away from the tangle of his predecessors’ mausoleums. He had to start thinking about building his own mausoleum. After all, he had leprosy and was eager to make his mark. So, for the next century, he and his successors would build a city of ashrams and canals, of raised roads and beautiful reservoirs, and of intricate wooden palaces lost to time, whose beauty we can only speculate. But what we don’t have to speculate about is the stone temples. The temples that became grander with each generation and the carvings more graceful. Roughly 70 years after the city’s founding, a group of courtiers commissioned the breathtaking women’s temple. Unlike previous temples, this one was carved in red sandstone, giving its whole structure a pleasant pink glow. Though not large, bass relief carvings cover every inch of its surface, with the triangular spaces above doors displaying creatures from Hindu mythology. Most notable are the carvings that give the building its name. The beautiful demigoddess that stands on nearly every wall and column. These elements would become an ongoing motif in Angkorian art. Decades later, a god-king may have stood in this temple and looked at these goddesses, so serene, ethereal, full of life. Yes, he would have something like it at his grand temple he was raising. The greatest in the world: Angkor Wat. Special thanks to Educational Tier patrons Ahmed Ziad Turk and Joseph Blaim. [Music: Nokor Thom by Tiffany Roman]