The Sambor Prei Kuk archaeological site, a cluster of ancient brick temples scattered in the forest in Kampong Thom province, was listed as a World Heritage Site of Unesco on Saturday.
Built by Isanavarnam I, king of the Chenla Empire, the seventh-century ruins are an important piece of Cambodian history that predates the Angkorian period.
The temple – perhaps best known for its enigmatic carvings that appear to depict foreign visitors to the royal court – was inscribed on the World Heritage List during the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee held in Krakow, Poland, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced in a statement yesterday.
“The Unesco’s decision is a great national pride coming from the efforts of our government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” the statement reads.
On his Facebook page, Hun Sen yesterday expressed his congratulations over the inscription of Sambor Prei Kuk and thanked the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and other authorities for their contributions to the preservation, conservation and registration of the temples.
In a separate Facebook post, Hun Sen also asked all officials and the public to celebrate this “historic event” by banging pots and water jars at public places at 10am today.
According to a news release from Unesco, Sambor Prei Kuk, which means “the temple in the richness of the forest” in the Khmer language, has been identified as Ishanapura, the capital of the Chenla Empire.
Covering an area of 25 square kilometres, the vestiges of the onetime capital contain a walled city centre and temples with ornate sandstone elements, some of which “are true masterpieces”, it adds.
Sambor Prei Kuk’s registration as a World Heritage Site, for which the documents were submitted in 2016, helps to fund restoration works, Culture and Fine Arts Ministry spokesman Thai Norak Satya said yesterday.
“The benefit we gain from Unesco is their financial support for repairing [the temples],” he said. “Any place that is not safe we would never let the tourists enter. The place has to be good and safe like Angkor Wat.”
Kampong Thom Provincial Deputy Governor Sok Lou said he welcomed the boost in tourism numbers at Sambor Prei Kuk that would likely ensue after its inscription on the list.
“We, all the Kampong Thom people, are very proud and happy with this news,” Lou said. “We are not concerned that tourists will have a bad impact on our temples because the Unesco will know how to take care of it.”
However, as a site rich in Cambodian culture and history, Sambor Prei Kuk should not just be an attraction for tourists, but a place for Cambodian people to get acquainted with their heritage, said Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist.
“Sambor Prei Kuk is one of the most attractive [sites] for our Cambodian history. It is a symbol of Khmer reconciliation,” Manara said, explaining that Chenla’s rise marked the reconsolidation of the region after the prior Funan Kingdom had broken up into competing powers.
“The word ‘Kampuchea’ started from the time when Sambor Prei Kuk emerged,” he added. “This historical site is very important for us to understand how Khmer collaborated with each other after a time of division.”
Chen Chanratana, founder of the Khmer Heritage Foundation and an archaeologist who has studied the site for years, said that Sambor Prei Kuk, despite being dedicated to Shiva, a Hindu god, marked the start of the creation of what has become the Khmer culture, or what he refers to as “Khmerisation”.
“The temple has a lot of decoration because during that time Khmer started to make Khmerisation,” Chanratana said. “In the past, we received influence from Indian culture, Indian art, but during the pre-Angkor Chenla period, we invented our own [art and culture].”
“That’s why we have a lot of decoration we could not compare with Indian culture. This is a special characteristic of Sambor Prei Kuk.”