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Turbulent times of an ancient temple

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10-temple-crop.jpg

Built atop a cliff in the early 11th century under Cambodian King Suryvarman I, Preah Vihear temple occupies a dramatic setting befitting the grip it has on the two nations that claimed it.

Constructed during the 600-year-long Khmer empire, the temple has withstood decades of war, but it is once again at the centre of a territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, sparking a week-long military standoff.

Built to honor the Hindu god Shiva, the ruins of the temple are the most important example of ancient Khmer architecture outside of Cambodia’s celebrated Angkor Wat temple complex.

French colonial surveyors in 1907 drew a map showing Preah Vihear temple perched along the Dangrek mountain range inside Cambodia.

Thailand does not regard that map as valid, arguing that an earlier agreement showed the temple alongside a Thai mountain.

Thai troops occupied Preah Vihear in the 1950s, but were forced to leave after the World Court in 1962 accepted Cambodia’s ownership claim. Mass demonstrations in Thailand followed the ruling.

Preah Vihear’s high clifftop position gives it a defensive military advantage, and it is reportedly the last place in Cambodia to have fallen to Khmer Rouge forces in 1975.

In 1979, Thai officials forced some 40,000 Cambodian refugees fleeing civil war and the Khmer Rouge back into their country over the heavily-mined Preah Vihear area, causing an unknown number to die.

Preah Vihear temple was also the scene of the final surrender of several hundred remaining Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces in 1998.

Cambodia began the process to have the temple granted heritage status years ago, and on July 8 in Canada’s Quebec City, it was added to UN cultural body UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

UNESCO deemed the site exceptional for its location on a plateau with sheer cliffs overlooking a vast plain and mountain range, its rare architecture and the religious function of the temple, and its carved stone ornamentation.

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