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Imagining Angkor: how an ancient civilisation looked

A bird’s eye view of Angkorian architecture, as visualised by Bruno Levy
A bird’s eye view of Angkorian architecture, as visualised by Bruno Levy. Bruno Levy

Imagining Angkor: how an ancient civilisation looked

The stone monuments of Angkor may be awe-inspiring, but they don’t tell the full story of what was once the world’s largest city. Although architectural evidence is sparse, experts have determined that the temples once bore colour and stood in the midst of an urban centre of up to one million people.

Now artist Bruno Levy has combined established facts with educated guesses to illustrate what Angkor may have looked like at its peak, in order to recapture the essence of the cityscape for an upcoming pocket guidebook to the ancient civilisation. It is tentatively scheduled to be published at the end of October.

“This book will be revolutionary, not a copy-and-paste of other texts,” Levy said, speaking at cultural centre Meta House, where an exhibition of his illustrations titled Angkorevealed will open tonight.

The 51-year-old Parisian, who holds a master’s degree in Southeast Asian languages and civilisations with a focus on Cambodia and Thailand, did not say much about the book’s content, but added that it was being written “under the authority” of Damian Lewis, an Australian archaeologist. In June, Evans made international headlines after discovering a “lost city” near Phnom Kulen.

Angkorevealed builds upon previous computer-generated 3D images of Angkor that Levy originally exhibited in 2009. To update the pictures, he superimposed the old images on background photographs of landscapes, as well as foreground shots of people, animals, plants and various props.

The resulting images display a peculiar juxtaposition of beautifully rendered buildings and realistic, life-like objects that manage to tease the viewer with snippets of established knowledge, such as the size of the temples, while reminding us that there is still a lot on which we can only speculate.

Architectural evidence, such as traces of gold, stucco and paint, has revealed a few certainties about the temples’ original appearances.

“It is proven by archaeologists that the place was painted. Some of them had a layer of stucco and there are traces of gilding,” said Levy.

But the artist was forced to take creative licence when it came to selecting colours. Many temples show remains of paint, but not much else is known, although laser analysis inside Angkor Wat shows evidence of red, white and orhre paint in successive layers.

To guide his guesswork, Levy based his colour selection on the designs of modern pagodas in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as active Hindu temples in India. The deeply carved sections of the temples, such as bas reliefs, are extensively coloured, while slick surfaces are left white or just lightly coloured.

It is not just the temples, however, that Levy aimed to illuminate. Using Angkorian bas reliefs and the accounts of Zhou Daguan, the Chinese emissary who visited Angkor in 1296 and left the only first-hand account of the civilisation, Levy filled the spaces in front of the magnificent temples with quaint wooden houses and ordinary Khmers going about their business.

For Levy, it is the long-dead residents who ultimately defined Angkor.

“I fell under the charm of the ruins, but I was much more interested in what the ruins mean in terms of civilisation.”

Angkorevealed opens at Meta House on September 25 at 6pm and will run throughout October.

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