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German author sheds new light on recent history of Angkor Wat

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The 1,200-page book looks at the temple’s staying power. Michael Falser

German author sheds new light on recent history of Angkor Wat

Professor Michael Falser from the Institute of European Art History at Heidelberg University in Germany published a history of Angkor Wat earlier this year titled Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage.

The intention of the 1,200-page book, according to Falser, is to shed light on the various iterations of the temple throughout a complicated modern history.

The book has two volumes, Angkor Wat in France: from plaster casts to exhibition in pavilions; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia: from jungle to global icon.

He told The Post that the book intends to analyse the modern period of Angkor Wat as a “global icon of cultural heritage”, a period that spans 150 years from the 19th to 21st centuries and which unfolded as an entangled and shared history between Europe and Asia.

Angkor in France reconceptualises the French-colonial discovery of the temple in the 19th century until its replica exhibitions in Marseille and Paris from 1867 to 1937.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia covers the various on-site restoration efforts inside the Angkor Archaeological Park from 1907 until 1970 and other important historical time frames until today.

The book contains more than 1,400 black-and-white and colour illustrations of historic photographs, architectural plans and media clips covering the multiple lives of Angkor Wat over the 150-year-long period from the 1860s to the 2010s.

Falser said he was trained as a preservation architect and architectural historian. He spent 10 years researching the book as a project leader with the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, a research project at Heidelberg University.

While he was studying art history and architecture, he visited Cambodia and Angkor for the first time in the late 1990s when the Kingdom was recovering from civil war.

“I instantly fell in love with Cambodia, its charming people and impressive cultural heritage. However, I also saw that the dramatic history of the 19th and 20th centuries which affected Angkor as a site of religious veneration and cultural heritage until today,” he said.

Falser said everyone knows today some bits and pieces of the French-colonial history such as the exaggerated story of the French “discovery of Angkor Wat in the jungle”.

“It is astonishing that this 150-year-long story on how the site gradually mutated into a truly global icon of cultural heritage was never systematically written down. It is this book that presents this story for the first time in all its depth.

“I hope that people, most importantly the younger Cambodian generation – but also international tourists from Tokyo to San Francisco – will see Angkor Wat differently after reading my book.

“Yes, this architecture is undoubtedly a great masterpiece of Hindu and Buddhist architecture from the 12th century to the 15th century,” he said.

He said the temple was also an aesthetic and physical product of heritage in the 19th and 21st centuries.

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