When Professor Michel Igout chanced upon some dusty boxes at the University of Aix-en-Provence
he found hundreds of forgotten old photographs and maps of Phnom Penh.
The French colonial archives from Cambodia, in storage for 37 years, provided such
a unique historical record that he combined them with contemporary images and produced
a wonderful book entitled Phnom Penh, Then and Now.
"Phnom Penh is a museum," says Igout, a French geographer and specialist
in Cambodian affairs, and his book resembles an exhibition with 293 pictures, some
of them unpublished plates from the period 1863-1931, to chart the city's history.
In addition to the gems culled from over 3km of French archives, Igout added antique
drawings, maps and old postcards discovered as far afield as Belgium and Russia.
They illustrate the evolution of Phnom Penh from a village in the days before King
Norodom built his palace in 1865.
The city developed as a commercial and political center after the signing of a Protectorate
Treaty with France in 1863.
Between 1889 and 1897, the talented French administrator, Huyn de Verneville, transformed
Phnom Penh with roads, bridges, canals, docks and sanitation but, above all, he embellished
it with such beautiful buildings and tree-lined avenues that it became known as the
Paris of Asia.
Aesthetic considerations extended beyond palaces and residences. Even the Central
Police Station, photographed in 1910, had style, and the officers stand proudly in
So did the Post Office, photographed in 1930 with elegantly-dressed Europeans leaning
against the counter, looking at the camera from under their fashionable hats.
Contemporary pictures by Serge Dubuisson compare some of the dilapidated buildings
today, but of 360 grand houses built by the French, 100 have been destroyed.
A picture of the railway station in 1932, filled with men dressed in white suits,
showed what an elegant era it was, and streets lined with attractive Chinese shop
houses, whose archways provided continuous shade, had no traffic except horses and
carriages and royal elephants. By the 1960s, under Sihanouk, the city was experiencing
a golden age.
Pol Pot's army devastated Phnom Penh in 1975. "Never in the history of war,"
writes Igout, "has a city been completely emptied of its inhabitants."
Only five photographs make up the section The Deserted City showing the lifeless
streets of 1975-1979 with wrecked buildings, refuse and, in one, an overturned bicycle-a
poignant reminder of the people cruelly marched out and killed. One would have hoped
to see some of the other photographs that remain from this stark, frightening period
in Phnom Penh's recent history.
While it chronicles the ages, what is also missing from Igout's book is more historic
and artistic detail on individual buildings. Pictures of the construction of Le Royal,
for example, a hotel steeped in colorful history, with guests such as Churchill and
Khrushchev, would have benefited from additional text.
Some buildings are not even identified, which is regrettable as readers may want
to see them before they are restored or, in some cases pulled down.
In the end, the pictures provide an invaluable record in the absence of documents
and deeds. And Igout has thousands more.
"I have photographed every old building in Phnom Penh," he claims.