An Italian professor has set about the task of verifying with angles and axes what has long been theorised about Cambodia’s iconic Angkor Wat – that the temples took their cues from the sky.
Giulio Magli, professor of archaeoastronomy at Politecnico di Milano, used modern technology to test age-old thought in a bid to prove the clear orientation of buildings to the west was “connected with the temple’s symbolism and the management of power by the Khmer kings”.
“I only believe in what I can measure,” Magli told the Post, explaining his motivation to map precisely the orientation of the temples.
Using previously unavailable Google Earth satellite data, geographic information system (GIS) data from the Greater Angkor Project and by reconstructing the ancient sky with software called Stellarium, he traced the phenomenon of the sun disappearing vertically behind the temple at equinoxes.
He described the phenomenon as a “heirophany” – a manifestation of the divine – that created a connection between the temple and the heavens, while island temples built in barays (water reservoirs) aligned later kings with those who went before in a symbolic legitimisation of their rule.
“To me this cultural heritage is very important; that these buildings have explicit messages encoded in the astronomical content,” he said.
He found all 31 monuments align east-west, within a margin of 5 degrees, but his research also hinted that another, peripheral state temple in Cambodia – Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, roughly 100 kilometres east of Angkor in Preah Vihear province – had “a very clear astronomical solution”, involving not the sun, but the moon.
In his report, Archaeoastronomy in the Khmer heartland, published last week on the Cornell University Library open-access site arXiv.org, he also dismissed the idea that any of the temples functioned as precise “calendars in stone”.
Apsara Authority spokesperson Chau Sun Kerya said these new findings added to past researchers’ discoveries about the links between the construction of the temples, astronomy and patterns of the sun.
“They showed evidence that on 23 or 24 March, every year, the sun is exactly above of the central tower of Angkor Wat temple,” she said in an email.
“The Angkor Wat temple is built by King Suryavarman II, and Surya means ‘sun’.”