More than 150 years since French explorer and naturist Henri Mouhot hacked his way through the dense foliage surrounding Angkor Wat and published a breathless account of uncovering “the ruins of a lost civilisation”, a new exhibition of some of the earliest sketches and photographs of the temples gives visitors the chance to see them through his eyes.
Fifty stunning, black and white photographs and sketches by Mouhot and later generations of archaeologists from the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), spanning the period between 1860 and 1960, are on display in the ballroom of the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort until December.
The photos are part of an exhibition celebrating the completion of over 60 years of restoration work on Baphuon Temple.
Launched by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon during a state visit to Siem Reap in July to officially re-open Baphuon to the public, the Archaeologists at Angkor: Photographic Archives from the Ecole
Française d’Extrême Orient exhibition is the first time the EFEO photo archives have been opened to the public in Cambodia, according to the hotel’s former general manager Charles-Henri Chevet.
He told 7Days he jumped at the chance to display the stunning material.
“As many people know, Baphuon temple has recently achieved its long renovation and facelift. Pascal Royere, the director of the EFEO who was here for 12 or 13 years, was talking to me a few months ago about this project and, knowing the exhibition had been featured in one museum in Paris last year, he said: ‘Why don’t we show this exhibition here at the same time as we reopen Baphuon temple?’ And of course I immediately agreed.”
The 50 photographs now hanging in the Sofitel ballroom were selected from among 100,000 early images of the temples in the EFEO photo archives, says Chevet, and were flown to Siem Reap in June after the conclusion of an exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris.
In addition to the photographs at Sofitel, another 57 photographs from the Paris show are on display at the Artisans d’Angkor workshop in Siem Reap until August 31.
Shots of pith helmeted archaeologists in climate-inappropriate suits and ties, posing against the majestic backdrops of Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat temples, feature heavily in the exhibition, which also has a special focus on the 60-year transformation of Baphuon from a crumbling stone ruin back to its original grandeur.
Begun in 1995, the most recent project to restore Baphuon is the continuation of earlier work by French archaeologists, who dismantled and meticulously catalogued more than 300,000 individual stone blocks from the temple structure during the 1960s.
Civil war and the destruction of records for the site during the Khmer Rouge era forced the project to begin from scratch in 1995 under the direction of Royere, who was helped in assembling the jigsaw of stone pieces by Jacques Dumarçay, a member of the original EFEO survey team, whose earlier work is among the photographs on display.
Built in the mid-11th century as a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva by King Udayadityavarman II, Baphuon features heavily in some of the first recorded depictions of life in the Angkorian empire by Chinese envoy Chou Ta-Kuan, who, upon visiting the site in the late 13th-century, called it the “tower of bronze” and wrote that it was one of the “truly astonishing spectacles” he had encountered.
Ta-Kuan’s astonishment was shared by Mouhot, who stumbled across the temples more than 500 years later in 1863 while on an expedition sponsored by the British Royal Geographical Society.
He was not the first westerner to visit the temples, but his published diaries and sketches were the first to popularise them, sparking a wave of interest in Cambodia that eventually led to the founding of the EFEO in 1900 to preserve and safeguard temple sites.
Believing that the Angkorian temples represented evidence of a lost civilisation, Mouhot praised them as “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome”, and wrote that seeing them for the first time “fills one with profound admiration, and one cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?”
While Mouhot’s theory that the builders of the temples vanished in a similar way to the lost city of Atlantis has long since been discredited, Archaeologists at Angkor exhibition co-ordinator Gaelle Bigeard told 7Days she still has chills when looking at the stark images of stone ruins emerging from the jungle, and wanted visitors to Siem Reap to share this experience.
“We thought holding the exhibition would [help] both tourists and local people [learn] a bit more about the history,” she said. “They can go and see the temples, but here they have a view of how they looked before.
“I think that all the photos are incredible. I run the room and so I look at them often, and you can just lose yourself in the pictures and your imagination.”