Book Review: Ancient Angkor, by Michael Freeman & Claude Jacques
I’m not sure if I’m the right person to review this book, because this book contains subject areas that are particularly fierce (particularly my hostility to idolatry). Nonetheless, I will do my best to give this book a fair review even as I express my own rather fierce opinions. Angkor is one of the spectacular ruins of the world, and this book provides a lot of photographs and a few maps to guide the would-be traveler.
This book is focused at two types of travelers in particular. First, the book provides a lot of chronological detail for those who are particularly interested in the history and archeology of Angkor, looking at how different kings built up different areas, and how the buildings show plenty of influence from India and how what survives is only a small part of what was a huge set of interconnected cities. I am in this category of reader, fascinated by the history of the Angkor kings, about whom I only know a little, as well as the spread of cultural influence from India into Southeast Asia and Oceania, something which is very profound in Thailand but very obscure to most of the Western world.
Truth be told, the history of Angkor and its rulers is bloody, full of wars (including one where the Cham of what is now Vietnam took over the city for four years), often civil wars between rival claimants to the Khmer throne(s). Included as part of this overall theme of warfare (which is a major theme of the bas-reliefs at Angkor) is religious warfare, as there was a long rivalry between Buddhism and Hinduism, eventually ending up (it would appear) in a blend similar to that which took place in Thailand, with a royal Hinduism intermixed with a highly superstitious Buddhism. It wasn’t an easy process, though, and one Angkor King, Jayavarman VIII, destroyed many Buddha images in an attempt to wipe out the faith’s official presence in Angkor.
That leads to the second audience for this book, and what I have a particular problem with in the book’s presentation. The authors (sensibly) assume that many readers will want to see the idolatrous bas-reliefs about topless harlot devatas (goddesses) or of endless scenes from heathen Hindu epics. If you, like me, have a strong hostility to the clearly Babylonian-based religious beliefs of the syncretic ancient Khmer , the book’s lavish details about such matters may seem less than praiseworthy. I suspect there are few people who share my deep hostility to idolatry and heathen religion, but at the same time even the authors recognize a tension between those who want to appreciate views and architecture and those who want to appreciate the mostly mythological and only rarely historical art. That tension between art and architecture is an intriguing one that I will have to ponder more.
Regardless of your feelings about the historical controversies of Angkor, including some issues with the Vietnam War and the depredations of the Khmer Rouge, this book indicates that Angkor is much larger than is commonly realized and a major historical site that clearly deserves the attention of those who are inclined to visiting amazing ruins. And I am certainly included as one of those number.
 Besides the clear fertility worship and fairly standard Hindu trinitarian beliefs of the Khmer, the fact that the Khmer called the home of the Gods Sumer (also called Mt. Meru) and built artificial hills to honor their heathen gods on high places is very significant as well).