With its 100 temples, the sprawling complex at Angkor was the centre of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries. Angkor Wat is the eponymous main temple. In its heyday around 1200, almost a million people are thought to have lived in the surrounding area. By comparison, Paris, one of Europe’s largest cities in the Middle Ages, was only home to roughly 100,000 people at that time.
Saving Angkor’s temples
The awe-inspiring Angkor’s World Heritage Site is famous the world over, but the task of preserving the legacy of the Khmer culture is every bit as overwhelming as the temple complex itself. Germany is supporting Cambodia.
The man who has accompanied Angkor Wat every step of the way
In recent years, some key parts of the seemingly endless temple complex have been preserved and restored. International teams have supported Cambodia. One person who has been involved from the very beginning is Nary Long. Back in the 1990s, Long, who is from Cambodia, worked with Professor Hans Leisen from Cologne University of Applied Sciences. The German geoscientist was involved in conservation efforts from the outset, with the German Apsara Conservation Project. Long is now 54 and employed by Angkor’s APSARA National Authority for preservation, as the chief conservator in the Stone Conservation Unit. The SCU has been supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH since 2007.
Training in stone restoration
On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ supports the initial and continuing training of stone conservators through the deployment of development workers. Eight development workers have been seconded to Cambodia so far. The two currently working in Cambodia are Helen Jacobsen and Christoph Bücker. Jacobsen has a degree in stone restoration, while Bücker is a master stonemason and stone sculptor. ‘A World Heritage Site should always be preserved by the descendants of its creators, and not just by international experts,’ says Jacobsen. ‘The Khmer people have to take the lead.’ Long and Bücker agree, and together the three form the heart of the training team.
Down in the lab and up in the temple
Chandara Hin is very enthusiastic about the lab work. ‘The range of what we learn is fantastic,’ she says. The 31-year-old smiles as she explains how she told her five-year-old son about the experiments she performs on the stones – and how impressed he was. She is also renowned for climbing the temple towers, where she records damage that can then be mapped on a laptop.
Like her classmates, Hin is completing her training alongside her regular job. All of the trainees are employed by APSARA and are released from their regular duties for the training modules. Some have administrative jobs, while others work as guides – or at least they used to. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that lots of the visitors who would otherwise have thronged the site have stayed away, leaving many people in the surrounding region with very little work.
Protecting our world heritage
The international community signed the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, better known as the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, in late 1972. It aims to preserve the world’s sites of outstanding natural and cultural heritage through international cooperation.