Urban sprawl (Angkor), 800-1431.
Forgive me if I get a little starry-eyed over this one.
“Angkor” isn’t technically the right name. It’s more of a collective archaeological term for the collection of cities over time that rose up in this specific spot, the capitals of the Khmer Empire, culminating with Angkor Thom and its suburbs. But it does literally mean “city” and frankly I can think of no more appropriate term because Angkor isn’t just a city, it is the city; the largest pre-industrial city in the entire world. At 390 square miles, its closest competitor, the Mayan city of Tikal (also mostly in our period!) was a little more than a tenth of its size. It’s only about seventy square miles smaller than Los Angeles.
Angkor probably wasn’t particularly densely populated. It was a sprawl, connected by a very solid infrastructure of roads and canals. Building in stone was proscribed for the common populace, so the wooden houses which made up most of the city got eaten by the forest, but the sacred structures were made out of stone and they are gigantic and stunning and somewhat ridiculous. Angkor had a thousand temple complexes, a massive palace, and a few huge reservoirs which either provided water to the city and/or served as a literal representation of the mythological ocean surrounding the sacred Mount Meru. Let’s run that tape by again: Angkor was so big that when they were symbolically representing a sacred ocean, they could literally build some oceans inside it. “Oh, sure, and what did they do to represent the mountain?” you ask me. “Build a literal mountain?” Don’t be ridiculous! They just built the largest religious building in the history of the world: Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat was built by the king Suryavarman II, who once leapt from his war elephant to his opponent’s war elephant in order to stab him in the head, so you can see that we’re off to a good start here. You might have heard of it a bunch because it’s so beautiful that the Europeans who came across it were totally unwilling to believe it was from the Dark Ages, which probably should have indicated to them that the concept of the Dark Ages was pointless and terrible, but didn’t. “Yeah, but,” the colonialists said, “come on. It looks like someone took Athens, supersized it, and then covered it with some of the most gorgeous stonework ever made. You can’t tell me the Khmer did this. They live in a jungle!” thereby also proving that you can take the European to the huge, massive, stone evidence that where you’re from has absolutely fuck-all to do with your ability to centralize your culture but you can’t make him think.
Most of the information that we possess about Angkor’s daily life comes from Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor in 1295. Think of it this way: one reign after Marco Polo was in China swooning over Hangzhou’s fire department, Zhou was hanging out in Angkor getting busy with the architecture in the same tone of voice. According to him, state processions ended with the king standing on the back of an elephant holding a sword, Angkor’s trade was entirely run by women, and dogs and convicts were barred from entering the city. Want to Yelp the food options? Go ahead: “cucumbers, [kabocha] squash, leeks, eggplants, onion, mustard greens, watermelons, oranges, leeches [or lychee], pomegranates, lotus roots, bananas…pepper, sugar cane, aromatic herbs…black carps, conger eels, mammoth sea turtles, huge prawns, the bellies of alligators and every kind of shellfish.” Attending Angkor Fashion Week? You’d better be fabulous (everyone wore silk) but not too fabulous. “Only the ruler can dress in cloth with an all-over floral design. The important officials and princes can wear cloth with groups of bunched flowers. Ordinary mandarins are only allowed to wear cloth with two bunches of flowers.” Want some Chinese cultural imperialism? I knew you did. “Some eight to nine out of ten here die of dysentery. As with us, medicines are sold in the market, but they are very different from those in China, and I do not know any of them. There are also some sorts of sorcerers who practice their arts on the people. This is completely ridiculous.”
You can pick up a reasonably new English translation of Zhou Daguan’s A Record of Cambodia on Amazon. If you do, let me know, because I am planning to to travel to Angkor as soon as I get my time machine, and I want to make sure I counted the flowers right on my silk.