The amount of ink spilled on the 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat might not fill Tonlé Sap Lake, but it sometimes feels like it might. This Khmer Empire monument dedicated to Vishnu is a UNESCO world cultural site, a global must-see on tourists’ bucket lists—and is the only archaeological monument featured on a national flag. Yet Michael Falser still finds a lot to say.
His recent book, Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage, focuses on the modern history of Angkor Wat, with the objective of dismantling the European narratives of cultural heritage-making dating from the 19th century. Heritage, however, is never divorced from politics and hence is a complex and sensitive topic, one which inherently raises critical questions about the cultural-political practices of UNESCO and other specialized agencies, particularly in developing countries. Falser’s book is not only about how the history of Angkor Wat went hand-in-hand with French intervention in Cambodia, but also a critical reflection on the practices of a European-derived concept of (cultural) heritage-making and their application in the present day.
This voluminous publication follows a trajectory of a 150-year segment of Angkor Wat’s history from 1860 to 2010. There are many ups and downs, depending to a large extent on changes between regimes, from a proto-colonial environment to direct French-colonial rule, difficult diplomatic moments in WWII with Cambodia under Japanese occupation and, finally, those of postcolonial independent Cambodia.
Falser critically deals with Angkor Wat as a product of “transcultural entanglement”: its history since the French colonization in Indochina is layered by transcultural encounters between the actors involved, from French ethnographers, archaeologist, museum directors and other European interest e.g. Poland and later individual actors on UNESCO’s side. For the most part, as Falser mentions, they framed their heritage claims over Angkor as “international help”.
In the first volume, the author takes the reader on a long journey back to 1860 when Angkor Wat was “discovered” by French ethnographers and archaeologists who have since promoted it as a sort of French cultural heritage. Falser traces back Angkor Wat’s global journey, with objects found and taken from their sites to Paris, displayed in French museums or presented as a “superstar” at exhibitions, such as the Universal Exhibitions in Paris (1867 and 1889), and elsewhere until 1922 . Furthermore, as an archaeological site, Angkor Wat was promoted and claimed as a French cultural possession.
He convincingly describes the deliberate and complex strategy through which the French appropriated Angkor Wat culturally, mentally and materially. The French involvement at Angkor, indeed, was only interrupted when the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, and resumed soon thereafter, continuing from the 1990s until the present day.
As often the case when dealing with French “colonial heritage” in the former colonies, there is only a one-dimensional narrative emanating from French members of the French colonial apparatus. Falser surplants the old mainstream narrative which mostly highlighted the accomplishments of French ethnographers and archaeologists in restoring Angkor Wat from a “ruin in the jungle” to its supposed “ancient glory”. He also positions Angkor Wat as “a site of heritage as a transcultural concept and on architectural histories and conservation politics in their global entanglements”. This approach focuses attention on the ways in which local actors engage with the concept of heritage and how they can debate the question on their own terms.
The second volume sets Angkor Wat as an object of contention in the geopolitical conflict between the East and the West in Southeast Asia and further explores its transformation from French cultural heritage to Cambodian national symbol and later fiercely contested as a global icon by other national powers—on-site in Cambodia. In this way, Falser reveals various inheritance claims over Angkor, put forward by local agencies and by international interventions. According to his research, the modern history of Angkor was constantly not so much used but “(ab)used for identity construction by the actual ruling powers”, since the French entrance and increased between 1979–1989. Falser clearly demonstrates that Angkor became a cultural-political symbol to establish Cambodian national identity and how it became a subject of geopolitical tension during the Cold War in Southeast Asia.
It is astonishing that Cambodia’s relation to Angkor during this period has been so under-discussed in scientific publications to say nothing of a more general context. The chronological approach of the book—admittedly academic and densely footnoted and referenced—also makes it comprehensive for non-specialists.
A feast for the eyes of general readers as well as specialists are the approximately 1,400 illustrations of historic photographs, architectural plans and samples of public media, carefully selected from different nationals and private archives in France and Cambodia, interwoven with photographs taken by the author himself during fieldwork in 2010.
Falser’s two-volume set on Angkor Wat is not only an European addition to the modern history of Angkor Wat—and the author is very aware whence he comes—but also reveals the battlefield between different political powers claiming its possession since the “City Temple” first entered onto the world stage. In light of the current Chinese investment in Siem Reap in recent years, now being boosted by the Belt and Road project, it seems this battle is not over yet.
Phuong Phan is an art and architectural historian based in Berlin.