Angkor decline gradual rather than catastrophic: study

Beautiful aerial view of Angkor Wat at sunrise, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Shutterstock image)
Updated 26 February 2019

Angkor decline gradual rather than catastrophic: study

  • Angkor's abandonment had been generally blamed on the 1431 invasion by Thai forces from Ayutthaya
  • Study believes Angkor was gradually abandoned as the elite moved to new communities with more commercial opportunities

WASHINGTON: Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, appears to have suffered a gradual decline rather than a catastrophic collapse, according to a study published on Monday.
Archaeologists and historians have long sought to explain the 15th-century abandonment of Angkor, with many attributing it to the 1431 invasion by Thai forces from Ayutthaya.
“The historical record is effectively blank for the 15th century at Angkor,” said Dan Penny, a member of a team of Australian and Cambodian archaeologists and geographers who took part in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
“We don’t have a written record that tells us why they left or when or how,” said Penny of the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. “Everything that survived is carved on stone.”
For the study, the team examined 70-centimeter sediment cores taken from a moat that surrounded Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer empire.
Penny said the cores serve as a “natural history book recording changes in land use, and climate, and in vegetation, year after year.”
Where humans live they leave traces through fire, soil erosion through agriculture and disturbed vegetation. When they leave, conditions change.
In the first decades of the 14th century, Penny said you start to see a decline in land use, wood burning, destabilized vegetation and a reduction in soil erosion.
By the end of the 14th century, “the southern moat of Angkor Thom was overgrown with vegetation, and management, by implication, had ceased,” the authors said in the study.
“Angkor was never fully abandoned,” Penny said, but “the elite were shifting away from Angkor,” moving to new communities elsewhere with more commercial opportunities.
“This was not a collapse,” Penny said. “This was in fact a decisive choice to shift focus away from Angkor.”
“While the breakdown of Angkor’s hydraulic network, most likely associated with climate variability in the mid-14th and early 15th centuries, represents the end of Angkor as a viable settlement, our data indicate that it was presaged by a protracted demographic decline,” the study said.
“This raises the likelihood that the urban elite did not leave Angkor because the infrastructure failed, as has been suggested, but that the infrastructure failed (or was not maintained and repaired) because the urban elites had already left.”
“The absence of Angkor’s ruling elite by the end of the 14th century casts a different light over the Ayutthayan occupation of the city from 1431 CE, and over Cambodian narratives that emphasize loss at the hands of interventionist neighboring states,” they added.


Lebanon's Beit El Hamra is a home away from home

Beit El Hamra is located on the ground floor of a 1950s yellow villa. (Supplied)
Updated 13 December 2019

Lebanon's Beit El Hamra is a home away from home

  • The latest addition to Kamal Mouzawak’s mini-empire offers tranquility in one of the city’s busiest areas

BEIRUT: You get a sense that Kamal Mouzawak, one of Lebanon’s most fascinating social entrepreneurs, doesn’t like to stand still for too long. Since founding Souk El Tayeb in 2004, he has built a small but precise hospitality empire, one that has sought to transform people’s lives through food.

Originally a farmers’ market, Souk El Tayeb has grown to encompass a network of restaurants (called Tawlets) and guesthouses (Beits), and works to promote and preserve the culinary traditions, rural heritage and natural environment of Lebanon. It’s a mission that has proved extremely popular, particularly the Tawlet element, with its constantly changing menus and rotation of chefs.

In comparison to the other elements of the organization, Souk El Tayeb’s guesthouses are relatively new. The first — Beit Douma, a traditional 19th-century Lebanese house high up in the mountains of Batroun District — took three months to renovate and was opened in 2015. Beit Ammiq and Beit El Qamar followed the same year, but it was at Beit Douma that Mouzawak first combined architectural preservation with culinary tradition.

From its eclectic artwork and vintage furniture, to its original fabrics and confidently colorful wallpapers, it is a triumph of interior design. (Supplied)

Now Beit El Hamra, the latest addition to Souk El Tayeb’s collection of guesthouses, has opened in Beirut’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood. Located on the ground floor of a 1950s yellow villa, it has added a distinctive dose of style not only to Baalbeck Street but to Hamra as a whole.   

Much like Beit Douma, Beit El Hamra is exceptionally well curated. It has an attention to detail that is hard to find anywhere else in Lebanon, let alone in Beirut. From its eclectic artwork and vintage furniture, to its original fabrics and confidently colorful wallpapers, it is a triumph of interior design. There is not a single desultory object to be found and its two en-suite rooms have been adorned with carefully chosen ornaments. “It’s the small details that make a difference. It enhances the experience,” Mouzawak once told me.

Beit El Hamra is the latest addition to Souk El Tayeb’s collection of guesthouses. (Supplied)

Who would have thought that a color spectrum driven largely by dynamic yellows, reds and greens would be so homely? Who would have thought that two guest rooms lying in such close proximity to Tawlet El Hamra, the newest of Souk El Tayeb’s restaurants, would work? Yet they do. And they do so largely because, much like the organization’s other guesthouses, Beit El Hamra has been designed as a home away from home, not simply as a place to eat and sleep. That’s why fresh flowers and plants are dotted throughout, why a fireplace keeps you warm in the colder months, and why a courtyard garden provides a sense of serenity in an otherwise lively neighborhood.

There is also an enduring sense of space. The ceilings are high, the rooms large, the terraces long, and the garden expansive. There is a sense of grandeur, too, although the hustle and bustle of Hamra does occasionally creep in.

Beit El Hamra opened in Beirut’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood. (Supplied)

At the heart of it all, of course, is food. It’s almost impossible to separate Beit El Hamra from Tawlet El Hamra. They are, in essence, one and the same thing. Which is understandable considering Lebanese cuisine is central to everything Mouzawak and Souk El Tayeb have ever done. There is something wonderful about the original Tawlet in Mar Mikhael, which all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home. Its dishes are regional, seasonal, simple. There are stews and salads, pastries and desserts, all served as part of an all-encompassing daily buffet.

At Tawlet El Hamra, it’s different — although the commitment to taste and quality remains. There is no buffet, just an à-la-carte menu offering some of the finest food in Beirut. That means everything from eggs cooked in clay pots to batata harra, kibbeh batata, and oven-baked chicken with potatoes. Everything, as expected, tastes wonderful.

You get a sense that life is just as it should be at Beit El Hamra, and a large part of that is thanks to the staff. Friendly and attentive, yet quiet and unobtrusive, they are universally exceptional. It’s to them that Souk El Tayeb should doff its hat.