I’m an engineer’s daughter, which I’m painfully aware of each and every day. It’s true what they say about engineers – they have weird-ass senses of humour. Trust me, I grew up with one. While I didn’t pursue engineering in my own career, I think parts of the mind-frame have stuck with me. I’m curious how things are built, how long it would take or how they knew to predict x, y and z problems. Enter Angkor Wat.
In preparation to see Angkor Wat, we watched the National Geographic documentary on the temple and how it was built. Let me tell you, this documentary sent our heads spinning and gave us a completely different appreciation for the engineering behind Angkor Wat beyond it being gorgeous a temple.
Engineering Fact #1 – Perfect Lines
Most people look around Angkor Wat and don’t really appreciate how smooth the wall lines are. It’s easy to overlook, as you’re distracted by the lintels and the bas-reliefs, but take a little time to consider that the walls were created by a series of blocks. Once you do that, you ask yourself how they got the connections between the blocks to be so smooth. In fact, in many places the connections are perfect to the point of the average viewer having no clue where the connecting line would be. The way they did this was through friction. They used the two stones and ground them against one another until there was a perfect fit. Pretty ingenious.
Engineering Fact #2 – Multipurpose Moat
I think of moats as either being for defense or for aesthetic benefit. At Angkor, the moat serves another purpose altogether. This area of Cambodia has a significant rainy season throughout the year. Large parts of the country flood. Water, more than any other element, has the power to bring magnificent buildings to rubble, so how has Angkor survived it? It uses the moat to its benefit. The moat, fed by reservoirs upstream, is kept at a constant level year-round so that it keeps a consistent water level in the rocks beneath Angkor. Without this consistency, the floods would lift the ground and the ‘dry’ season would suck moisture bringing the buildings further down. Now, this might not seem like a lot in a year, but over time, it would have been disastrous.
Engineering Fact #3 – Drainage
Ah, water. With the aforementioned rainy season comes… rain! No! Really? How, you might ask, did they keep the rain out of Angkor Wat’s interior? The segments of the roof tiles were shaped in such a way that there were tiny channels that allowed the rainwater to run off, like a gutter, rather than leak through into the building.
Engineering Fact #4 – Look Up!
It’s worth mentioning that when Angkor Wat was built, there was no use of glue, cement or nails. These are much more modern tools of construction. That’s when I started looking up at the arched roof. These stones are assembled in such a way that they are aesthetically pleasing in a nice curve, but that there is enough force and counterforce that they do not collapse.
Engineering Fact #5 – Timing
This more just blew my mind. Angkor Wat was built over a period of 35 years. I repeat, 35 years! Compare that with other great buildings around the world. Westminster Abbey – almost 500 years. Sagrada Familia – 100 years and still going. Notre Dame de Paris – 100 years for the core building and another 90 for additional elements. Perhaps now we can appreciate how quick a time period it is for a complex like Angkor Wat to have been built. I’d also essentially cut that 35 years in half considering that the rainy season meant the bulk of the work was only done during 6 months of every year. Insane. I suppose the crazy timeline was necessary, as the goal was for King Suryavarman II to reach heaven before he died.
Honestly, if you’re at all interested in how this world wonder was built or the history behind it, I encourage you to watch the National Geographic documentary. If you’re planning to visit, it’s a must for research. A lot more compelling than your 200 page Angkor guidebook, that’s for sure.
What about you? Are you fascinated by the engineering behind major monuments? Am I the only geek out there (please say no!)?