Jungle Atlantis, BBC2 - TV review: Fascinating history of Cambodian kingdom, despite the dreary voiceover and bad graphics

There were still just enough God-kings, warring dynasties and spectacular feats of aqua-engineering to hold the interest

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The Independent Culture

If BBC2 Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath a few weeks back whet your appetite for documentaries about mysterious ancient ruins, here’s another.

The two-part Jungle Atlantis is all about Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The largest religious monument in the world is familiar as a stop on the backpacker trail, but it was also once the centre of an ancient city. During its 12th-century peak, this city spanned a larger area than modern-day NYC and had a population of nearly three quarters of a million. London at that time was home to only 18,000. Our schools’ history curriculum may pretend that civilisation is a strictly Western invention, but at least television can fill in the blanks

A droning voiceover and some lacklustre computer graphics didn’t quite manage to extinguish the natural fascination of the subject. There were still just enough God-kings, warring dynasties and spectacular feats of aqua-engineering to hold the interest. The real hero of this series, however, was not Khmer king Suryavarman II, nor even Angkor Wat’s nameless builders, but a new technique called “lidar”. Like radar, but better, lidar has allowed archaeologists to build a picture of the roads, canals and homes which have been buried for centuries, Altantis-like, beneath the dense foliage.

Now only one mystery remains for part two: why would the 16th-century Khmers allow their magnificent capital to be devoured by the jungle?

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