Solved puzzle reveals fabled Cambodian temple

It has taken half a century, but archaeologists in Cambodia have finally completed the renovation of an ancient Angkor temple described as the world's largest three dimensional puzzle.

The restoration of the 11th-century Baphuon ruin is the result of decades of painstaking work, hampered by tropical rains and civil war, to take apart hundreds of thousands of sandstone blocks and piece them back together again.

"When I first saw how devastated the monument was, I never thought we would be able to put it back together," said Cambodian restorer Ieng Te, who joined the project as a young student in 1960 and was tasked with numbering stones.

"I am so happy and excited that we were able to rebuild our historic temple," the now 66-year-old said as he oversaw the final construction activities at the site.

On a recent rainy morning workers were adding a final layer of paint to newly-installed wooden staircases at Baphuon, one of the country's biggest temples after Angkor Wat, the largest structure in the famed Angkor complex.

It is one of the last jobs to be done before the temple reopens to the public next week, finally revealing itself in full glory after spending decades in pieces.

Cambodian King Sihamoni and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will be among the first to tour the impressive three-tier temple during an inauguration ceremony on July 3.

The story of the 10-million-euro ($14m) renovation began in the 1960s when a French-led team of archaeologists dismantled the pyramidal building because it was falling apart, largely due to its heavy, sand-filled core that was putting pressure on the thin walls.

The workers numbered some 300,000 of the sandstone blocks and laid them out in the surrounding jungle.

But efforts to rebuild the crumbling towers and lavishly ornamented facades abruptly came to a halt when Cambodia was convulsed by civil war in 1970.

The records to reassemble Baphuon, including the numbering system, were then destroyed by the hardline communist Khmer Rouge which took power in 1975.

In 1995, when the area in northwestern Cambodia was again safe to work in, the French government-funded project was restarted under the leadership of architect Pascal Royere from the Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO).

"It has been said, probably rightly so, that it is the largest-ever 3D puzzle," Royere told AFP.

The team carefully measured and weighed each block and then relied on archive photos stored in Paris, drawings and the recollections of Cambodian workers to figure out where each part fits.

"We were facing a three-dimensional puzzle, a 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture. And that was the main difficulty of this project," Royere said.

"There is no mortar that fills the cracks which means that each stone has its own place. You will not find two blocks that have the same dimensions."

The restoration of Baphuon, one of Angkor's oldest ruins, was completed in April and Royere said it was a moment of joy for the 250-strong, mainly Cambodian, team.

Finishing the "unique" undertaking was "a collective satisfaction because it was a complicated project," he said.

Built around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II in honour of the Hindu god Shiva, Baphuon was the country's largest religious building at the time, 35 metres high (114 feet) and measuring 130 by 104 metres (426 x 340 feet).

In the 16th century, a 70-metre long reclining Buddha statue was built into a wall on the second level using stones from the top of the temple.

These two phases of construction, hundreds of years apart, further complicated the restoration, said Royere, and working during the rainy season proved another major challenge.

But those struggles are behind him now and as the Frenchman watched camera-toting tourists amble along the long elevated walkway that leads to the temple, he said he was confident the site would become a top attraction.

Located at the heart of the Angkor park, it "certainly promises to be a great success," he said.

Gazing up at Baphuon, first-time visitor to Cambodia Gayle Sienicki from Washington DC marvelled at the temple's long journey to recovery.

"It's just amazing, I mean truly amazing, that they could take these bits of stones and figure out how to put them all back together," she said. "I'm in awe. I think this is just the coolest thing."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice