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."

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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border