Saturday, March 30, 2019

CAMBODIA - Angkor Thom (The Great City)

After Angkor Wat, the vast area of Angkor Thom remains the second most visited section of the Unesco archaeological park.
Map of the archaeologic park of Angkor.
In the 12thcentury, the Chams came from the East and surprisingly sacked Angkor Wat. Jayavarman VII then decided to build a better-protected city for his empire. Historians think that there were as many as 1M inhabitants in the vicinity of what may have been a real Megacity.
The new capital was surrounded by a moat (100m wide) as well as a long wall (8m high and 12km long). The layout clearly adopts again a 3-dimensional plan: a moat+a wall+an inner city. The central area of Angkor Thom keeps the most important monuments:
-the Bayon,
-the Baphuon,
-the former royal palace called Phimeanakas,
-two famous terraces overlooking a vast central square: the Terrace of Elephants & the Terrace of the Leper King.
Laid out in the shape of a giant square, this huge area has four gates orientated according to the four
Bridge at the south gate. 
The south gate leading from Angkor Wat to Angkor Thom has been restored with giant heads, which are sometimes copies. It is meant to be a representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The causeway is lined with the heads of 54 gods and 54 demons. Why such a number? A possible answer lies in a symbolic meaning: 5+4=9 or 54+54=108 → 1+8=9. If now, you add 9+9, you get 18, which in turn becomes 9 by adding 1+8. Nine is a highly symbolic number, the end of a decimal system known as soon as 3,000BC. 
1.Bayon.This is one of the most famous sites at Angkor. It is both mysterious and mesmerizing. First, it stands at the exact center of the enclosed section of Angkor Thom. Built in the 12thcentury, it testifies for a change from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. Once again, it is a highly symbolic edifice.
One of the smiling faces
of the Bayon
The structure is made of 3 levels. The first two levels are square, while the third is circular. The square symbolizes the Earth and the circle stands for the Sky.
More interestingly, the upper level has 54 towers and 216 giant smiling faces. It is believed there were 54 provinces in the Khmer empire at the time. As noted before, 54 is another representation of number 9. But if you add 2+1+6. you also get 9.
The first and second square structures show remarkable bas-reliefs depicting daily life in the 12thcentury or an account of the fight between the Chams and the Khmer. Number 2, being the first even number symbolizes the duality of human life on the earth (sun/moon, earth/water, male/female, etc..).

2.Baphuon.This is an amazing structure that has recently been fully restored. A 225m elevated
The steep steps of Baphuon
walkway supported by hundreds of pillars leads to a 43m high pyramidal structure. This 11thcentury temple-mountain made of 3 platforms stands high above the jungle and is a representation of the sacred 5-peaked Mount Meru.
By considering the symbolic value of the numbers, this is what we find out: 3 platforms; 225 → 2+2+5+9; 43 → 4+3=7, which is a symbolic representation of the world in Hinduism. As this is a religious structure, it is no wonder it contains all the first three odd numbers: 3, 5 and 7. 
In the 16thcentury, another feature was added on the western wall of the pyramid: part of the second level was shaped into a 60m reclining Buddha!
3.The Terrace of Elephants. It served as a viewing royal stand for public ceremonies over the central square. It is 350m-long. Its name derives its long bas-reliefs representing elephant and their mahouts.
4.The Terrace of the Leper King. Located at the other side of the central square. This 7m-high platform is topped with a nude statue thought to be that of Yama, the god of death. This is the reason why archaeologists think the platform used to be a royal crematorium. The original statue is kept at the Phnom Penh's National Museum. 
5.Phimeanakas ('The Celestial Palace'). Apart from the two pools located just out of the royal wall, there is not much to be seen of this former royal palace as it is currently under restoration. This area is just behind the two described terraces.
Christian Sorand
Baphuon pool
The temple-mountain of Baphuon
View from the top of the pyramid
Side temple under restoration
Three columns shaped as elephants
Terrace of the Elephants: bas-reliefs.
Head statue of a god on the bridge
leading to Angkor Thom
Bas-relief at the Bayon.
Bayon head on the top platform
Khmer shrine inside the Bayon
Another view of the Bayon

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

CAMBODIA - Khmer Ceremony at Angkor Wat

Despite the mythical assumption that the ruins of Angkor Wat had been rediscovered by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot (1826-1861), the temples of today's archaeological park had never ceased to be a source of spiritual inspiration for the Khmers. 
On my latest visit to Angkor Wat, I was certainly reminded of this fact.
As the temple of Angkor is facing the West, it has become a popular hit among the sightseers to come and watch the sunrise as a spectacular backdrop over its magnificent structure.
Eastern gallery at sunrise
Of course, I did it too. But the last time I was there, not many people were visiting the site, albeit at such an early hour of the day!
However now, hundreds of visitors wake up at 4.00am and make the trip to Angkor Wat to be among the happy few to be able to watch the sunrise.
Yet, this time, I left the crowd of onlookers just after the peep of the day in order to get a feel of the temple loneliness before the usual flow of visitors. A few other people did the same thing. So we had the whole temple deprived of visitors. At the eastern gate, the first rays of the sunlight bring a magical touch on the stones and the bas-reliefs.
Then I started hearing light local music. My first thought was that it was a hidden sound system which was at the source of the music. I soon found out that a group of Cambodians was actually having a religious ceremony at the foot of the temple on the eastern side!
We were a handful of visitors attending a ceremony that was just ongoing. There were three distinct groups. A group of players with traditional instruments was sitting into a musical circle. A rectangular rattan rug held another group made of elderly women busy preparing the arrangements and the food offerings. And right in the middle, there was a small mixed group with an elderly guy chanting. At their back, a vast display of food offerings was carefully disposed among the fumes of candles and incense. 
Angkor Wat has never ceased to keep its spiritual attraction. It was truly a magical moment.
Christian Sorand
Ongoing Khmer ceremony at sunrise
At the eastern gate of Angkor Wat
Temple offering

Offering preparation
Central prayer corner
Group of musicians 
A colorful array of temple offerings to the gods

Chanting priest

Ongoing music

Saturday, March 23, 2019

CAMBODIA - Angkor Wat, one of the top World destinations

Angkor Wat

It is difficult to express one's own feeling at visiting the temple of Angkor, in Cambodia. It is undoubtedly an iconic monument that has been added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage site but not to the new 7 World Wonders. A score of scholars have written books on the meaning of its structure, and nowadays thousands – if not millions of visitors come from sunrise to sunset to admire its majestic beauty and grandeur. 
For the Khmers and also for many other people, the contemplation goes beyond a simple feeling of awe. It is a place of almost magical attraction, soliciting a deep human emotion that can either be religiously motivated or not. It is hard to come here and simply be rewarded by a simple architectural achievement. In fact, it creates a similar feeling to being facing the Pyramids of Gizeh, in Egypt.
This is my third visit there. Yet, I felt a profound elation at revisiting the monument and by attempting to decipher its underlying message. So, I will simply try to follow the rationale of what truly struck me while being there once again. 
Map of Angkor Wat
A phenomenal architecture and Art conservatory.

Angkor Wat reveals a symbiosis of Hinduism and Buddhism. It was first edified to honor Vishnu but in the 12thcentury, it became a Mahayana Buddhist temple. 
Its architecture follows the southeast Asian standards of the ancient Khmer civilization. It uses the basic geometrical shapes of squares and circles. This is not a novelty as many other civilizations have also used these standards in constructing their monuments. But here, the towers are crowned with a lotus-like shape and the underlying overall symbol derives from the Indian mythology of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain.
All the other ancient temples in the region adopted a solar axial orientation from East to West, following the sun cosmic track. Traditionally, the main gate would open onto the East, land of the rising sun. But not Angkor Wat, which is oriented towards the West, land of the setting sun and kingdom of the Dead.
On an artistic consideration, Angkor Wat is known for its Apsara sculptures (holy female dancers).
And its outstanding bas-reliefs (an 800m-long series) are a historical account of the Khmer Kingdom of the Past.
The first thought one may have is that nothing here was built without strong human planning and that there is a clear will to account for an everlasting universal message. In other words, everything here seems to have meaning.
No matter how much you will read about Angkor Wat, at the end of the day what matters is what you see with your own eyes and the way you feel being there that counts most. Such a massive construction was first designed to initiate a deep internal feeling of awe in keeping with its cosmic symbolism. And by the way, this is what archaeologists say it is: an earthly image of the cosmos.

Amazing symmetry and a unique orientation. 

The excruciating concept reveals a powerful human mind underlying the actual planning. This is due
Stone adjustment
not only because of technical or artistic achievement but also because of extreme precision and in a formidable symmetry. Such a gigantic realization must have required a painstaking reflexion and tremendous backstage planning. This was done at a time when there were no computers!
Technically, the sandstone quarry was 50km away in the mountains to the North. They used the Siem Reap River to ship the finished stones on to the site. Huge blocks weighing tons were adjusted without any cement and with a precision that leaves us speechless. The reality is. that the older it is, the bigger the blocks are and the more precise the adjustments are.
Let's consider the general outlaying planning. The scale was done in gigantic proportions:
-an external rectangular moat (190m-wide on 1.5km by 1.3km) turns the site into an island,
-a first outer rectangular wall delimits the ground of the sanctuary (1025m by 800m),
-an elevated stone avenue (475m-long by 9.5m-wide) leads from the West main gate to the central temple,

-a central structure enclosed into three square-shaped laterite buildings,
-four round lotus-bud towers on the external central structure,
-and one taller tower in the middle (55m-high) known to be a symbolic representation of Mount Meru.
Archaeologists agree on the symbolic overall religious image representing a stone vision of the
A corner lotus-bud tower
cosmic order. Mount Meru is at the center of this world and the four smaller towers may represent the other summits around Mount Meru; as well as perhaps the other continents. They are designed to form a cross [X] with a central higher structure. The temple outside enclosure represents the Earth and the 4-sided moat symbolizes the planet oceans.
The 12thcentury 800m-long series of bas-reliefs are meant to be seen in an anticlockwise direction, a clear symbol to create a feeling of traveling back into time until the first age of the creation of the universe.
Since Angkor Wat unusually faces the West (and not the East like in the other temples), it is commonly thought it was dedicated to Vishnu because the Hindu god is often associated with the West. The comparison with the Egyptian belief of an after-life in death comes into one's mind as a parallel. It is a reminder of the symbol of the life-cycle represented by the image of the Wheel. It seems to bring forth a sort of parallel between Osiris and Vishnu.

A display of mathematical symbols.

On a more personal account, I was struck by the mathematical order under the design of the
monument. This includes geometry as well as arithmetics.
The two basic geometrical forms are:
-a square or an elongated square (a rectangle) being the basic shape,
-a circle for the tower design.
Anthropology and ethnology have admitted there are two universal symbols: the circle being a representation of the cosmos and the square, a symbol of the earth. The combination of the two reveals a connection between the humane and the divine.
The basic shapes of the many windows (squares) or doors (rectangles) recall this as well. The circular base of the towers ends in a sort of pyramidal tip adopting a lotus-bud design. The circle encloses a space which is sacred. In the East, the lotus flower is a symbol of purity,
enlightenment, and rebirth. This circular flower design points to the sky. Here, we have an Asian representation of a mountain. We know mountains symbolize an ascent to spirituality. The pyramids are a simplified triangular representation of the mountain. All cultures have their own sacred mountains: Mount Sinaï for early Biblical Christianity, Mount Olympus for the Ancient Greeks, Mount Fuji in Japan, Mount Popocatepetl for the Aztecs, or just the Uluru Mountain (Ayers Rock) for the Australian Aborigines. For the Hindus and the Buddhists, it is Mount Meru in the Himalayas. Men's temples are just an architectural representation of the mountain.
But it also goes a step further in regard to basic numbers. The Indian Wheel or its most simplified appearance, the Swastika is a symbol of a life cycle as well as a
The Hindu Svastika
representation of 0 (zero), a well-known Indian contribution to our decimal system. The so-called ''Arab numbers'' come from the Indian sub-continent. They were simply vehiculated by the former Arabian traders. It means that the ancient Khmers had this arithmetic knowledge in their possession.
Dharma chakra
Keeping in mind that odd numbers like 3, 5, 7 or 9 are always used in spiritual concepts as having a mysterious value. Linguistically they are ''odd'' as opposed to ''even'', a bit like another physical classification in the ''right'' as opposed to the ''left''. So, by contemplating Angkor Wat, I randomly started to count how many steps there were, or how many windows and even how many columns each window had.
-First of all, the central structure of the temple is made of 3 square parts.
-There are 4 surrounding towers (32m-high) that delimit either a square or a cross.
-The highest towering structure (55m) is standing right in the center.
So, here we may well have the following figures: 0 (base of the central circular tower) giving birth to
Vishnu statue at the
western entrance
1 (highest tower in the middle); 3 is the symbol of the Hindu Trimurti, a Brahmanism trinity made of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). This is an important consideration because Vishnu, being the preserver, stands in the middle. Number 5 is a symbol of human microcosm and in Hinduism, it is often associated with Vishnu.
Number 7 is also used. The windows have 7 columns and there are seven-headed naga standing as the temple protectors.
It might be interesting to continue to explore the eventuality of the symbolism carried by numbers. For instance, on the outside wall of the central structure facing west, I counted 19 windows on each side of the main central entrance to the sanctuary. If symmetry was one of the architectural rules, why choosing 19 rather than 20? A possible answer is that it is in keeping with the mystery of odd numbers. And if you add 1+ 9, it gives you 10 or also 1+ 0 (like in the central tower dedicated to Lord Vishnu). It may also stand as a visual figuration of the basic numbers 1 to 9. 

What legacy is inscribed in the stones?

These interpretations may sound a bit far-fetched. But they clearly pose the question of interpretation. A construction such as Angkor Wat served as a temple but also as a symbol of power aiming at hitting human sensibility. But the technique involved and the art displayed also reveal an obvious sense of legacy. These stone monuments, we can still see today, stand as a visual recipient of knowledge, of an ancient conception of the world or of the cosmic order, which has remained vivid in Men everywhere. It is up to us to read and interpret the message of the past.

Christian Sorand

PS:  A rather new interpretation regarding the alignment of the major ancient sites relates to the existence of a line connecting them and called 'the tilted equator '.

The West entrance to Angkor Wat
Window with 7 columns at sunrise
Stone doors on the eastern side
Bas-relief with an elephant
Scene showing an archer on a cart
Gallery with bas-relief
Wall carving
Left pond in front of the temple

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Omani French Museum of Muscat

Located in Old Muscat– the siege of the Omani State – the Omani French Museum stands out as an unusual site in the capital. This white mansion used to be a royal property. The former Sultan of Oman, Faisal bin Turki(1864-1913) donated this palace to the French Consul in 1896.
On the occasion of the state visit of the late French President, François Mitterand (1916-1996), to
Upper floor gallery
Oman in 1992, Sultan Qaboos bin Said(born 1940) turned the palace into a museum in order to seal the Omani French relations.
Besides being an interesting architectural site, the museum keeps a collection of old photographs and documents. It keeps an interesting section on Omani and French ships. As Oman has always played a major role in shipbuilding, it is particularly valuable to learn more about its various naval engineering, which contributed to former naval routes to India or the East coast of Africa.
The museum has also a collection of fine Omani furniture and jewelry, as well as a collection of Omani and French costumes. 

Museum history (in French)
Omani door
Another view of the upper gallery
House door
Omani chest

About the French & Omani maritime routes
Model of an Omani ship
The types of Omani ships
Oman naval tradition (in French)
Model of an Omani dhow.
Omani costumes
Christian Sorand