By David Chandler
Cambodia's history is marked with periods of peace and of great calamity. From its early cities to the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, the great kingdom of Angkor, colonialism, and the Khmer Rouge, this essay tries to put its current rebuilding of civil society in context of its incredible history and the challenges it faces today.
When Communist insurgents known as the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, a spokesman claimed that in the process "2,000 years of history" had come to an end. What he meant was that the Khmer Rouge intended to break with the past and to overthrow Cambodia’s social relationships. The spokesman was also boasting that Cambodia's recorded history stretched back for two millennia.
In fact, archaeological data has revealed that the area we now call "Cambodia" was inhabited by human beings at least 40,000 years ago. Cities developed along the coast in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. Indian and Chinese pilgrims and traders passed through these cities, and for the first centuries of the Christian era sources for Cambodian history that survive are almost entirely written in Chinese. Elements of Indian culture, in the meantime, took root among Cambodia’s elite, and by the 5th and 6th centuries several Hinduized kingdoms sprang up in southern Cambodia. We know about them from the remains of small religious monuments in brick, laterite and stone, from massive stone sculptures, and from inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cambodian, or Khmer. The earliest dated inscription comes from the 4th century CE.
In the late 8th century, a Khmer prince later crowned as Jayavarman II returned to Cambodia from "exile" in Java, and began to consolidate the kingdom. In 802, in a ceremony near the site we now call Angkor, north of Cambodia's Great Lake, he declared himself a universal monarch, and founded a dynasty that lasted until Angkor was abandoned in the 16th century.
In its heyday, Angkor was a powerful kingdom that dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia. Its capital, Yasodharapura, probably housed as many as a million people—most of them farmers—making it one of the most populous cities in the world. The city's temples, dedicated to the Buddha or to Hindu gods, are among the artistic wonders of the world. An image of the most famous of these, Angkor Wat, has appeared on every Cambodian flag (there have been five of them) since the country gained its independence from France in 1953.