The French, still tinkering with history,,
January 1, 2003
A Piece Here, a Piece There: An Ancient Temple Is Rebuilt
By SETH MYDANS
SIEM REAP, Cambodia Forty years ago, a team of French
archaeologists decided that the best way to save the Baphuon temple
was to destroy it.
They began to take apart the fragile temple block by block, keeping
meticulous records of their work, planning to put it back together
again as a more stable structure.
Then came war. As the Communist Khmer Rouge approached, the restorers
fled the Angkor temple complex in 1972. In the chaos that followed,
all their written records were destroyed.
When they returned in 1995, all they found was 300,000 heavy stone
blocks strewn among the trees the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the
It is a puzzle without a key, but it does have a solution. Block by
block, layer by layer, the Baphuon temple is rising again as one of
the towering monuments of Angkor.
When it was built in the 11th century, the multi-tiered sandstone
pyramid was the most impressive building of its day "a truly
astonishing spectacle," according to a 13th-century Chinese traveler,
Like the other Angkor temples, Baphuon was consumed by the jungle
after the great empire fell 500 years ago, and it was only in the
last century that French archaeologists began tinkering with it.
But the Baphuon, clumsily built on sand with a poor drainage system,
was teetering and collapsing in chunks, too unstable to repair like
its neighbors, Bayon, Angkor Wat and others.
The solution: anastylosis, the sort of disassembly ambitious
mechanics sometimes do with car engines. Work began in the 1960's.
Half the temple was in pieces when it was abandoned, scattered across
25 acres of land like shredded documents.
"So we have a puzzle, but we are missing the map of the puzzle," said
Pascal Royère, an architect who heads a team of 200 working for the
École Française d'Extrême-Orient, a cultural organization with
financing from the French government.
Philippe Peycam, executive director of the Center for Khmer Studies
here, said: "It's really crazy, this temple, so complex and baroque.
It's a nightmare to restore."
The French team was confronted with a variety of challenges that
included the reconstruction of a reclining Buddha that was added in
the 16th century and the reinforcement of the structure with a
concrete core that was begun in the 1960's and is now considered
But the most fascinating challenge came in the puzzle pieces
Worn by centuries of sun, monsoon and jungle growth, the stones of
Baphuon were chipped and roughened, each slightly different from all
the others. Without mortar to cushion the construction, each block
must be returned to nestle precisely among those beside, above and
"One place for one block, one block for one place," Mr. Royère
said. "That's the rule."
Like any jigsaw puzzle, there is no forcing a piece into a place that
is almost right, but not quite.
"You'll laugh, but if you are off by ten millimeters here, 20 meters
farther along, everything is wrong," Mr. Royère said. "It happens
regularly, but when it happens you know right away. That's the
difficulty and also the insurance against mistakes. The monument
Apart from the temple's own dynamic, the restorers had three things
to guide them.
Jacques Dumarcay, the French architect who had worked on the Baphuon
project in the 1960's, had since retired but was able to offer some
The second guide was a cache in Paris of almost 1,000 photographs the
French had taken of the temple over the years. Their chief value was
to show which sections had already collapsed before the temple was
dismantled, saving the workers from fruitless searches for missing
Third was the remaining half of Baphuon, which was to be dismantled
after the first half was rebuilt.
By studying this second half, Mr. Royère's team created stylized
drawings of the carved profiles of the blocks in each row of each
tier of the temple.
Early on, an attempt was made to computerize these shapes and create
a reconstruction model. But given the eroded shapes of the stones,
the computer's generalized solutions were of little use.
"So we looked for a more simple solution, which was the man-made
solution," he said. In other words, memorization.
There are about 500 different shapes, Mr. Royère said, but by now
nobody needs to refer to the drawings. Each team knows just what
shapes it is looking for. "We have people who walk around all day,"
About 70 percent of the blocks have now been identified, and Mr.
Royère said he was confident that none were missing.
At times, as with any puzzle, some small sections are fitted together
on their own, and the woods are dotted with what look like mini-
temples awaiting their moment to be put in place. "This is not a high-
tech project," Mr. Royère said. "It's just a question of paying
attention to what you do, and don't sleep."