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February 11, 2019

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China role in restoring Cambodian heritage

AS the sun sets over the ancient city of Angkor in the deep jun­gle in northwestern Cambodia, a massive temple-mountain named Ta Keo glows golden in the rays.

Abandoned around 900 years ago soon after its ornamentation started, the magnificent structure has been revived by the hands of Chinese and Cambodian archaeological experts.

The ongoing project is the second phase of the Chinese government’s aid for preserving, conserving and restor­ing Angkor temples, after the Chausay Tevada temple project ended in 2008. Chinese experts have been working with local colleagues for over two decades to revive the invaluable treasures of Cambodia.

China-Cambodia cooperation in pres­ervation and development of Angkor is a symbol of the longtime friendship and cultural connection between the two countries. It also reflects the up­graded China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cooperation framework’s emphasis on promoting people-to-people exchanges.

Reviving gems of civilization

The Angkor complex consists of 200 stone monuments spreading over an area of 400 square kilometers in north­western Cambodia. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cul­tural Organization (UNESCO) in 1992.

However, due to heavy rains, looting and lack of protection for centuries, most temples of Angkor, built between the 7th and the 13th centuries, were seri­ously damaged.

In order to better protect and con­serve these gems of human civilization, China joined the International Coordi­nating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC-Angkor), an international campaign launched by Cambodia and UNESCO in 1993. From Chausay Tevada to Ta Keo, the Chinese team has earned trust from the Cambodian people and established a good reputation for their professional expertise.

Jin Zhaoyu, a cultural relic protection engineer from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage (CACH), first arrived at Angkor in 2013 at 35 years old.

“I had read quite a lot of documents and seen many pictures of Ta Keo in China, but I was still stunned by its grandeur at the first sight,” Jin said. “It was abandoned before the completion of the building, leaving many facades plain and pediments uncarved, which gives this temple-mountain a mixed character of magnificence and simplicity.

“Its unfinished status shows the construction procedures of temples in Angkor, like ‘slices of time.’ This gives Ta Keo irreplaceable value in the study of Angkor’s architecture.”

Such uniqueness, however, presented greater challenges to the Chinese team. Located in Angkor Archaeological Park’s central zone, the half-finished Ta Keo is a pyramid of five levels with five upper towers rising more than 50 meters high.

It was built by King Jayavarman V and Suryavarman I from the late 10th century to the early 11th century. The kings dedicated this temple to Hindu­ism, according to a Cambodian Ministry of Tourism document. Compared with Chausay Tevada, Ta Keo covers a larg­er area and had more risks including unsteady stone structures, a poor drain­age system and fallen key parts that are hard to be restored.

“Because the construction is not com­pleted, many fallen parts are not carved, leaving little information of its relations with other parts,” said Jin.

Jin showed archives of those fallen parts, each with its ID file, picture and dimensions, in the China-Cambodia Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor office in Cambodia’s Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap.

“Every stone is unique. If one stone is in the wrong position, the gap will grow wider as you restore the structure layer by layer and an accurate restoration will be impossible,” said Jin. “Simply speak­ing, our priorities are ‘searching’ and ‘matching.’ Finding the fallen parts and putting them back to the perfectly cor­rect positions.”

To better understand the temple’s structure and precisely restore it, the Chinese team applied the most advanced technologies, including 3D laser scan­ning and mapping, structural research and drone recording, to build a complete digital model of Ta Keo.

Jin demonstrated the 3D model sys­tem, with which the team restored the temple hundreds of times.

“I can measure the dimensions of every stone and every gap in computer, and search the right stone that can fit in the gap,” Jin said.

This is much easier said than done.

Dozens of Chinese experts from various fields including mapping, ge­ology, archaeology, architecture and biology worked together with Cambo­dian colleagues to overcome a string of obstacles. It took them eight years to restore Ta Keo.

Cultural cooperation

The conservation of Angkor marks the first time for China to officially par­ticipate in a large international heritage program, and to some extent it reflects the cultural cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative in ASEAN countries, said Xu Yan, deputy director of the CACH.

“We integrated the internationally recognized conservation concepts into Chinese restoration principles and developed our Chinese mode for the conservation of Angkor,” Xu said. “Our work was highly praised by Cambodia, UNESCO and the ICC-Angkor.”

China and ASEAN have mapped out a blueprint, the China-ASEAN Strate­gic Partnership Vision 2030, to further advance their strategic partnership so as to build a closer China-ASEAN com­munity with a shared future.

While encouraging people-to-people exchanges and cooperation for a bet­ter future, the two sides said they will promote youth exchanges in language learning, culture, art and heritage.

The protection of cultural heritage is of great importance for the sustainable development of mankind, and can serve as an important platform to promote people-to-people exchanges, said Hu Bing, deputy director of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration.

China has been a key partner in help­ing renovate and preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage, said the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoe­urng Sackona.

“I highly value and thank the Chinese government for supporting Cambodia in preserving our national heritage,” Sacko­na said, adding that China’s assistance has not only protected ancient temples, but also helped train Cambodian archae­ologists on preservation tasks.

“When we worked here, both sides — Chinese and Cambodian teams — worked together smoothly, got on well with each other like brothers,” said Nuth Poeng, leader of the Cambodian techni­cian team in the Ta Keo project, sitting on a stone stair of the Ta Keo temple. “We have learned a lot of skills from them. The Ta Keo project is finished but I really want them to stay here with us and help us restore more temples in Angkor.”

Before long, the renovation of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom will commence with financial aid from China.

As the third phase of China’s aid to Cambodia in the protection and restora­tion of Angkor, the Royal Palace project is expected to last for 11 years.

“We’re confident in the abilities of the Chinese experts, and through these proj­ects, we hope that Cambodian experts will be capable enough of renovating temples by themselves in the future,” said Minister Sackona.


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