Angkorian Astrological Ingenuity Revealed in New Paper

Angkor’s ancient architects took solar and lunar movements into account when designing its temples in order to mark the start of wet and dry seasons, according to a new paper by an Italian astroarchaeologist.

Published last week on the Cornell University website arXiv.org and authored by Giulio Magli, a professor of mathematical physics at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, the paper tests several longstanding observations about the importance of the sun’s movements in the Angkorian era using spatial software and satellite imagery.

Sunlight peeks through the trees behind temple ruins at the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay complex earlier this year. (Enric Catala)
Sunlight peeks through the trees behind temple ruins at the Preah Khan of Kompong Svay complex earlier this year. (Enric Catala)

The analysis follows a series of papers by Mr. Magli showing similar awareness of astronomical patterns among the builders of Machu Picchu, the Parthenon and the Egyptian pyramids.

The Angkorian kingdom was built around a sophisticated worldview that “included the sky,” Mr. Magli writes—a worldview “where the cycle of the sun and that of the dry and the wet seasons were tightly connected.”

Consider, the author continues, the entrances of the temples. Nineteen of the 31 temples Mr. Magli studied had entrances that were oriented due east with the remainder positioned very slightly to the north.

Those deviations were no accident, according to Mr. Magli. Temples positioned at a fraction of a degree to the north were aligned such that the sun would rise directly over the buildings during the spring and fall equinoxes.

Angkor’s April 26 and August 17 zenith passages—the points at which the sun is the highest in the sky—would have been equally dramatic inside the temple’s towers.

At those moments, the centers of the chambers were lit from above by the kind of piercing sun ray dramatized in Hollywood, according to U.S. researchers Edwin Barnhart and Christopher Powell, who first documented the phenomenon in a 2011 paper.

Mr. Magli also provides a possible answer for the mysterious northeast-facing orientation of the vast, remote temple complex known as Preah Khan of Kompong Svay.

“Preah Khan of Kompong Svay is definitively oriented to the Moon rising at the maximal northern standstill,” Mr. Magli writes. The moon is “quite relevant both in Hinduism—where it is identified with the God Chandra—and in Buddhism, since festivals and recurrences associated with Buddha’s life are timed by the full Moon.”

Mr. Magli also addresses a second striking mystery of Preah Khan: how its builders managed to construct its inner chamber so that it stood within 800 meters of the same latitude as Angkor Wat—some 100 km away. Angkorian planners could have used the height of the sun at midday in fixed intervals to calculate latitude, he notes, but the undertaking would have been “daunting.”

Not all of Angkor’s many alignments and details serve symbolic purposes, according to the scholar. Mr. Magli is particularly skeptical of suggestions that the temples served as astronomical observatories and says he has not seen proof of “interconnecting, almost esoteric” lines between temples.

Mr. Magli does not explore the role that equinoxes may have played in Angkorian culture, but Mr. Barnhart and Mr. Powell’s 2011 paper cites earlier theories that suggest the temples symbolized the Buddhist and Hindu center of the universe—Mount Meru—and “connected the center of the earth to the center of the heavens, or zenith point.”

“The sunlight from that zenith point comes down through the holes in these Mount Meru-inspired temples to illuminate the center of the earth,” their paper says.

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