Angkor Wat

Abby and I ran the Khmer Empire Marathon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the fabled Angkor Wat temple. The marathon itself ran past many of the monuments—of which Angkor Wat in only the most famous—but we arrived a few days early so we could explore them at our own pace.

Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple, and converted to a Buddhist temple by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century. By the 16th century, however, it began to fall into disuse and was probably completely abandoned (although not forgotten) by the 19th century.

Khmer temples are built on three levels: the outer, lowest pavilion represents the underworld, the central temple on its pedestal represents the earth, and the central tower represents the sky. Given that the crush of tourists was thickest on the lowest level, I’d say this representation was pretty accurate.

Here are some more traditional sorts of photographs:

Although there are Buddha statues that are worshipped in the temple today, they are very simple. Angkor Wat, like other temples, was looted after it fell into disuse: first, for the treasures that that were stored under the central altars or the gold and jewels embedded in the Buddha statues and walls; and, later, for the Buddha statues that were either taken to foreign museums or sold as antiquities. When looters couldn’t take the whole statue, they would at least hack off the head or hands to sell. However, many of the statues already lacked heads when the looters came: Jayavarman VIII, Jayavarman VII’s grandson, had attempted to convert the country back to Hinduism when he came to power, and he destroyed the Buddha faces carved on the temples as part of his campaign. The country then suffered droughts which led to the abandonment of Siem Reap as the capital of the Khmer Empire. Coincidence?

do you know the way to agia solomoni

we decided to visit the church and catacombs of agia solomoni, which was located relatively close to our hotel. agia solomoni (saint solomoni) was an early christian who took refuge in a cave to escape persecution by the romans. when the romans located her hiding place, they walled her up inside, condemning her to a long and painful death; however, when the cave was opened up 200 years later, she walked out alive. so the legend goes.

amazingly, there is not a wikipedia entry on this.

as is typical, there was a only a small sign pointing us toward the site, so we parked and trudged up a hill to the only structure we could see up there. it turned out to be some kind of shed, but there was a staircase cut through rock leading underground, so down we went. we were underwhelmed by what we found:

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sure, interesting, but a holy shrine? not so much, especially if the mattress and discarded beer cans were anything to judge it by.

we spied another way out and scrambled up, thinking maybe we somehow came in the wrong way, and we did find a nondescript chapel-like room further along the side of the hill, yet – curiouser and curiouser – the exit led onto someone’s junk-filled backyard.

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“okay,” we decided, “this is just some inexplicably bad tourist attraction, like you read about in inexplicably bad tourist attractions magazine,” and we went back to the car. however, as we drove back onto the main road, we saw a chestnut tree with ribbons tied onto its branches for good luck, and a neat set of stairs leading downward, and we realized that this was the entry to the church and catacombs, and the other place we’d been exploring was just a dirty hole in the ground.

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the temple of poseidon

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having seen the sanctuary and death oracle of poseidon earlier, it was only right for us to see the temple of poseidon at sounio, about an hour’s drive from athens.  the temple of poseidon dates from 440 b.c.  according to legend, this was the spot from which the greek hero theseus’ father, king aegeus, threw himself into the sea: theseus had gone to crete to fight the minotaur in a ship flying black sails, and had told his father that if he won, he would fly white sails on his ship upon his return, while if he died, the crew would fly the black sails.  theseus did defeat the minotaur, and he won the hand of king minos’ daughter ariadne as well.  athena told him to leave ariadne behind, however, and he was so distraught that he forgot to change the sails to white. aegeus saw the black sails from the distance and threw himself into the sea (which subsequently was named the aegean sea).

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closer to today, one can see lord byron’s name scratched into the base of one of the pillars.  byron visited greece for the first time in 1810, before becoming known as a poet and supporter of greek independence, and apparently this was the thing to do. i didn’t find his name, but i found the names of plenty of others from later in the century, including one from (presumably) an italian soldier toward the end of world war ii.

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you will need to click on these photos to see them more clearly.


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when we visited aegina the first time, and stopped by the monastery of agios (saint) nektarios, we noticed some small churches on the adjacent hill. on our second visit, we again saw the churches from the side of the road, sitting above the groves of pistachio trees, so we decided to climb up and see what was there.

paleochora (literally, “old town”) was the capitol of aegina for about a millennium, from the ninth to the 19th century. the residents of aegina island retreated up the hill to avoid centuries of repeated pirate raids, including an attack in 1537 by the famed pirate barbarossa, interspersed with attacks by ottoman forces. it is said that there were 365 churches in all – one for each day of the year – but today you can see only the remains of 35, five of which are still in use. (in contrast, none of the original houses remain.)

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back where i left off …

the next day, we went to lindos, a town on rhodes. the town had been controlled at one point or another by greeks, romans, byzantines, the knights of st. john, and the ottomans, as well as the italians and then the greeks again in modern times. the acropolis of lindos contains both the temple of artemis lindia – which has been rebuilt using modern construction materials(!) – as well as the fortress that the knights of st. john built to defend against the ottomans.


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the view below, and the view above.
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portico columns, 200 bc, and the view to the harbor.
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the temple of artemis lindia, dating back to 300 bc, and i have no idea what this says.

one of the notable sights on the way up is a relief of a rhodian trireme warship carved into the rock, which served as the base of a statue honoring hagesandros, who won a great naval battle for lindos, which was carved by the famous sculptor pythokritos … our guide explained the statue and its history in detail, but i was fiddling with my camera, so i have nothing more than that.

next: the colossus of rhodes.

live at the apollo (part 2)

outside the main city, on the acropolis, stands the temple of apollo. “acropolis” means “edge of the city,” so there are other acropoli (acropoleese?) than just the one in athens. this temple dates back to the 5th-3rd century b.c. and was excavated from 1912-1945.

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below the temple are the stadium and the odeon. according to our guide, the stadium is 600 feet long because hercules paced out the length with 600 steps. the stadium was where the young men, after training since childhood, displayed their athletic and battle prowess. eventually, however, the ancient rhodians decided that men had to be able to defend themselves mentally as well as physically, so they built the odeon to hold debates and speeches.

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next: out to lindos.

live at the apollo (part 1)

imagewe were on aegina island (which is itself a story for another time), and saw this pillar sticking up over the trees while we were at lunch. so, off to investigate.

the temple of apollo at aegina, with its sole remaining column pointing to the sky, was built in the 6th century b.c. it was excavated at the turn of the 20th century.

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i’m sure there will be many more temples of apollo to photograph in the next three years.