In 1997, the German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) was established with the goal of preserving and restoring the ruins of Angkor, the seat of power of the once-mighty Khmer Empire.
The programme has been spearheaded by Dr Hans Leisen and Dr Esther von Plehwe-Leisen, archaeologists from the Technical University of Cologne who have dedicated more than 20 years of their lives to preserving the temples.
For just as long, their project has been funded by Germany’s foreign office, and to date it has been the longest running preservation project funded by Germany in the kingdom. Their focus is probably the most recognisable symbol of Cambodia – the majestic spires of the famed Angkor Wat.
“The south and southwest towers are of a particular concern for us,” began Leisen, as he led an entourage through Angkor Wat’s eastern gate.
“There were previous intervention and preservation efforts that were carried out using incorrect techniques and materials, which causes structural problems that need to be urgently addressed.”
Indeed, the GACP was not the first foreign-funded project that aims to restore – or at least, prolong the life of – this testament to the brilliance of ancient Khmer engineering. Prior to the establishment of the GACP, surveys and restoration works were carried out by other archaeological expeditions led by teams from France, Japan, Poland, India, Hungary, and Italy.
“We can see that there are different approaches and understandings of what preservation and conservation efforts mean, and this is clearly evident at restoration works that were carried out between 1986 and 1993,” explained Leisen.
“As such, the results are not uniform, and many of the restoration projects were carried out using materials that did not originate from the area,” he continued. “Our approach is that of a doctor’s – we run diagnostics to find the root cause of the problem, then we create a tailor-made approach based on the needs of the building.”
Leisen’s concern about the uniformity is indeed a valid concern. With divergent views of how conservation and preservation should be carried out – compounded by the ever-increasing number of state and non-state institutions who are expressing their interest in participating in this monumental project – stakeholders formed
the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), in the wake of the Tokyo Conference in 1993.
“This was not an easy task for the ICC, because many of the so-called experts in the teams are not actually experts in conservation,” he said. “This is something that we want to change – this is why our conservators have to be properly trained in stone conservation, and there are specific people doing very specific tasks in our team.”
Leisen then led the group to the southwest tower of Angkor Wat. Covered in scaffolding, it was evident that major preservation work is currently being carried out. As the group ascended, the team of 17 conservationists the GACP has trained were all hard at work, led by site manager Luy Sophors, who began working with the GACP in 2003.
Sophors explained the flurry of activity that was going on despite the presence of Leisen’s entourage. A surveyor was making her rounds to map the extent of the damage – both natural and man-made – in order to identify areas that need urgent repair. Several conservationists were preparing to inject a mortar-silicate mixture behind crevices of a statue that was holding on by a thin ribbon of cracked mortar.
“The mortar that we use in this project is made out of crushed local sandstone, which will allow water to permeate through the pores of the sandstone,” said Sophors.
“In some projects, glue injections are used, which is inadvisable as glue essentially seals the pores of the surface of the sandstone, thus locking in moisture in separate blocks, which speeds up the formation of salts within the sandstone,” continued Sophors. “This may cause further damage to the existing structure that is irreversible.”
At the same time, people were busy carving out wedges of sandstone to be used to stabilise many of the statues that gives Angkor Wat its distinctive shape. The sandstone, though locally quarried, can be easily distinguished from the original structure.
“This is done in accordance to the principle of distinguishability and minimum intervention, as set out in the Paris Agreement of 2003 and the Angkor Charter,” explained Plehwe-Leisen.
“Sadly, these guidelines that have been set are often interpreted in different ways that uniformity remains a major issue,” she continued.
Plehwe-Leisen then referred to the ongoing works carried at the nearby Ta Prohm temple as an example. Vegetation that overruns the iconic temple – made famous by the Tomb Raider franchise and supervised by the Archaeological Society of India – has been kept as it is, as it is considered an integral part of the structure that gives it its unique characteristics. But according to Plehwe-Leisen, their diverging views on aesthetics is the least of her worries.
“The really worrying part is the massive dismantling of the sandstone around the complex,” she said. “If this is their idea of minimal intervention, I don’t even want to know what their idea of maximum intervention entails.
“I don’t think anyone reads the Angkor Charter,” continued Plehwe-Leisen. “Which is a pity because it actually contains the agreed guidelines that have been laid out in relation to how preservation efforts have to be carried out, among which are the principles of preservation that took us years to come up with.
“The ICC has a coordinating capacity, but it lacks a controlling capacity and the capacity to enforce,” she explained.
Unesco bureau chief for Cambodia, Anne Lemaistre, concurs with the couple.
“The ICC should be strengthened, because if I have to pinpoint the biggest problem relating to the conservation of Angkor Wat, it is a crisis of growth, in terms of numbers of visitors and conservationists looking to be a part of this monumental project,” said Lemaistre. “There are more projects that have to be monitored, and as the number continues to rise, cooperation and coordination becomes more complicated.”
Indeed, this absence of a capacity to enforce has turned the temple complex into a battleground for ‘soft power’ diplomacy among donor nations – the temple complex is no longer a mere symbol of a nation. It is turning into a place where states flex their muscles and exert their influences – essentially the location of battle of supremacy between competing spheres of influence.
“The renovations that are being carried out by the Chinese government are not coordinated with the ICC, but directly through the government, which shows that there are political dimensions to preservation that many are not aware of,” said Plehwe-Leisen, who admitted that the less-stringent criteria applied by Cambodia’s Apsara Authority can attract more capital, which is desperately needed to preserve this vestige of the golden times of the Khmer Empire.
“But by going through loopholes like this, it undermines the spirit of the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, 2003 Paris Declaration, and of course, the Angkor Charter.”
Without effective cooperation, coordination, and transfer of technology, conservationists from all over the world basically have free rein to carry out their preservation efforts. As Leisen went further up the scaffolding of the southwest tower, what Plehwe-Leisen had explained became immediately apparent.
He gestured to a nearby statue of Indra on the third tier of the southwest tower precariously held in place by a thin layer of mortar.
“This is one of the handiwork of our friends from the Archaeological Society of India,” said Leisen. “This sort of restoration provides unsustainable stability. Any additional works that we plan to do may cause permanent damage to the structure, which goes against the principles of the minimal intervention and reversibility.
“A complex of this magnitude – both in terms of size and the historical significance – needs proper attention,” added Plehwe-Leisen. “One archaeologist is not enough to oversee a restoration project, not all stone carvers are qualified to restore the intricate bas-reliefs – not just in Angkor Archaeological Park, but all across the nation.
“It is a ripe time for us to begin to think of more modern ways to prolong the lifespan of this complex, which has survived the test of time and the fog of war,” said Plehwe-Leisen.
The need to think outside of the box is indeed, quite urgent. According to Unesco, the number of visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park has exploded exponentially from around 7,000 visitors per year in 1993, to around five million visitors in 2017.
“As the city attracts more tourists, the number of tourist establishments such as hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants have increased exponentially,”
said Plehwe-Leisen. “There are fears that the water table is dropping and we have detected some subsidence and movements in several of the structures.
“It may not be the most pressing concern at the moment, but if we do not think ahead, then the structural integrity of Angkor Wat may be at risk,” concluded Plehwe-Leisen. “These bas-reliefs do not only tell us the history of how this kingdom came to be, but contained within these inscriptions are ancient techniques that will be lost forever in time, if we don’t start to think outside the box.”