Before we begin today, I want to share something I learned. Remember how Graham Hancock dates the Sphinx based on the precession of the equinoxes, claiming that it goes back to around 10,500 BCE because that is when it faced Leo? I learned from Mark Fraser Pettigrew’s dissertation on The Wonders of the Ancients that a medieval scholar made a similar argument about dating Egyptian ruins. Apparently medieval writer Abu Jafar al-Idrisi, in his treatise on the pyramids, records that Abu ‘l-Mushrif ‘Alawi al-Hafafi (c. 1226) believed that the sun-disk hieroglyph represented the entrance of Altair into Cancer, so by calculating when that occurred by counting backward at a rate of movement of the stars of one degree per 100 years (Hipparchus’s estimate), he believed that Egyptian ruins dated back 20,000 years before his time, or to around 18,800 BCE. Using modern precession rates (one degree per 71.6 years), the figure would come out to 13,146 BCE.
This isn’t really any different than saying the Sphinx is a lion, so let’s calculate Leo’s position. It’s just amazing that in the Middle Ages an early Graham Hancock was already using the stars to create pseudo-history.
Our other story for today is a bit of a weird one. Our story today comes to us from Cambodia, where the Phnom Penh Post has run an article alleging that medieval Cambodian temples preserve evidence of a lost voyage of Western sailors to the Indochinese peninsula. While there is a much better explanation, the urge to imagine undocumented diffusion from the West has somehow ended up dominating the discussion of Sambor Prei Kuk, the onetime capital of the Chenla Empire, the precursor state to the more famous Khmer Empire. The Chenla Empire succeeded the Funan Empire in the late sixth century CE and persisted until the early ninth century.
Anyway, Samor Prei Kuk is home to a three groups of medieval temples that are beautifully carved and something on the order of miniature forerunners of the astonishing complexes of the Angkor period. The city’s residents were Hindu and followers of the god Shiva. A ruined temple known as Kda Ouk features relief carvings of twelve men across its architrave, “but they have notable characteristics in common, including moustaches, long curly hair, big eyes, thick eyebrows and pointy noses,” according to the Post. This has caused a great deal of speculation.
Photographer Heng Chivoan spoke to elderly locals who told him—probably correctly—that the faces were those of Indians. This is a perfectly logical conclusion given that the temple is Hindu and there are long-established trade links between Cambodia and the subcontinent. Indeed, the photograph provided shows a man whose facial features and hair style (including mustache) closely resemble styles seen in Indian art of the period. It is the most common explanation in the archaeological literature.
The Post investigated the “truth” behind the sculptures by asking a range of locals for their opinion. The results ranged from sad to depressing. First up, a 59-year-old police officer: “The busts look like the Spanish people, if one asks me, but I never learned that Spanish people came to Cambodia in ancient times.” After that, they spoke to Dr. Chen Chanratana, a Sorbonne-trained archaeologist from the University of Paris specializing in Cambodian history and the founder of the Kerdomnel Khmer Group, a cultural preservation society. You will never guess who he thinks the relief carvings represent: “based on archaeological excavations elsewhere in the former lands of the Khmer Empire, he concluded that the reliefs depict men from either the Roman Empire or Persia – two of the Chenla Kingdom’s trading partners, along with India and China.”
Coins from Rome and Persia have been found in Cambodia, testifying to the far-flung trade networks of the first century CE, but the temple and the Chenla Kingdom are at least four centuries too late. This doesn’t bother Chen: “Most Cambodian sculptures and carvings receive influence from India, but the busts at Kda Ouk Temple do not possess their features. Therefore, they can only be Roman or Persian,” he said, illogically. He added that the Romans or Persians financed the construction of the temple and had their faces carved on it as acknowledgement. So what did they do for 400 years? Who knows?
Persians are of course more plausible than Romans since the Persians were still around in the early Middle Ages. I suppose Chen might have been thinking of Byzantines, though they are not known for regular Asian excursions. Arab-Persians have had documented contact with Southeast Asia since the Middle Ages. Now, on the other hand, it is true that Roman coins have been found in southeast Asia. A coin of Antoninus Pius was found at Oc-Eo and a later coin was uncovered at U-Thong in Thailand. Some seals of Roman type were found at Khuan Lukpad. Most archaeologists, however, believe that they were trade items diffused from the well-known Roman contact with India, not evidence of Roman travels.
Prof. Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian, agreed with Chen that Romans or Persians built the building, but he believes it was not a temple but rather a playhouse for chess matches. This sounds really stupid until you hear the reasoning behind it, which speaks to the underlying political motivation to see ancient Cambodia as being coequal with the great civilizations of the West. In Manara’s words: “People from those [Western] empires would not have played chess with Cambodian players unless they had seen them as equal to themselves. Therefore, this argument could confirm the long-standing speculation about the prosperity and greatness of the Khmer Empire.”
Fortunately, not everyone in Cambodia is a nationalist willing to manipulate history out of national pride. An archaeologist and former Culture Ministry official in Cambodia, Dr. Michel Tranet, confirmed to the Post that the faces are those of south Indians. The irony is a bit rich, though, because in the past Tranet used to offer full-throated defenses of Cambodian history against efforts by neighboring countries to minimize its past glory.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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