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Angkor Wat: History, Location & Architecture | What is Angkor Wat?


Samantha has a Master’s degree in Art History with an emphasis in Museum Studies from the University of Denver. She has seven years of experience working as an academic tutor specializing in Art History and Writing.

Learn about the Angkor Wat temple complex in the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. Study Angkor Wat's architecture and read the Khmer Empire's history. Updated: 01/11/2023

The Angkor Wat Temple: An Overview

Considered one of the world's most significant archeological sites, Angkor Wat has majestically stood near the modern-day city of Siem Reap, Cambodia since the 12th century. Angkor Wat is one of Southeast Asia's most prestigious temple complexes, and over time has been used as both a Hindu and Buddhist temple. Due to its impressive size and historical importance, it was dedicated as part of the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 alongside Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple, and the surrounding sculptural artworks. As a recognized UNESCO site, Angkor Wat boasts of being one of the most extraordinary examples of the architectural, symbolic, cultural, and religious values of the Khmer Kingdom.

For centuries, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Kingdom. Although non-existent today, the Khmer city of Angkor thrived under the reign of King Suryavarman II (r. 1113 - c. 1150). King Suryavarman II was responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat beginning in 1122 and lasting through 1150. As king, Suryavarman II was renowned for his religious reform, temple building, and uniting of the Khmer Empire under a sole ruler. He was such a fantastical temple builder that after completion, Angkor Wat became (and remains) the world's largest religious structure, comprised of more than 1,000 buildings across 400 acres.

A view of the complex from across the moat.

View across the moat shows the five main towers and exterior walls.

King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat as a vast funerary temple. Almost three decades later, his remains were deposited within the temple complex upon its completion. Construction was concluded near the time of the king's death, and the complex was dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. The complex has a unique design with five main towers representing the peaks of Mount Meru (the home of the Hindu gods), surrounded by a moat representing the oceans as symbols of the edge of the world. To access the complex, one must cross a 617-foot-long bridge over the expansive moat. King Suryavarman II's vision for Angkor Wat truly marked the height of Khmer architecture.

History of Angkor and the Khmer Empire

The ancient city of Angkor functioned as the royal center for the kings of the Khmer Empire. Angkor thrived as the empire's capital from the 9th century through the 15th century, a period often referred to as the classical era in Cambodian history. During this time, the Khmer kings ruled Southeast Asia's most prosperous, sophisticated, and largest kingdoms, beginning in the 890s when King Yashovarman I utilized Angkor as a royal residence. From the reign of King Yashovarman I until the early 13th century, the kings of Khmer ruled and controlled an empire that stretched from the tip of the Indochinese Peninsula to the modern-day Yunnan province in China, to Vietnam, and all the way west to the Bay of Bengal.

During this classical era of Cambodian history, the Khmer kings were at their height of power and dedicated vast amounts of wealth and labor towards remarkable building projects. These projects often took the form of constructing temples to glorify themselves, their capital city, and their gods. The most famous of these projects was Angkor Wat built by King Suryavarman II. However, other kings throughout the empire's history contributed to the built environment of Angkor. These included the Phimeanakas (pyramid temples) of Suryavarman I (r. 1000-1050), the Baphuon (state temple) of Udayadityavarman II (r. 1050-1066), and the temple of Bayon (central temple) of Jayavarman VII (r. 1150-1160).

The ancient city of Angkor was mainly used for the worship of the kings, the residence of the kings, and administrative purposes. The city's design functioned as a symbolic universe that was organized according to traditional Hindu cosmology. At the heart of the city was the central mountain (temple) that was symbolic of Mount Meru. Surrounding each temple within the city were outer walls that resembled the mountains that created the edge of the world or cosmos. The city's design was wildly sophisticated and incorporated a system of canals, moats, and reservoirs that aided in water control and rice irrigation. However, in symbolic terms, the water represented the waters of the cosmos. The city and its temples focused on mythical and cosmological concepts, and therefore functioned as a center in which the kings and their families could be assured immortality by aligning with the realm's gods.

A bas-relief sculpture from Angkor Wat showing six Hindu devatas or spirits.

Bas-relief sculpture showing six Hindu gods with headpieces, skirts, and jewelry.

Angkor Wat is likely the most well-known temple within Angkor. However, little is known about the years of its construction under Suryavarman II. When translated from Khmer, Angkor Wat literally means "City Temple," which, when examined from a historical point of view, is quite generic. Scholars have little insight into the temple's original name, but it is reasonable to assume that the original name was never documented due to its prominence. Therefore, its celebratory status assumingly may not have needed an official, original name. The temple is dedicated to three primary Hindu gods, although the ancient city of Angkor was not continuously an epicenter for Hinduism.

Beginning in the mid-12th century, Buddhism emerged in Angkor. King Jayavarman VII (r. 1150-1160) was the first Khmer king devoted to Buddhism; thus, his construction projects focused on creating Buddhist temples, such as the temple of Bayon. Through the 13th century, Angkor continued to be a thriving capital, during which time Theravada Buddhism was significantly on the rise. However, the presence of the armies of the Ayutthaya was slowly encroaching on the western side of the Khmer Empire and its power slowly waned. In 1431, the city fell to the armies of the Tai state of Ayutthaya and much of Angkor was abandoned. By the 16th century, there is documentation of Angkor being completely abandoned and overrun by jungle.

Interest in Angkor Wat and its later conversion into a Theravada Buddhist temple ultimately "saved" the temple from being swallowed by the Cambodian jungle. Theravada Buddhist monks continually inhabited the temple, and it became one of the most prominent pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia over time. Simultaneously, European visitors were taking an interest in Angkor Wat, and a French colonial regime was established in 1863 at Angkor. The French regime studied Angkor. They brought over archeologists and philologists to create a research program on the ancient city centered around Angkor Wat. These archeologists established reconstruction program on the ancient temple complexes, canals, and reservoirs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who built the Angkor Wat temple?

Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II. It is believed to have been built over almost three decades sometime during the king's reign of c. 1113 - c. 1150 CE.

What gods was Angkor Wat built for?

Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple complex. Upon its construction, it was dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.

What is Angkor Wat and why was it built?

Angkor Wat is a prominent archeological site. It was dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990s. It was built as a funerary complex for King Suryavarman II to assure his immortality according to Hindu belief.

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