Ta Prohm’s haunting ruins are also a 1,000-year-old climate change warning

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Ta-prohm isn't the most impressive ruin in the world. It's not even the most impressive in the neighborhood. Angkor wat sits only a couple miles away — it's the largest religious monument ever built. But Ta-Prohm is a bit more human scale. And it has merged with nature It's original name was Raja Vihara — the royal monastery — and was dedicated to the Buddhist personification of wisdom. But it is a new place now, silk-cotton trees and strangler figs have merged with the carved rocks to create new structures. The temple was built about 1000 years ago, around 1186, just after Angkor wat, during the golden age of the Khmer empire in what's now Cambodia. The Khmer controlled most of southeast Asia, and the capital city Angkor was the biggest urban center in the world before the industrial revolution. They had incredible technology to support such a large congregation of humans for the time. Southeast Asia gets heavy rainfall in one season, and less in another — so the Khmer built water management Huge reservoirs, canals, channels and dikes allowed them 3 harvests a year.

It might have been the best technology of the time. They built the temples at their peak. Khmer empire ruler Jayavaraman VII, who also built Angkor Thom nearby, is the man credited. But a man's name doesn't really capture the true size of the project. About 2 or 300 years later, the society collapsed. It wasn't all at once, or for one reason. But a factor archeologists and ecologists hypothesized was that the incredible water management system failed due to a change in the climate — dire drought, then heavy floods. This possibility had been hypothesized before, but a PHD student named Mary Beth Day spent 6 years digging and found evidence for the theory in the form of sediment records in the reservoir.

What also is sure is that the ruling class moved south. It's a beautiful place, but haunting: what hundreds of thousands people would be living here had it survived? For around 400 or 500 years the forest merged with Ta-prohm until it was 're-discovered'. It should give us pause. Our civilization is a collaboration with nature. A giant structure must sway with the wind and roll with the earthquakes, or else it will surely, quietly, fall. Hollywood films often depict the destruction of urban centers. But the crisis comes at once, so we can band together to fight it. In reality, giant cities have existed and then died before. This one did. It just takes time — the rain falls, the roots grow, and nature eats what we built. The best technology of the time wasn't enough..

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