Some of the world’s most impressive cultural sites and artefacts are to be found in South-East Asia, amidst the forests of Cambodia. The massive scale and artistry of the temple city of Angkor, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, are simply breathtaking. Angkor Wat is a prominent symbol of Cambodia’s cultural identity; it is depicted on the Cambodian national flag and is one of the country’s most important attractions.
From the 9th to the 14th century, the Khmer Empire was centred in Cambodia. The largest and most important temple in the Angkor park is Angkor Wat. Its surface is decorated with unique statues and carvings, including almost 1850 heavenly beings known locally as Apsaras, bas reliefs up to 100 metres long in the galleries, and tympanums which look as though they have been carved from wood, many of which are in a worrying condition due to weather damage. As part of its Cultural Preservation Programme, the Federal Foreign Office is funding restoration and conservation work in Angkor and providing training for restorers and conservators.
Following Angkor’s inscription on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List, the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC Angkor) was established in order to coordinate international preservation efforts with UNESCO. Since 1993, expert teams from 16 countries have been working to preserve and examine the temple complex, which has a magnetic attraction for a steadily increasing number of tourists.
Since 1997, under the German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) in cooperation with the Cambodian heritage protection authority Apsara, a team from TH Köln/University of Applied Sciences headed by Professor Hans Leisen and Dr Esther von Plehwe-Leisen has been restoring the 12th century sandstone bas reliefs on the world’s largest sacred building as well as decorative features made of sandstone, brick and plaster on many other temples with financial support from the Federal Foreign Office.
An example of German-Cambodian cooperation
The restoration and conservation work is being performed by local restorers. The two German experts train Cambodian staff in conservation techniques and scientific working methods thereby creating new earning opportunities. In December 2017 during the ICC annual meeting, a symposium was held and a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the TH Köln/University of Applied Sciences and Apsara to mark the 20th anniversary of German engagement in Angkor. Certificates were presented to the local team by the Cambodian Minister of Culture detailing their involvement in the project.
The GACP is the most comprehensive and longest project in the Cultural Preservation Programme. The German team has earned great international recognition for its working methods and techniques, as well as for the results of its work. Through its worldwide involvement in the protection and maintenance of significant cultural heritage sites, Germany is making a crucial contribution to preserving cultural identities, promoting knowledge transfer and fostering intercultural dialogue.