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Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. As many as 750,000 people lived in Angkor, its capital, which sprawled across an area the size of New York City's five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city's temples and the world's largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes.

Scholars have come up with a long list of suspected causes, including rapacious invaders, a religious change of heart, and a shift to maritime trade that condemned an inland city. It's mostly guesswork: Roughly 1,300 inscriptions survive on temple doorjambs and freestanding stelae, but the people of Angkor left not a single word explaining their kingdom's collapse.

Recent excavations, not of the temples but of the infrastructure that made the vast city possible, are converging on a new answer. Angkor, it appears, was doomed by the very ingenuity that transformed a collection of minor fiefdoms into an empire. The civilization learned how to tame Southeast Asia's seasonal deluges, then faded as its control of water, the most vital of resources, slipped away.

An intriguing firsthand account brings the city to life at its zenith. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat, spent nearly a year in the capital at the end of the 13th century. He lived modestly as a guest of a middle-class family who ate rice using coconut-husk spoons and drank wine made from honey, leaves, or rice. He described a gruesome practice, abandoned not long before his visit, that involved collecting human gall from living donors as a tonic for courage. Religious festivals featured fireworks and boar fighting. The greatest spectacles occurred when the king ventured out among his subjects. Royal processions included elephants and horses decorated with gold, and hundreds of palace women bedecked in flowers.

Angkor's daily rhythms also come to life in sculptures that have survived centuries of decay and, more recently, war. Bas-reliefs on temple facades depict everyday scenes—two men hunched over a board game, for instance, and a woman giving birth under a shaded pavilion—and pay homage to the spiritual world inhabited by creatures such as apsaras, alluring celestial dancers who served as messengers between humans and the gods.

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