The bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. The scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle.
Although Angkor won that clash, the city was riven by rivalry, which heightened its vulnerability to attacks from Champa to the east and the formidable kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west. Khmer kings had several wives, which blurred the line of succession and resulted in constant intrigue as princes vied for power. "For centuries, it was like the Wars of the Roses. The Khmer state was often unstable," says Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and co-director of a research effort called the Greater Angkor Project.
Some scholars believe that Angkor died the way it lived: by the sword. The annals of Ayutthaya state that warriors from that kingdom "took" Angkor in 1431. No doubt the prosperous Khmer city would have been a rich prize: Inscriptions boast that its temple towers were clad in gold, as Zhou's breathless account confirms. To reconcile tales of Angkor's wealth with the dilapidated ruins encountered by Western travelers, French historians a century ago concluded from the tantalizing allusion that Ayutthaya sacked Angkor.
Fletcher, who says his obsession is to "figure out what makes settlements grow and die," is dubious. Some early scholars, he says, viewed Angkor through the lens of the sieges and conquests of European history. "The ruler of Ayutthaya, indeed, says he took Angkor, and he may have taken some formal regalia back to Ayutthaya with him," says Fletcher. But after Angkor was captured, Ayutthaya's ruler installed his son on the throne. "He's not likely to have smashed the place up before giving it to his son."
Court intrigue may not have perturbed most of Angkor's subjects, but religion was central to daily life. Angkor was what anthropologists call a regal-ritual city. Its kings claimed to be the world emperors of Hindu lore and erected temples to themselves. But as Theravada Buddhism gradually eclipsed Hinduism in the 13th and 14th centuries, its tenet of social equality may have threatened Angkor's elite. "It was very subversive, just like Christianity was subversive to the Roman Empire," says Fletcher. "It would have been exceedingly difficult to stop."