SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- This country's most famous temple may be 900 years old, but the message it sets out to convey is timeless: Angkor Wat is all about glory. The temple is one of hundreds built by kings of the Khmer Empire to commemorate themselves and their empire, as well as to worship their gods. But Angkor Wat stands out from the rest -- in artistry, in scale and in popular imagery.
One of the largest religious structures in the world, and the only religious monument to appear on a national flag, Angkor Wat has become synonymous with Cambodia at its most powerful -- when it was the seat of the Khmer Empire, stretching from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal. The monumental scale of the temple has the same effect on visitors today as when it was first built. Angkor Wat has but a single approach: a wide stone causeway more than a third of a mile long (that's as long as six football fields end-to-end). The entry walkway crosses a moat 600 feet wide (my guide assures me it used to be filled with crocodiles) and ends at a wall and gates leading into the center of the compound. The central compound covers about 400 acres and once supported a town of about 100,000 people.
With one central tower more than 130 feet high surrounded by four shorter towers, the center of the temple imitates the five peaks of Mount Mehru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Hindu universe. The temple walls (three concentric rectangles that demarcate the progressively higher levels of the temple), garden grounds and moat represent the soil and seas of the earth.
Reaching Mount Mehru is no easy chore: The temple's stone steps are dizzyingly steep -- more like a stone ladder than a staircase -- as a reminder of the effort it takes for humans to get closer to heaven. And, as if to drive home the point, the inner sanctuaries of the central tower were accessible only to the king and a select handful of priests.
When Angkor Wat was built, Cambodia was primarily Hindu and Khmer culture drew much of its inspiration from India. Most of the inscriptions at Angkor are in Sanskrit, and the nymph-like apsaras, or celestial dancers, that grace the walls derive from Hindu mythology. Later, however, the Khmer kings became interested in Buddhism, and Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist monastery between the 12th and 15th centuries. The central statue of the innermost sanctuary -- likely a statue of Vishnu -- was removed and a Buddhist image erected in its place. For several centuries, the Khmer empire practiced a syncretic faith that combined Buddhism and Hinduism.
In many ways Angkor Wat is so much larger than life that the details of the temple get overlooked amid the legends that surround it. It's easy to forget that it contains nearly 2,000 feet of the finest Khmer bas reliefs in the world. Its nearly 2,000 celestial apsaras represent the apogee of Cambodia's apsara-carving tradition and provide a detailed account of court dress and female fashions during the period of its creation, the elaborate headdresses, heavy jewelry worn on the arms and neck, and flowing skirts. Traditional Cambodian dance to this day imitates the apsaras' poses and costumes.
One of the most intricate reliefs decorating the walls of the temple's first gallery depicts the Churning of the Sea of Milk, a key event in Hindu cosmology in which the world was created by an epic tug-of-war between gods and demons. Each side pulled on a giant five-headed snake wrapped around Mount Mehru, and the subsequent twisting of the mountain and churning of the seas gave birth to the apsaras that grace the walls of Angkor Wat, as well as an elixir of immortality over which the gods and demons subsequently dueled. In this story, Mount Mehru is not only the center of the universe, but also the birthplace of the known world.
The Khmer empire included modern-day Burma, Thailand and Vietnam -- the largest area ever covered by Cambodia -- and laid the foundations for Cambodian culture and art for centuries to come. In a sign of the temple's importance, the king's palace was most likely on the temple grounds, although nothing of it remains today. About one million men, women and children populated the Angkor area, according to an estimate by French archaeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier, making it the largest settlement in the preindustrial world.
All this manpower was necessary to build the temples, which were painstakingly erected from giant sandstone monoliths hewed out of a quarry more than 37 miles away. Rather than having foundations that sink into the ground, most Angkorean temples are built on huge mounds of earth that give them their pyramid shape, the soil excavated from a moat or from one of the lakes. Some historians theorize that the blitz of building during the Khmer Empire could have been accomplished only through a mandatory labor requirement levied on all citizens, or perhaps even through slavery.
The grandeur that marked the Khmer Empire was not to last, however. The royal city of Angkor was repeatedly sacked by the Thai army during the 14th century, and in 1431 the capital was relocated farther away from Thailand. Angkor Wat itself -- by that time converted to a Buddhist temple -- continued to function, and for centuries it was home to a flourishing monastery that attracted pilgrims from as far away as Japan, even while the former capital city nearby was gradually overtaken by the jungle. Although the Buddhists occupying the temple removed most of the original Hindu art, Angkor Wat's habitation and its continuous maintenance helped the temple remain relatively intact while many other Angkorean temples now lie in ruins.
Even after surviving the removal of its Hindu art, Angkor Wat did not entirely escape the turbulence of Cambodia's recent history. The Western part of Cambodia in which Angkor Wat is located was a Khmer Rouge stronghold through the 1990s (the Khmer Rouge were ousted from the capital city, Phnom Penh, in 1979). Restoration work on the temples took a forced, decades-long hiatus during the wars that wracked Cambodia through the later half of the 20th century. The area was unsafe for tourists until about 10 years ago, when the Khmer Rouge signed a peace treaty that formally ended Cambodia's civil war. There was relatively little physical damage to the temple as a result of the wars, but they did irreparable damage by destroying almost all of the remaining written records pertaining to the Angkorean period. Khmer archaeology scholar Christophe Pottier of the French Research School of the Far East estimates that 95% of the relevant documents have been destroyed in the past three decades, an irreplaceable loss.
In the years since peace has come to Cambodia the opportunities for looting have also increased, and many of the finest sculptures have been spirited out of the country and sold to buyers abroad. Tourism also poses its own set of dangers, with some temples suffering from overexposure to footsteps or curious hands. But despite this -- even as the physical structures of the temples inevitably decay -- Angkor will continue to symbolize something greater than itself. The memory of the Khmer Empire, and with it Cambodia's full potential, is unlikely to fade anytime soon.
Ms. Hook is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.