Khmer Empire

Southern Asia also felt the effect of a climate change that pushed climatic zones southward. This change established a semipermanent area of high pressure (an anticyclone) over Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The climate became drier, and this may have helped the emergence of a civilization in what had been dense tropical forest. Khmer is the name of the Cambodian people and their language. The Khmer civilization reached its peak around 1200 c.e. After 1300 the climate became wetter again and the region reverted to forest.

The empire was founded in the sixth century, became divided in the eighth century, and was reunited by King Jayavarman II early in the ninth century. His successor, King Yasovarman I, established the capital at Angkor between 889 and 900. Suryavarman II built the temple complex at Angkor Wat, although it was not completed until after his death in about 1150. King Jayavarman VII built the temple at Angkor Thom in about 1200. Dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the largest collection of religious buildings in the world. In 1992 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Angkor a World Heritage site and added it to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The Khmer Empire was based on a highly productive agricultural system, growing rice on irrigated land, and a well-organized bureaucracy. It was not peaceful, however. There were repeated wars with neighboring peoples and in 1177 the Cham people from Vietnam sacked Angkor. The Khmer Empire declined after around 1350. In 1434 the capital was transferred to Phnom Penh and the returning forest slowly engulfed Angkor.

While there can be no doubt that many major historical events have been influenced by climate, it is a mistake to think they were wholly determined by them. "Climatic determinism" is the over-simple idea that climate and changes in it can provide a complete explanation for the rise and fall of empires. History is much more complex than that. Events happen because of many factors, of which climatic change is sometimes one.

Nevertheless, in those cases where climate was a factor, it is also a mistake to omit or ignore it. Would the Anasazi people have abandoned their homes and dispersed if drought had not repeatedly destroyed their crops? Would cities have been built in Mesopotamia had it not been for an influx of population from adjoining regions that were turning into deserts? Would Genghis Khan have led the Mongol invasions of Europe if deteriorating pastures had not provided the opportunity for him to unite the previously warring tribes and the necessity of finding food for them? We cannot know, but it seems unlikely. When the climate changes dramatically, people have no choice but to respond, and those responses occasionally alter the course of history.

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