Henri Mouhot’s name is synonymous with the “discovery” of Angkor Wat in 1860.
In truth, however, the sprawling temple-city of Angkor was never “lost” or in need of rediscovery: while some areas of the enormous religious monument had been overtaken by jungle growth, the Khmer people been continuously occupying and maintaining the central ‘Wat’ temple since its construction in the 12th century by Suryavarman II, king of the Khmer Empire. Through the publication of his many expedition journals and drawings, Mouhot did much to popularize Angkor Wat in the West despite his not having been the first European to visit. The first European visitor to Angkor was a Portuguese monk named António da Madalena who visited in 1586, though he did not write so eloquently or at such length as Mouhot, nor were his works as widely distributed.
“..is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”— Antonio da Madalena
Born in France in 1826, Mouhot was a naturalist and explorer whose travels were made famous by his work on Angkor. While employed as a professor of Philology, he was inspired to travel to Indochina after reading “The Kingdom and People of Siam” by Sir James Bowring. While initially denied funding from several organizations, he eventually received financial support for a specimen-gathering expedition from the Zoological Society of London and set sail in 1858. After traveling throughout southeast Asia he came to Cambodia, and, at the end of his second expedition, ‘discovered’ Angkor in 1860.
Mouhot marveled at the grandeur of the ancient temple complex, comparing it to the hitherto unparalleled Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt– to this day, an undeniably better-known and more widely-publicized ancient site than Angkor, despite the incredible difference in scale and complexity. The entirety of Angkor spans a geographic region of nearly 200 square miles, and comprises an estimated 15 million tons of sandstone– vastly greater than the volume of all the pyramids of Egypt combined.
“One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
— Henri Mouhot
On his fourth and final expedition, Henri Mouhot died of Malarial fever at the tragic age of 35 and was buried by the banks of the Nam Khan river in what is now present-day Laos. His legacy was secured the following year by the posthumous publication of his now most famous work: “Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos” (Voyage to the Kingdoms of Siam, Cambodia, and Laos).
Below are some of Mouhot’s pen & ink illustrations of Angkor Wat, along with contemporary photos of the same structures.