Angkor Wat, in present-day Cambodia, formed part of the capital of the Khmer Empire from 802 until 1295, and is probably the largest religious monument ever constructed. Built over a 30-year period with sandstone and laterite (a dense, porous, iron-bearing soil that can be quarried like stone), the rectangular structure (2,800 by 3,800 feet) faces west, in Hindu belief the direction taken by the dead when going to their next life.
At the center of the complex stands a temple with five lotus-shaped towers, a larger central tower, and four smaller surrounding towers. They represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the mountain where a pantheon of Hindu gods reside and from which, according to Hindu belief, all creation comes. Three square terraces surrounds the central tower. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat more than three miles long and rimmed by a causeway that leads to four gateways into the temple complex. Decorating the causeway are carvings that depict divine serpents, known as nagas.
Angkor Wat was taken by the Cham army from northern Cambodia in 1177, after which the complex began to fall into ruin. It was reclaimed, but not inhabited, in 1181. Pillaged by Thai invaders in the fifteenth century, the ruins were somewhat refurbished and expanded by later rulers of Cambodia. Angkor Wat was intermittently inhabited by Buddhist monks, and the former Hindu temple subsequently became a destination for Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world.
Ingpen, Robert, and Philip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places. New York: Barnes & Noble,