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Were There Any Big Cities in the 13th Century?

In the 13th century, humanity witnessed the rise of remarkable cities, bustling with trade, culture, and innovation. From the grandeur of Baghdad to the thriving ports of Venice, these urban centers were the heartbeats of civilizations. Imagine walking their storied streets—what secrets of the past might they reveal to us? Join us as we journey through history's urban landscapes.

Angkor, Cambodia, is known today as a tourist destination thanks to its famous Angkor Wat temple complex, but 800 years ago, it was a place to live, not visit. In fact, as the capital city of the Khmer Empire, Angkor was one of the most populated places on Earth, with estimates of between 700,000 and 900,000 people living there in the 13th century. Angkor was far more populous than any medieval European city and roughly equivalent to the present-day population of Boston, Massachusetts.

The population estimate for Angkor comes from recent research that combined light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and 30 years' worth of excavation data. The modern technology helped determine that the massive city was filled with many structures besides the well-known stone temples.

In the 13th century, the Cambodian city of Angkor, famous for the Angkor Wat temple complex, was home to over 700,000 people, similar to modern-day Boston.
In the 13th century, the Cambodian city of Angkor, famous for the Angkor Wat temple complex, was home to over 700,000 people, similar to modern-day Boston.

"I was amazed by the level of chronological and geographic demographic detail we were able to achieve by combining all these different datasets into a cohesive framework,” said researcher Sarah Klassen, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden. Researcher Alison Carter, a University of Oregon archaeologist, said an accurate accounting of the size of Angkor was almost impossible before the availability of modern equipment. "When you are on the ground in the main parts of the city center it is quite forested,” Carter said. "As you walk around you can tell there is something in the landscape around you, but you cannot see anything clearly. LiDAR gave us a beautiful grid of mounds and depressions, which we think were little ponds."

Wat's more:

  • A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor Wat covers more than 400 acres (1.6 sq km), making it the world's largest religious monument by land area.

  • Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is one of very few monuments of that religion that face west. The complex became a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century.

  • Angkor Wat appears on the Cambodian flag; Afghanistan is the only other country that features a national monument on its flag.

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    • In the 13th century, the Cambodian city of Angkor, famous for the Angkor Wat temple complex, was home to over 700,000 people, similar to modern-day Boston.
      In the 13th century, the Cambodian city of Angkor, famous for the Angkor Wat temple complex, was home to over 700,000 people, similar to modern-day Boston.