Monsieur Angkor

Aedeen Cremin

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Illustration: Elsie Herberstein

Claude Jacques was Mr Angkor, a scholar who dedicated his life to Cambodian history. As an epigrapher, he could have worked quietly from home, but instead he chose to become a public intellectual, using his eminence and great communication skills to preserve a threatened heritage.

Trained in France, he taught epigraphy and art history at the Royal University in Phnom Penh from 1961. In 1970 he moved back to Paris, where in 1973 he became director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études; one of his more notable students was HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, who went on to create the Anthropology Centre that bears her name. Jacques was a member of France’s prestigious Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and regularly contributed to its journal. As an epigrapher, he was the top of his field and carried on a constructive dialogue with his only peer, the equally brilliant Michael Vickery, who died in 2017, aged 86.

Jacques was one of the first scholars to revisit Cambodia, in 1989, when he also became a consultant to UNESCO. From then on he was a key player in the international committee that oversees the Angkor World Heritage site. In 1999, he achieved unexpected notoriety for discovering the looting of Banteay Chhmar, near Sisophon, in northwest Cambodia. At a Bangkok dealer’s, he saw an inscribed stone which he could immediately identify as coming from this great twelfth-century temple. Having informed the Thai police, he decided to visit the site with a representative from UNESCO; the area was at that time very difficult to access.

To their horror, they found that an incredible twelfth metres of low-relief carvings had been crudely removed from the temple walls. “When I saw the damage, I was crying. I was unable to say anything,” he told the New York Times. “It was horrible. I had never seen such bad damage, and all for nothing, you know? For money. The small heads they take, they probably have to destroy ten to get one.” Those words were typical of Jacques’ concern not only for heritage but also with the human dimension. He went on to commission the documentary Beyond Angkor: the threat to Cambodia’s treasures, directed by Pierre Stine in 2000.

He was also active at Koh Ker, another much-looted site, and advised the Hungarian Southeast Asian Research Institute on excavations there. His last major work (2014) was on the inscriptions from that short-lived imperial capital. It is a typically beautiful book, on a par with his Angkor, Khmer City (1999) and The Khmer Empire (2007). Jacques was always scrupulous in acknowledging his collaborators, and the photographer for each of these books is credited as a co-author.

These works are for the general public, but Jacques also kept up a flow of scholarly papers, in which he basically rewrote the accepted “grand narrative”, going beyond the textual analysis of inscriptions to a reconsideration of various historical questions, such as the nature of Angkor kingship, whether there were slaves (he thought not), the biographies of various kings (rewriting at least two), the growth and end of Angkor and other major topics. HM King Norodom Sihamoni recognised his contribution to Cambodia by awarding him the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Sahametri in June 2017.

Claude Jacques was a wonderful speaker and an affable man. When he contradicted accepted views (often), he did so gently, with deference and some humour. He will be greatly missed.

He is survived by his wife Dominique, two sons, a stepdaughter and a granddaughter.

Aedeen Cremin is an archaeologist with the Greater Angkor Project.
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