Professor Yoshiaki Ishizawa with a group of tourists at the Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap Image Credit:

History presents a world that is intriguing and charming, believable yet enigmatic. Cut to a country like Cambodia that is virtually a heaven for scholars passionate about the past. It is indeed a treasure trove, embracing vast layers of cultural and spiritual riches still awaiting discovery. The key difference is that for most of us, its temples and other architectural sites merely serve as tourist attractions. But for someone like Professor Yoshiaki Ishizawa, these temples and sites are now his life’s work and study.

Professor Ishizawa is the director of the Sophia Asia Centre for Research and Human Development at Sophia University in Tokyo and also the chairperson of the Japan Consortium for International Cooperation in Cultural Heritage. His single-minded goal is to restore and conserve the ancient temple complex at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. It’s a task with which he has been actively engaged for more than 50 years, and one that has won him the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2017.

As a student of French language and studies at the Sophia University in Tokyo, Professor Ishizawa visited Angkor Wat in 1961.

“I was so impressed on seeing the massive temple of Angkor Wat and its resplendent art and architecture, and I wondered how the ancient Khmer people could have erected such a splendid edifice. Later, I became enthusiastic about acquiring knowledge on its history and civilisation, and since then I have been engrossed in studying about it,” he tells Weekend Review.

After Cambodia gained independence in 1953, Khmer Rouge communists defined the country’s political and social landscape. From 1975 to 1979, a bloody civil war was followed by a horrific genocide that left the country devastated both in human and heritage terms. And Angkor Wat was not spared either. This religious structure, the largest in the world, was a Hindu temple that gradually opened its doors to Theravada Buddhism, and today constitutes an architectural marvel from the 12th century. Thankfully though, not all its temples witnessed attacks even though it did face a bleak future under the Khmer Rouge. It was only after they lost power that genuine restoration efforts began at the vast complex. And that’s when dedicated conservationists like Professor Ishizawa stepped in.

“As you know, 1975 was a turning point in modern Cambodian history,” he says. “During the Khmer Rouge regime, more than 1.7 million people were killed. Everyone suffered in the confusion of the civil war. The war damaged Cambodia in many respects, particularly the education system and the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage. During that time, although the conservation of Angkor Wat was stopped and no maintenance activity was conducted, I believe Pol Pot did not destroy Angkor Wat (Pol Pot was the political leader whose communist government ruled from 1975 to 1979). I remember when I was in Phnom Penh in the early 1980s, I visited the national museum there and found its door locked. I was told that the door had been closed since the Pol Pot regime and that they did not allow anyone to enter the museum. That meant all the art objects were protected during that time,” he says.

Professor Ishizawa’s major contribution lies in his efforts to form a team of Cambodians to work together to revive their nation’s cultural heritage, which also happens to be a major source of pride for them all. At Sophia University, he initiated the arduous task of identifying and training Cambodian conservationists, garnering support from international agencies and experts, and generating global awareness over the urgency of conserving and restoring Angkor Wat and other relics from its glorious past. He has sought to educate Cambodians and make them self-reliant to enable them to protect their own heritage. To bring more cohesiveness to this initiative, he went a step further to form the Sophia University Angkor International Mission in 1989.

The Sophia Mission is charged with the preservation and restoration of Cambodia’s cultural heritage through the intervention of Cambodians themselves. Its activities include human development; preservation, restoration, and the transfer of technology; and survey and research.

Independent excavations

“The first survey was conducted in 1989, and since then, the Sophia Mission has dispatched individuals to the sites every year,” he says. “After the initial survey of Angkor, the Sophia Mission created a middle- to long-term plan to develop Cambodian human resources and to preserve and restore the Angkor monuments. Specifically, researchers and experts were trained to carry out independent excavations, restorations and research.”

The efforts focus on the sustainable development of the temple space and embrace public-heritage education. This means that even village folk and young school children are taught the significance of archaeology and encouraged to value their historical legacy. Professor Ishizawa strongly believes locals need to take pride in their heritage and devise their own mechanisms so that conservation becomes a long-term and consistent project.

“Angkor is a symbol of national identity,” he says. “The preservation of Angkor is meant to assist in nation-building and national reconciliation and thereby return the nation to its earlier peaceful era. I personally understand support as national rehabilitation, so we named the training programme as the ‘Preservation and Restoration of Angkor monuments by the Cambodian people’.”

Consequently, he brought in stone masons from Japan to train their counterparts in Cambodia. “From 1996, we began to train Cambodian stonemasons”, he says. “One Japanese stone mason, Kosugi Takayugi, voluntarily came to train them. This was under the first phase of the project for the restoration of the Western Causeway of Angkor Wat, which was carried out between 1996 and 2007. Mr Takayugi alone taught 35 young Cambodian stone masons. For the second phase of the restoration project, around 10 stone masons from Japan came to join us”.

As part of Professor Ishizawa’s long-term plans to deal with the issue of preservation, Cambodians have been selected and enabled to study and obtain graduate and postgraduate degrees at Sophia University on topics linked to conservation and restoration. To date, seven Cambodians have received doctorates and 11 others have acquired Masters’ degrees. All of them have now returned to Cambodia where they work as senior officials for the Cambodian government.

Members of the Sophia Mission have been successful in restoring the Buddhist temple of Banteay Kdei, have unearthed 274 Buddha statues, and they are now finalising major repairs on the western causeway that provides key access to Angkor Wat. The Mission has also been involved in collaborating with and establishing several institutions that carry out diverse programmes, forming a network of global agencies such as the Centre for Education on Angkor Cultural Heritage, Sophia Asia Centre for Research and Human Development in Siem Reap, and a training centre and hostel for scholars pursuing like-minded interests.

It has been a long, strenuous journey and despite now being 80, Professor Ishizawa still reflects the same zeal he started out with.

“After the Pol Pot regime, there were only three conservators who had survived. I received the approval from the Ministry of Culture and the authority that manages Angkor Archaeological Park. I wanted confirmation for my proposal that the preservation and restoration of the Cambodian cultural heritage should be carried out by Cambodians for Cambodians. Over the years, we have implemented two projects for Human Resources Development. The first was on-site training at the Angkor monuments and the second was for acquiring degrees as conservationists at the Sophia University. Both projects are still ongoing”.

To simply say that Professor Ishizawa has worked painstakingly to literally open the doors of Angkor Wat to the world would not do justice to his single-minded pursuit. He has had to overcome sensitive cultural issues and health concerns along the way as well. Yet, when prodded on the kind of obstacles he has faced during this period, he plays down his contribution.

“Based on my numerous experiences, I must say I have not faced any major problems as such. Of course, apart from the fact that the customary labour practice in Cambodia means work begins early in the morning at seven o’clock.”

Manasi Mathkar is a writer based in Manila.