Old Cambodian Mosques: Potentials for Another Architecture of the Future?

To line up this new year with some visual enthusiasm and inspiration, I have decided to dig into my ”To digitalize” box. It’s a big fluffy one (for dust does fluff after a while of not forcing it to get out, take a stroll outside). Just as I opened the box, some good ol’ shots of good ol’ mosques came up. Mosques from Cambodia, often left on the side of the prayers, left to fluffy dust and collapsing sands.

When those pictures were taken in December 2012, I could only remember the ones I couldn’t frame anymore for they were gone: the ones I saw still standing back somewhere between then and 2000 when I first took strolls in Kompong Cham Province where most of the old Cham mosques remain(ed). The destroyed ones have followed a pattern fairly known of any other architectural heritage observer in Cambodia: out with the old, in with the new. For Chams it has the added dimension of the longed for affiliations to the international Umma. A new mosque, up to ”international standards” (whatever that hegemonic quite indefinable terminology may define), aims to tie Chams to a wider net of Muslims, to put them on the map of the Dar-al-Islam. Then again, ain’t nothing new here: not only because Chams have always been quite active and in constant motion in the Dar-al-Islam, but also because ‘new’ started to replace ‘old’ in the 30’s, in the 60’s and all over again. Mosques, just as any other architecture expressions, are embodiment of modernity. Think whatever you want about the Middle East, but for Southeast Asians in general, and Chams in particular, it has always been – on a long term history line – a path to modernity. Anyhow, modernity is not the only reason while Chams either destroy and rebuild, or often just abandon their old mosques. Simple demographics are at play. When the community grows just too wide for the local piece of building, it’s time to move to something bigger. In most cases the mosques are then left aside rather than destroyed. People just join the new mosque for Friday prayers, but because the old mosque is not used and therefore not taken care of anymore, it most often slowly decays. One could think that those old ladies could still be of some use for other purpose: schools, housing… But the mosque responds to a call that goes beyond the human: the house of God, often standing on higher stilts, can not be de-sacred to daily routine.

Looking at those pictures, at those memories of those few still standing, one could easily fall for nostalgia and an urge for ”salvation”. A sustainable tourism plan could come to mind, engaging local populations into preserving their heritage and in so doing, to generate new incomes. But doing so locates – and I would say enclosed – the old mosque in strangeness: the building is kept and taken care of as long as it is appreciated by those visiting outsiders. The mosque therefore becomes an outsider itself, and the discussion about renewed local expressions or architecture doesn’t even happen. One solution – rather: one beginning of a start of ambitioning a tentative solution – could be to look for a modern architectural integration of the old within the new. In other words, how can the old bones become the supporting beam of a bigger, contemporary, and functional new heart of a mosque? Such an approach would, rather than separate a local heritage to be fetishized on one side, from a practical usage on the other side, integrate it to the daily, and bring back meaning into this thing that links the past and the present. A timeline opposing present and past is – by the way – far from obvious, for Chams have a much more complex approach to time and history where fragmentations do make continuity. Why then limiting the timeline to something strange and divorced when it could be otherwise? Such a project would need to be launched by young up and coming Cham architects in love with their heritage, eager to make the future their own. And I know you guys are out there… So… where are those sketches again? ;))

* Rather than over-captioning each picture and mosque, I have favored simple and sometimes even elliptic notes. I hope that through those, the viewer will be able to travel at his / her own rhythm through the images, deciding to stop here, or to go faster there, using his / her own feelings to approach the site, rather than an overwhelming context. This said, I remain, of course and as usual, devoted to any question that those may rise.

All photos my own, shot with Arax CM-MLU, Kodak Ektacolor Pro 160, shot December 2012.

* * * * *

Svay Khleang . Svay Khleang . Kroch Chmar . Kompong Cham
A 130 years old minaret (or so) | A Vietnam-Cham tycoon | Time resistant, B52 resistant Visited by foreign delegations, kings… and birds.
* A few years ago, a road separated the minaret from the river, large enough for a truck. As the sands and the land are swallowed by the river a bit more each day, there is now barely a path for a bike to go by, before the flows gulp it all down.

Chruy Cham . Prek Saman . Chhlong . Kratie
Circa 1961 | Was used for just about a year | A kitchen during Pol Pot | Now a school (sometimes).

Roka Khnaor . Roka Khnaor . Kroch Chmar . Kompong Cham
Foundations: 70-80 years old | Destroyed, then rebuilt 1979 | Just stopped being used a few months ago, as a new mosque came in.

Chumnik . Chumnik . Kroch Chmar . Kompong Cham
1919 wood, tiles & pillars | 1980’s inspired Mimbar
* Aged a lot in just a few years, somewhere between the abandonment for the new large mosque and the recent floods of the very river it sits on.

Praek Thaok . Ksach Andaet . Chhlong . Kratie
1943 | A byre during Pol Pot | Stopped being used about a year ago | Can’t be re-used for God alone shall stand that high above the ground.

Cheuteal Phlos. Cheuteal Phlos . Chhlong . Kratie
Circa 1962-1968 | Still in constant improvements before the war(s) | A hospital afterwards | Still in use nowadays.

Ampil . Peus Pi . Kroch Chmar . Kompong Cham
Born 80 years ago | A sino-cham collaboration of tycoons for greater merits | A pidan (ceiling) taking inspiration in the Phnom Penh’ Royal Palace.

Roka Po Pram. Roka Po Pram. Thbaung Khmum (formally Kompong Cham)
1967 and an outstanding Sangkumian / New Khmer Architecture print | Unachieved before the war(s) | Rice reserve during Pol Pot | Revamped yesterday, still very much in use today.
* Right where all Cham history is said to have started…


Tropeang Chuk . Boeung . Baray . Kompong Thom
1950’s: in the making | Prahoc reserve during Pol Pot | Stopped being used about 6 months ago | ‘’Threatened to collapse’’ it was said | ‘’Too small to be restored anyway’’ it was decided.

Norea . Norea . Sangkae . Battambang
Circa 1930’s | An architect from Thailand, a model twin in Pattani | The Indian merchants connection | A tentative pigsty once during Pol Pot… But then all the pigs died…


Phnom Penh, January 12, 2015, Emiko Stock.






14 thoughts on “Old Cambodian Mosques: Potentials for Another Architecture of the Future?

  1. Bonjour Emiko,

    J’aime bien cet article sur les mosquées abandonnées du Cambodge. Les photos que tu as prises ont les couleurs de cet abandon, avec ces détails et ces perspectives. C’est une gentille promenade dans le temps.

    Et puis, cette suggestion de reprise par les possibles architectes Chams, pourquoi pas, pour une nouvelle vie en intégrant le passé.

    Beau travail, bien joué…

    Bravo Emiko, merci pour ces moments d’apprentissages sur les “autres”…


  2. Pingback: Preserving the old: ChamAttic | P.J.Coggan

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