Friday, 3 April 2015

Old Pictures: Ayutthaya

Today, the ruins of Ayutthaya are just that: ruins. Set within the modern city of Ayutthaya, the historic UNESCO-rated park of old Ayutthaya is a couple of miles north of Thailand's capital, Bangkok. But Bangkok will forever be the new boy, Ayutthaya was the classic capital of Thailand (or Siam as it was then). It was a majestic city of gold spires and palaces, surrounded by three converging rivers. It all went downhill in 1767, when the Burmese trashed it, but the good news is that the Europeans had been visiting for three centuries before this happened.

I say good news, because the Europeans were usually pretty good at drawing pictures and making maps and generally keeping a record of things. The Chinese visited Ayutthaya, for example, but I'm not aware of any surviving ancient pictures by them. And the Siamese themselves don't seem to have produced much (though if they had, the Burmese would have destroyed it anyway). So let's hear it for the Europeans of the Renaissance-esque years - they usually get a bad rap because they were horribly exploitative, but they at least made some pretty pictures.

The above and the top paintings were done by a Dutch painter and mapmaker (they were often the same thing back then) called Johannes Vingboons and were first published in 1665. Ayutthaya was known as Judea back then for some reason. You can see mountains in the top picture - that's not accurate, and probably Vingboons confused some distant clouds, or was just being fanciful. 1665 might seem early, but Europeans had been visiting Ayutthaya from the 15th Century - a Venetian monk called Fra Mauro included it on his world map, completed in 1459, just a century after Ayutthaya had been in founded. Here it is - click to see it in its full glory.

Just to confuse matters a little, Mauro switched his north and south so the map we see above is actually an inverted one, hence why the writing is upside down. If you look, you can probably see where his version of south-east Asia is. And if you look even closer, you can see a place called "Scierno", surrounded by a river, that has been identified has Ayutthaya. I've marked it in the picture below (which has been flipped back to Mauro's "south-at-the-top" design).

Incidentally, just to the right of Scierno, you might see a long wiggly river. By the side of that is a place called Pochang, which is thought to be Bagan. If so, this is the earliest depiction of Bagan - although the drawing is entirely unrepresentative of the real thing.

All this is pretty incredible, and Fra Mauro's map is rightly held up as one of the map world's all time masterpieces. Even aside from it pushing the boundaries of the known world, it is a thing of beauty. Imagine being a person in the 15th Century, a time when even visiting a nearby region was a major undertaking, and looking at Mauro's map. The world was an inconceivably large place back then.

Mauro's map is certainly the earliest picture of Ayutthaya, but oddly there appears to be nothing else for a further two centuries. Europeans were still visiting the area, but not in such great numbers. Vingboon's 17th Century paintings are the next oldest that we know of. But after Vingboon's comes a flurry. In 1676, a book was published containing drawings by another Dutchman, a traveller called Jan Janszoon Struys, based upon his visit in 1650.

Ok, we've had enough of the Dutch, let's have a Frenchman and one called Jean de Courtaulin de Maguelonne, which I believe in English translates as John of Maguelonne's Curtains. He published the following in 1686, the most detailed of Ayutthaya's maps yet.

I think it might be time for a short interlude. If you want to see what Ayutthaya looks like now, well I'm sure you can go to Google Images, or skim the text and look at the pictures of my review. But it might be worth a look at the most modern map of Ayutthaya around. The river island is pretty defined.

Back the 17th Century, and back to the Dutch. This is from a mapmaker called Isaac de Graaff.

Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, a Venetian, next, in 1696.

Fran├žois Valentijn wrestled the "Ayutthaya Painting Competition" back to Dutch in 1724.

I think you're probably getting the idea now. We're quite spoiled for maps of 17th and 18th Century Ayutthaya, especially compared to other Asian sites from that era. Published in 1753, Jacques Nicolas Bellin produced among the last made before the Burmese destroyed the city.

Reduced to just brick and stone, the former glory of Ayutthaya disappeared from the world maps. Bangkok became the new capital and Thailand moved on. That's pretty much where we find Ayutthaya today. Sure, a new town has grown up around it, but it is otherwise a memory. I can't entirely verify the below photos (I found them on a message board) but they appear to be from 1864, 1894, and 1896 respectively. The first one focusses on a modern built area, but you can see some stupa peaks towering in the distance. The following two show some of the stupas in their ruined state, prior to restoration (although that mostly involved clearing away the weeds and stabilising them - they still look very similar).


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