SIEM REAP, Cambodia — It has taken half a century, but archaeologists in Cambodia have finally completed the renovation of an ancient Angkor temple described as the world's largest three dimensional puzzle.
The restoration of the 11th-century Baphuon ruin is the result of decades of painstaking work, hampered by tropical rains and civil war, to take apart hundreds of thousands of sandstone blocks and piece them back together again.
"When I first saw how devastated the monument was, I never thought we would be able to put it back together," said Cambodian restorer Ieng Te, who joined the project as a young student in 1960 and was tasked with numbering stones.
"I am so happy and excited that we were able to rebuild our historic temple," the now 66-year-old said as he oversaw the final construction activities at the site.
On a recent rainy morning workers were adding a final layer of paint to newly-installed wooden staircases at Baphuon, one of the country's biggest temples after Angkor Wat, the largest structure in the famed Angkor complex.
It is one of the last jobs to be done before the temple reopens to the public next week, finally revealing itself in full glory after spending decades in pieces.
Cambodian King Sihamoni and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will be among the first to tour the impressive three-tier temple during an inauguration ceremony on July 3.
The story of the 10-million-euro ($14m) renovation began in the 1960s when a French-led team of archaeologists dismantled the pyramidal building because it was falling apart, largely due to its heavy, sand-filled core that was putting pressure on the thin walls.
The workers numbered some 300,000 of the sandstone blocks and laid them out in the surrounding jungle.
But efforts to rebuild the crumbling towers and lavishly ornamented facades abruptly came to a halt when Cambodia was convulsed by civil war in 1970.
The records to reassemble Baphuon, including the numbering system, were then destroyed by the hardline communist Khmer Rouge which took power in 1975.
In 1995, when the area in northwestern Cambodia was again safe to work in, the French government-funded project was restarted under the leadership of architect Pascal Royere from the Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO).
"It has been said, probably rightly so, that it is the largest-ever 3D puzzle," Royere told AFP.
The team carefully measured and weighed each block and then relied on archive photos stored in Paris, drawings and the recollections of Cambodian workers to figure out where each part fits.
"We were facing a three-dimensional puzzle, a 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture. And that was the main difficulty of this project," Royere said.
"There is no mortar that fills the cracks which means that each stone has its own place. You will not find two blocks that have the same dimensions."
The restoration of Baphuon, one of Angkor's oldest ruins, was completed in April and Royere said it was a moment of joy for the 250-strong, mainly Cambodian, team.
Finishing the "unique" undertaking was "a collective satisfaction because it was a complicated project," he said.
Built around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II in honour of the Hindu god Shiva, Baphuon was the country's largest religious building at the time, 35 metres high (114 feet) and measuring 130 by 104 metres (426 x 340 feet).
In the 16th century, a 70-metre long reclining Buddha statue was built into a wall on the second level using stones from the top of the temple.
These two phases of construction, hundreds of years apart, further complicated the restoration, said Royere, and working during the rainy season proved another major challenge.
But those struggles are behind him now and as the Frenchman watched camera-toting tourists amble along the long elevated walkway that leads to the temple, he said he was confident the site would become a top attraction.
Located at the heart of the Angkor park, it "certainly promises to be a great success," he said.
Gazing up at Baphuon, first-time visitor to Cambodia Gayle Sienicki from Washington DC marvelled at the temple's long journey to recovery.
"It's just amazing, I mean truly amazing, that they could take these bits of stones and figure out how to put them all back together," she said. "I'm in awe. I think this is just the coolest thing."