Despite archaeological evidence of Buddhist origins in the area, as well as unsurprising evidence of the Hindu religion in an area where, before partition in 1947 the population is said to have been 87% Hindu, the Muslim city of Bagerhat contains some remarkable examples of pre Mughal architecture.
The ‘City of Mosques’, which Forbes Directory has listed as one of the 15 lost cities of the world, was founded in 1429 by a soldier of Turkish origin, Khan Jahan Ali, under the Bengal Sultan, Mahmud Shah.
Arriving with what was apparently a considerable force of followers, the man is revered as one of the earliest Islamic missionaries in Bangladesh, although, in fact, there is evidence of Muslim traders arriving even during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, and a late 7th Century mosque in the north of Bangladesh bears testimony to the growth of Muslim communities from that time. Regardless, Khan Jahan Ali and his followers appear to have developed a considerable city for their base.
The so-called ‘Sixty Dome Mosque’, which actually has sixty pillars within and probably 72 domes on the roof, is regarded as the most famous of these monuments, there are around 50 Islamic constructions in the area, in what is rated by UNESCO as World Heritage Site.
But for many visitors, it is perhaps some of the smaller mosques that are the most lovely. There are at least two very accessible single dome mosques and a very fine six dome mosque. But time spent at leisure in the area, as well as revealing the remains of palaces, shrines and tombs, can also reveal traces of the roads and bridges built in the 30 years that Khan Jahan lived and worked here, spreading his influence over a great part of the region.
It is not without interest to note, however, that ruins of palaces within the Sundarban Mangrove forest that adjoins the area suggest that the jungle was considerably reduced for agriculture, perhaps during his time or later as result of his efforts, the forest appears to have been pushed back, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries, when a combination of Arakanese and renegade Portuguese pirates were regularly reported to raid the area, causing the population the move further inland.
It appears that, indeed, the forest may well have overgrown the City of the Mosques itself, and it is only in the past century that much of it has been rescued from the overgrowth and re-discovered.
There is, however, no doubting the simple beauty of the rather large collection of places of Islamic worship in the vicinity. The passing tourist may miss a great deal by giving insufficient time to a proper exploration of these fine examples of 15th Century Islamic masterpieces.