Amid global warming, Bangladesh’s historic coastal mosques look to an uncertain future

Since the 15th century, the “mosque city” of southern Bangladesh, dominated by the imposing brick Sixty Dome mosque, has been a place of pilgrimage for devout Bangladeshis and tourists alike.

“I believe that if I wish for something and visit the mosque, Allah will grant my wish and I will see success in the future,” said Shofik Ahamed, a university student who has explored the monument, a World Heritage Site. , during his recent Eid holiday.

But the Sixty Dome Mosque and a host of other medieval mosques, public buildings, tombs and cemeteries at the confluence of the estuary of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers face an increasingly uncertain future as the planet warms.

Climate change is bringing more extreme heat and rainfall, flooding, erosion and surges of salt water to Bangladesh’s southern delta, cut by hundreds of rivers.

Friends Asad Hossain and Monir Hossain visit the Sixty Dome Mosque site in Bagherhat, southern Bangladesh. Photo credit: Mosabber Hossain/Thomson Reuters Foundation

In the City of the Mosque, such changes undermine historic structures, causing the surface of aging bricks and masonry, for example, to disintegrate more quickly and allowing fungi and plants to take hold.

Stronger hurricanes and storm surges are also damaging structures, as is increasing saltwater intrusion through soil and air seeping into historic buildings, researchers say.

Sea level rise due to climate change “is a great threat to heritage sites”, warned Khandoker Mahfuz-ud-Darain, a professor at the University of Khulna who since 2017 has been studying these impacts on the cultural heritage of southern Bangladesh.

The threats to Mosque City are similar to those faced by around 127 protected archaeological sites – many of which are historic mosques – in coastal districts of Bangladesh.

The main entrance gate to the Sixty Dome Mosque, part of the City of Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bagherhat, southern Bangladesh. Photo credit: Mosabber Hossain/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Already, at least 50 have been damaged by worsening climate impacts, said Afroza Khan, director of Khulna region for the Government of Bangladesh’s Department of Archeology..

Mahfuz-ud-Darain believes that by mid-century the impacts of climate change will be the main threat to the country’s heritage sites – and said planning should start now to protect them. As climate impacts intensify, “normal renovation will not work in these mosques,” he warned.

“The Biggest Threats”

The Mosque City of Bagerhat – formerly known as Khalifatabad – was founded by the Turkish general Ulugh Khan Jahan and flourished until his death in 1459.

Today, the mostly brick structures, restored at the turn of the last century after being abandoned and covered by jungle after Jahan’s death, offer some of the best examples of the Bengal Sultanate’s style of Muslim architecture.

Such monuments “represent the tradition of a country”, said Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, a professor in the department of archeology at Jahangirnagar University.

An interior view of the Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagherhat, southern Bangladesh. Photo credit: Mosabber Hossain/Thomson Reuters Foundation

But history is in danger in Bangladesh and around the world as global warming jeopardizes world heritage sites, from Venice’s frequently flooded St. Mark’s Square to statues threatened with erosion on Easter Island.

“Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing cultural and natural heritage sites worldwide”, with at least one in five monuments already under threat, said Thomas Mallard, spokesman for the World Heritage Centre. of UNESCO.

The UN agency is working with countries and communities that are home to heritage sites to build resilience to new pressures, he said. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization offers emergency funding to support disaster damage assessment and reconstruction.

These funds have already been used to carry out post-flood assessments and repair work in places ranging from Old Sana’a in Yemen to Sudan, where ancient buildings near the Nile were flooded in 2020. But Mahfuz-ud -Darain, who sits on the steering committee of the International Climate Heritage Network, said countries like Bangladesh also need to step up their own protection efforts.

It recommends increased funding for research into the impacts of climate on heritage and increased efforts to adapt historic structures to future changes, as well as to ensure that historic preservation efforts are part of a larger national climate policy. wide.

Khan, from the government’s Department of Archeology, said efforts were already underway this year to identify the most endangered coastal historic sites. The ministry has also proposed changes to the Antiquities Act that would make historic sites threatened or damaged by climate impacts eligible for state funding for protection and repairs.

Mohamed Helal Uddin, who for 30 years served as the imam of the Sixty Dome Mosque, hopes help will come soon, noting that damage to the historic building “would be a great loss for us”. Rahman, from Jahangirnagar University, agrees. “We have to save it for future generations,” he said.

This article first appeared on News from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Teresa H. Sadler