Mosques have been at the center of civic life in eastern Bengal, the ancient region surrounding the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, since shortly after the Sufi missionaries arrived in the 13th century. Of the 165 million people now living in Bangladesh, a nation roughly the size of Iowa, about 90 percent are Muslim. Aside from the red brick ruins of ancient monasteries, remainders of 400 years of Buddhist rule that ended in the 12th century, the only structures to have survived from antiquity are the austere brick mosques left by the Bengali sultanate (which controlled the region until the 16th century), some Hindu temples and a handful of civic structures built by the Mughals, who ruled the area until the rise of the British East India Company in the 18th century. Otherwise, the vernacular architecture of Bengal, a land of estuaries and mangroves, of shifting soil and torrential storms, largely consists of thatched-roof huts built with mud or bamboo and open-sided pavilions that accommodate, and often succumb to, the extreme climate.
But Bangladesh, as the world knows the country, is a modern invention. When the British relinquished their colonial stranglehold on the subcontinent in 1947, they split it along religious lines: The predominantly Hindu western side of Bengal became a state in India, and the Muslim east became East Pakistan (separated by a thousand miles from West Pakistan). Over the next two decades, a resistance movement emerged in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan as the local population demanded greater representation — and eventually freedom — from the Urdu-speaking political elites in the West. In 1971, after a brief but brutal war, Bangladesh won its independence. In its early years of nationhood, the country had a distinct but austere tradition of mosque architecture to draw on. To set themselves within the framework of a more global Islam, engineers and architects relied on Turkic domes, peaked Mughal arches and massive Arab minarets — the pan-Islamic shorthand for sacred architecture — to indicate the buildings’ importance. These mosques had little to do with Bengal itself.
Beyond these mosques, Bangladesh was rapidly developing the most robust Modernist tradition in all of South Asia.