Bagan’s Archaeological Zone
More than 2,200 eleventh to thirteenth century temples and stupas pepper the forty square miles of Myanmar’s plains of Bagan. Why are so many of these graceful, exotic structures clustered in this Southeast Asian country once known as Burma? And how does a visitor grasp the visual enormity of such a spectacle?
For 250 years, the city that occupied the area served as the capital of the Pagan Empire, a prosperous dynasty that united much of what became Burma. Religion dominated the culture, which included three major Buddhist sects, Hinduism, and native animist traditions. Pagan’s wealthy citizens built more than 10,000 temples and stupas—dome-shaped shrines sometimes holding the remains of revered priests—in what must have been a continual construction frenzy.
My guide said prominent families competed to create ever-increasing and more glorious homages to Buddha and his priests, and to Hindu gods and goddesses. A sprawling city of more than 200,000 included residences, farms, and businesses thriving among a sea of religious architectural creations. The Empire collapsed around 1287 after a series of invasions by Kublai Khan and his Mongol warriors. The city shrank to a small town, never to regain its prominence.