When hearing Banten Lama (Old Banten), what comes to mind is usually the Banten Grand Mosque with its iconic white tower.
Pilgrims frequently crowd the mosque, especially ahead of Ramadhan, thanks to the cemeteries of Banten sultans and ulema, apart from its interesting architecture, a mixture of Javanese, Chinese and colonial styles.
The mosque is not the only place worth visiting; there are many other historical sites in Banten Lama and its surroundings that are no less interesting.
Banten Lama was once an important harbormaster city on the western end of Java Island, an ancient cosmopolitan city, thanks to the trade in pepper and other spices.
Around the 16th century, the city had a population of some 100,000 people. Its residents hailed not just from Banten and other regions of the archipelago, but also from other parts of the world, including China, the Middle East, India and Europe.
The establishment of the Banten Sultanate was inseparably linked to the alliance between the sultanates of Cirebon and Demak. It was, therefore, not surprising that Banten Lama adopted the spatial planning of Javanese cities.
The palace, the Grand Mosque and the city square were located at the same site, surrounded by walls that no longer stand.
There were two palaces in Banten Lama: Kaibon Palace, where the queen mother lived; and Surosowan Palace, the residence of the sultans. Presently, only remains of the two palaces can be found there.
Not far from the city square is Karangantu Seaport, which was considered pivotal for the Banten Sultanate. Tom Pires, a Portuguese author and medicine expert who came to Banten Lama in 1523, said in his book Suma Oriental that the seaport was the second-biggest harbor in the Sunda Kingdom, after Sunda Kelapa. Karangantu is now a small port where fishermen moor their ships.
To the northwest of the Grand Mosque is Speelwijk Fortress. Although only its outer walls and foundation remain, the greatness of its architecture still shines through.
There are two versions regarding who built the fortress. According to one, it was built during the rule of Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa by an architect of Chinese descent.
According to the other, it was built during the rule of Sultan Abu Nasr Abdul Kahhar, or Sultan Haji, as he was also popularly called, by Hendrick
Loocaszoon Cardeel from 1681-1684. The fortress was named in honor of then-Dutch East Indies Governor Cornelis Janszoon Speelman.
Across from the fortress, separated by a small canal, is Indonesia’s oldest temple, Avalokitesvara. It is said that the temple was built by noted Muslim preacher Sunan Gunung Jati in 1542, because he had a wife of Chinese descent. Sunan Gunung Jati was the father of Maulana
Hasanuddin, founder of the Banten Sultanate. Other historians believe the temple was built in 1652, i.e. during the Banten Kingdom’s golden period under the rule of Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa. Whichever version is correct, the temple points to religious tolerance in ancient Banten Lama.
Other sites worth visiting in the area are the Pecinan Tinggi mosque, Lake Tasik Kardi, the beaches of Kerkhoff and Pasir Putih -- all located within a 3-kilometer radius of the Grand Mosque.
As of today, only the Grand Mosque and Avalokitesvara temple are still intact and well maintained. Remains only are left of other buildings. Yet, it is from the remains and the interactions between the locals with the sites that visitors can feel the romance of the glory of the Banten Sultanate in the past.
Against the backdrop of the evening sunshine, a visit to the city could be an unforgettable experience.[kes]