Exploring UNESCO's World Heritage Sites
World Heritage Sites
Between 1960 and 1970 Egypt built the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River in an effort to solve its chronic water shortages. I remember reading about it in a dated National Geographic. One problem with the construction was that the new dam would flood a number of ancient Egyptian ruins. The most famous of these imperiled historic sites was unquestionably the Temple of Ramesses II, known as Abu Simbel. The gigantic Pharonic effigies that guarded the entrance to the temple were well known as the most important and famous site in Egypt south of Luxor. The Temple at Abu Simbel was considered valuable enough by the Egyptians, (if not by any connoisseur of history and archeology), that money and efforts were raised to move them to ground above the intended water level. It was a monumental feat tasked to UNESCO and it received world wide coverage. What they might not have mentioned in the article, I can’t remember, is that many other archeological sites would not be moved and hence flooded. I found this out years later when I visited Abu Simbel. Eventually Abu Simbel was moved piece by piece to higher ground at the same time the Aswan High Dam was being constructed downstream. Today the tourist can still marvel at one of Egypt’s greatest ancient monuments. UNESCO had come of age.
If Ken Burns called the National Parks America’s best idea, than I would argue by extension that the World Heritage Sites, part of UNESCO, are the best idea for an organization which seems to be less purposeful every decade. The UNESCO is an arm of the United Nations and one of its pet projects is the impressive list of World Heritage Sites scattered across the world among 148 countries, or so-called state parties, as they are referred to. UNESCO is an acronym that stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural - something that triggers almost nightmarish impulses of a bureaucracy gone wrong with a dose of world government thrown in. Yet even for the skeptics like me I can’t help thinking that the World Heritage Sites are a pretty good idea. For one reason I have been to many of these sites only to discover they were World Heritage years later. I did not seek them out because I knew they were on the UNESCO list, but discovered later, after I had visited, that they were listed. For instance, I learned Great Smoky Mountain National Park was on the list. The World Heritage list is kind of a hall-of-fame of places around the world and includes 890 properties broken into three categories: cultural, natural, and mixed (both cultural and natural) that have “outstanding universal value”. It was started in 1972 with the international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. What’s the point if the site is already a national park in some country? I don’t know other than giving it more recognition and perhaps a dose more of funding. After all, we are loving our parks to death, at least in the United States, and this carries over to other historic and natural wonders the globe over.
There are resources and of course money (funding) that come out of a World Heritage trust fund. There are also sites that were formerly on the list but got dropped because they did not sustain certain criteria – in other words they got delisted.This happened to the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman in 2007. There are also sites that are endangered such as those in Afghanistan for obvious reasons. One of them, the Great Buddhas of the BamiyanValley, is endangeredbecause they were imploded by the Taliban as sacreligious idols. They are in the process of being rebuilt. Some of the other well-known sites are obvious. Just think of a world famous monument, something along the lines of the seven wonders, and its will more than like be under the umbrage of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites: The Pyramids of Egypt, Jordan’s Petra, Japan’s storied pagodas, The Taj Mahal, The Acropolis in Athens, Tikal, The Great Barrier Reef, and the list goes on. Most of them are in Europe, not surprisingly, but there is, overall, a great balance of sites globally. Many are surprisingly small and less well know as I discovered in Okinawa, where five castles in locations scattered across the islands are listed as World Heritage Sites. There are also natural areas that are on the list such as South Korea’s Jeju Island, whose shield volcano dominates the island off Korea’s south coast. Yakushima, a Japanese island in the county’s south, is another hidden gem that is deserving of this international recognition. Most World Heritage Sites double as national parks or historic preserves of one sort or another, so their status under UNESCO is just another feather in the cap. Other sites, such as the previously mentioned castles in Okinawa, Japan, have large and well-placed signs that proudly announce “UNESCO World Heritage Site”. Regardless of which one you visit, purposeful or by pure accident, you will probably be impressed and perhaps after reading this have more appreciation of the designation. For a full list of the sites see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list
Selective UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Austria: Historic Center of Vienna. This includes Vienna's First District, or the old town of the city and the diverse range of architecture and history on display. The Ringstrasse which forms a semi-circle around the First District, roughly follows the old city walls which were torn down in 1848. At the center of the First District is Stephensdom, the Gothic cathedral that towers above the city. Other sites are the Hofburg, the historic residence of the Hapsburgs, a number of churches, and the Graben, or "Grave", used for mass burials during the Black Plague.
Croatia: Plitvice National Park. Plitvice is part of a vast karst region in Croatia and Slovenia. This national park has a number of beautiful waterfalls that have created travertine dams and lakes. The park is also known for is forests which have a number of large animal species scuh as wild boar and bear.
Czech Republic: Historic Center of Prague. Prague's center is a beautiful time capsule to different eras in history that are highlighted by the architecture seen in this city. Gothic, baroque, rococco, neoclassical, art noveaux, and beaux arts are among the stylized buidings that are clearly a unique showpiece and set Prague apart as a World Heritage City. Luckily the city survived the ravages of World War Ii so most of the buildings you see today are orginals. Highlights include the parliament, the Charles Bridge, the St, Vitus Cathedral, and the city's main square.
Denmark: Roskilde Cathedral. This is Denmark's royal cathedral. It is to the Danish what Westminister Abbey is to the English. Situated in the small city of Roskilde, about thirty kilometers west of Copenhagen, this brick Gothic cathedral was built between the 12th and 13th centuries. Since the 15th century it has been the masoleum of the Danish royal family.
Denmark: Kronborg Castle. A huge fortification that sits at the tip of the strategic straits between Denmark and Sweden, Kronborg is near the town of Helsingor. The castle dates to 1420 when Eric of Pomerania constructed it to demand payment from passing ships. It was rebuilt in 1585 by Frederick II and again in the 1630s by Christian IV after most of it was destroyed by fire. The castle is also famous for the setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Thebes, Egypt. Known for the most famous and largest temples in Egypt those of Luxor and Karnak, this World Heritage Site also includes the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, on the west side of the nile, the burial places for many Egyptian pharoahs. It wasi n this location the Tutankamun's tomb was unearthed by Howard Carter. The temple sites of Luxor and Karnak are huge complexes and famous for their stylized columns that are 130 feet high.
Historic Cairo, Egypt. Although many see a huge, polluted city, Cairo has an ancient historic heart which developed during the 10th century and contains a number of old mosques and covered bazaars. There are also a number of old Coptic Churches that can be found in th old section.
The Pyramids from Giza to Dashur, Egypt. A huge colleciton of the oldest of Egyptian civilizations royal tombs at Saqqara to the largest at Giza along with adjacent burial grounds. Saqqara has the famous step pyramids which look like layer cakes and are exemplary in the evolotion of pyramid building. The ancient mastabas, or tombs, are also well known at this location and there are fewer crowds than at Giza, which is a sprawling, overcrowded suburb south of Cairo.
Abu Simbel, Egypt. A number of monuments in southern Egypt are including as World Heritage Sites. The best known are the Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel and the Sanctuary of Isis Philae, both saved from the rising Nile after the Aswan Dam was completed.
Stonehenge, England. An ancient megalithic monument on the Salisbury Plain is said to be constructed by Druids. It is perhaps the best known of the many megalithic stone munuments found across northwest Europe.
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments, France. Arles, in southern France, has some well-preserved Roman architecture that dates to the 1st century BC - notably the arena, theater, and cryptoporticus. The city is overlaid by later Romansque buildings built when the city was reestablished as a major center in the 12th century. The best example of this period is seen in the walled cloister of Saint-Trophime.
Avignon, France. Details various sites in the town fo Avignon such as the papal palace, the Avignon bridge, and the Romanseque Cathedral. Avignon was the papal seat during the 14th century and the town nicely preserves this ecclesiastical heritage.
Luebeck, Germany. Luebeck is a well-preserved Hanseatic city with architecture that reflects different time periods and the city's maritime heritage. It's most famous for its city gate, a stout, brick gothic structure that symbolizes the city. Founded in the 12th century Luebeck has a unique collection of houses, churches, and monuments that make it a well-deserved World Heritage site.
Buda Castle Quarter, Budapest, Hungary. Overlooking the Danube and the city of Budapest, the castle quarter is the historical seat of Hungary. A number of churches, old government buildings, and monuments can be seen in this district, including the massive parliament building that sits on the banks of the Danube.
Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea. This is a huge palace complex built in the 15th century by the Korean Emperor T'aejong on the northern edge of Seoul. Besides the beautiful architecture the palace grounds are vast and a great place to walk.
Gunung Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia. This park preserves the highest mountain in southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu - a huge granite dome that rises in isolation topping 4000 meters. The mountain can be climbed from the park headquarters which is well equipped to accomodate the hiker as long as some advanced planning is done. The ecosystem in the park runs from tropical montane rain forest, to cloud forest, sub alspine, and bare-walled granite peaks that get snowfall at times. The vertical scale of this mountain is truly unbelievable and there are few peaks in the world that rise so high in complete isolation.
Historic Center, Crakow, Poland. The historic city of Crakow, formerly Poland's royal capital, in southern Poland, has a beautiful arcaded town hall beneath various church spires. This is only the beginning as numerous old streets fan out in all directions. The Jagiellion University, one of the oldest in Europe, and Wawel Castle are within walking distance.
Old Quarter, Lviv, Ukraine. Located in the historic center of Lviv, Ukraine area number of churches and houses that are beautiuflly intact dating from the 16th centruy onwards. They represent different architectural styles that make this city a cross section of historical archicture which Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, neo Classical, and art noveaux. The town center, or Ploscha Rynok is has an Italianate City Hall.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA. Shared by Tennessee and North Carolina this beautiful mountain park is in danger of being loved to death. It is the most visited national park in the United States with 15 million visitors annually. The bio-diversity of the park's flora and fauna is staggering and much of the park is criss-crossed by hiking trails. While roads skirt the edges and drive to the loftiest heights, at Clingmans Dome (6642') , its remains very much a park for the dedicated hiker.
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