The World Heritage Centre Documents World’s Cultural and Natural Treasures
by Mick O’Leary
In 1954, Egypt announced an enormous engineering project: the Aswan High Dam. It was intended to control the annual flooding of the Nile River and to provide hydroelectric power. The dam would create one of the world’s largest reservoirs, extending 300 miles from Aswan in southern Egypt southward into northern Sudan.
The World Heritage Centre
The World Heritage Centre, a UNESCO agency, maintains the World
Heritage List, which identifies more than 1,100 world sites of enduring
cultural and natural value. The center also provides other resources of
interest to the general public and to heritage professionals.
But there was a problem. The area to be submerged contained a vast array of important historical antiquities, including the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, built by the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century B.C. In 1959, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments appealed to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for assistance in preserving this great legacy. UNESCO launched a grand, unprecedented preservation project. Numerous countries provided financial and technical support. Over 20 years, 22 monuments and sites were painstakingly cataloged, dismantled, and reconstructed on higher ground.
The great success of the Aswan project led UNESCO to establish a permanent preservation program: the World Heritage Convention. Adopted in 1972, it provides guidelines and support for identifying and preserving the world’s important cultural and natural heritage sites. In 1992, UNESCO established the World Heritage Centre (whc.unesco.org/en) as the hub for its heritage preservation efforts. There are now 193 member countries that commit to the heritage mission and provide financial support.
THE WORLD HERITAGE LIST
The World Heritage Centre’s largest and best-known project is the World Heritage List (whc.unesco.org/en/list), a catalog of sites of enduring cultural or natural value. The list was started in 1978 with seven entries. Two were from the U.S.: Yellowstone and Mesa Verde national parks. Most recently, 29 sites were added in 2019, bringing the total to 1,121. The U.S. has one entrant for 2019: eight buildings designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The most experienced traveler, or the most knowledgeable historian or geographer, will find the World Heritage List revelatory. For example, the U.S. has 24 sites on the list. It includes iconic places such as the Grand Canyon and Independence Hall. But it also has the Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point and the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, both of which, although unknown even to most Americans, are of deeply significant cultural or natural importance. This pattern continues worldwide. We all know of the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China, but what about the Ilulissat tidal fjord or the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela?
BUILDING THE LIST
World Heritage sites are of three types: Cultural (human-made), Natural, or Mixed, with a large majority—869—being Cultural. Placing a site on the list is a lengthy, complex process, based on 10 criteria of cultural or natural importance. There is a long line: The list of pending applicants includes 1,700 sites from 178 countries.
The selection process has reflected changes in cultural perception. Throughout its existence, the list has been dominated by cultural sites from Western countries. Almost half of the sites are from Europe and North America. Among countries with the most sites, seven of the top 10 are from Europe or North America. Italy and China have the most, with 55, and the U.S., with 24 sites, is tied for 9th place with Iran.
This European emphasis was even stronger in the list’s early years. As a result, in 1994, the World Heritage Centre adopted a strategy to encourage broader inclusiveness. Since then, 54 new countries have joined the World Heritage Convention, the percentage of European sites has dropped, and the proportion of Natural sites (as opposed to Cultural) has risen.
FOR TOURISTS AND TECHNICIANS ALIKE
A World Heritage List entry is a treat both for tourists—whether armchair or on-site—and for technicians, including geographers, environmentalists, resource managers, and land-use planners. Each record has a brief description that explains the distinction and significance of the site and provides the criteria used in its selection. There are appealing graphics, including maps, a gallery of high-quality photographs, and for most entries, a short video. But, be warned about browsing through the World Heritage List: The stories, pictures, and videos will expand your travel bucket list beyond all practical limits.
Being a World Heritage site, however, is much more than a branding opportunity that might attract affluent tourists. Membership obligates the host country—or countries, since some sites transcend national borders—to an ongoing regimen of monitoring the well-being of the site, identifying threats, and carrying out preservation or restoration projects. Each site record has a (sometimes lengthy) set of reports, surveys, and studies that document its oversight.
SITES IN DANGER
As one outcome of this management process, 53 sites have been identified as in danger. They face a variety of threats, including natural disasters and human-caused harm such as pollution, environmental degradation, conflict, overdevelopment, and, sadly, excessive tourism. Most of the endangered sites are in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. has one—Everglades National Park—which is threatened by hydrological degradation and development. To respond to a site threat, the World Heritage Centre’s World Heritage Committee, along with the host country, develops a plan for ending it and contributes financial and technical assistance.
The World Heritage List is the focus of the World Heritage Centre site, but it has numerous other resources for professionals and the public, including the following:
The World Heritage List is a big, beautiful window on the world’s cultural and natural treasures. It’s an armchair tourist’s delight, with its careful curation, fascinating narratives, and stunning graphics. And yet, it also sends the sobering message that—because of conflict, population pressures, environmental degradation, and climate change—these fragile and irreplaceable resources are under relentless threat.
- As a work site for the world’s professional heritage community, it houses a very large collection of policies, guidelines, proposals, deliberations, minutes, and reports (UNESCO is a United Nations agency, after all).
- The World Heritage Centre conducts a great variety of educational and outreach programs, which are announced and cataloged on the site.
- The World Heritage Centre has an extensive publishing program, including magazines, newsletters, reports, studies, and resource materials. Many of these are for general audiences, including kids, and can be downloaded.
- Map enthusiasts can explore with the site’s richly interactive mapping tool.