Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge and plenty more know that the Coliseum, Vatican City and Notre Dame are UNESCO listed but few realise that UNESCO’s remit extends to natural wonders as well as historical ones. In fact, of the 936 World Heritage Sites, 725 are cultural, 183 natural and 28 ‘mixed’. They can be found in 153 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, with Italy boasting the most sites – a whopping 47.
There’s the ancient Inca complex at Macchu Picchu, the rose tinted sandstone of Australia’s Uhuru [Ayers Rock] and the teeming plains of the Serengeti. In Europe, there’s the Acropolis in Athens, the mighty Aachen Cathedral in Germany and the arabesques and curlicues of the Palace of Westminster in good old Blighty. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are an immensely diverse bunch but what they have in common is conservation of the most pioneering kind. And with the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention approaching, UNESCO have launched a book bringing together all 936 in one (hefty) tome. And what a book it is.
The World’s Heritage is essentially a guide to UNESCO listed properties worldwide and boasts some spectacular photography. The shot of the Grand Canyon leaps off the page; the glowing vermillion limestone set against a dusky violet sky. It’s almost shockingly beautiful but it’s not the only one. The white chalky rocks juxtaposed with golden ochre soil at Yellowstone look like they came from the further reaches of Hieronymus Bosch’s imagination, while Australia’s mighty Great Barrier Reef offers a vivid blend of deep cerulean blue and the brightest turquoise. The UK’s own natural wonders and monuments impress too, with Stonehenge rearing darkly out of the verdant Salisbury Plain and Hadrian’s Wall cutting a grey swathe through purple-flowered moorland. Some UNESCO listed properties come as a surprise – the entire city of Bath for instance, and the singularly unlovely Derwent Valley Mills. But as it turns out, there’s a good reason for that: UNESCO is out to protect our intellectual heritage as well.
While the Ironbridge Gorge might not look particularly exciting – particularly when set against Uganda’s magnificent Rwenzori Mountains or the Taj Mahal – it does represent an impressive feat of technological ingenuity and a turning point in history. The eponymous bridge, as the book explains, was the first cast-iron bridge built anywhere in the world, while in the nearby Coalbrookdale, the blast furnaces that drove the Industrial Revolution were developed. Whatever you think of the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, it was inarguably a turning point in history, and that, says UNESCO, is why it deserves protection.
And UNESCO’s powers of protection have proved impressive. In 1968, just prior to the 1972 ratification of the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO raised $80 million from over 50 different countries to save the magnificent Abu Simbel temple complex from a watery grave under Lake Nasser. Piece by piece, the temples of Ramesses the Great and his queen, Nefertari, were moved to higher ground and painstakingly reassembled; preserved for both Egypt and the world. Whatever you think about bucket lists, travel, the UN or indeed, UNESCO itself, the feats of conservation pulled off by the organisation take some beating. That, however, doesn’t mean that some of the sites aren’t still at risk. Along with the national parks of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the wondrous ancient city of Aleppo in Syria and the archaeological site of Jam in Afghanistan, the Galapagos Islands, the first heritage site to make the cut, have been added to UNESCO’s danger list.
If the world were to lose the delicate Galapagos Island eco-systems, it would be a tragedy. Not counting the human cost of wars in the DRC, Syria and Afghanistan, future generations will have much to regret if those countries’ natural and cultural wonders are lost thanks to conflict. As for the rest, UNESCO's pioneering approach to conservation offers plenty of food for thought and much to learn from. But whether you make it to Jordan’s Petra, Ethiopia’s Lalibela or Spain’s Alhambra or not, the presence of UNESCO means that those magical places – the best that nature and humanity has to offer – will be preserved. And even if you don’t go, The World’s Heritage means you can at least take a peek.
The World's Heritage: the best-selling guide to the most extraordinary places by UNESCO (£20, Collins) is available from Amazon
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