Once a year, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets to support endangered world cultural heritage. The long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites now includes 1,121 cultural monuments and natural sites, in 167 different countries. Here are some of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites for archaeology enthusiasts.
What are UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
The concept of World Heritage began within the UN following the two world wars. The idea arose to grant unique objects and areas worldwide protection. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a cultural monument that is so valuable that it is a concern for all of humanity. These sites have witnessed the history of the earth and humans in a completely unique way; they are something so priceless that they need to be protected and preserved for the future.
1. Petra, Jordan
Petra is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and is “the most wonderful place in the world,” according to Lawrence of Arabia. Carved from the rose-red stone of southwestern Jordan, Petra has fascinated archaeologists, writers, and travelers from all over the world since its rediscovery in 1812. The site was the capital of the Nabatean Empire and functioned as an important trading center along the Incense Route.
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Even getting to Petra is an experience: the city can only be reached through the Siq, a deep and narrow gorge over a kilometer long. At the end of it is one of the most famous and impressive buildings in the rock city — the so-called “Pharaoh’s Treasure House” (contrary to its name, this was the tomb of a king of the Nabataeans).
Any archaeologists that were inspired to pursue their career because of Indiana Jones should visit Petra, which was the backdrop for Harrison Ford’s adventures in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Only about 20% of this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been excavated, so there is plenty more to be found there.
2. Archaeological Site of Troy, Turkey
Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey made Troy a famous place of pilgrimage even in antiquity. Alexander the Great, the Persian king Xerxes, and many others are said to have visited the ruins of the city. The location of Troy was forgotten, but in 1870 the German merchant Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of the famous city, which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of Schliemann’s most famous discoveries was a hoard of gold, silver, and many items of jewelry. He called this “Priam’s Treasure”, though it is not clear whether it actually belonged to the ruler of Troy. Schliemann brought this hoard and many other treasures back to Germany. It was exhibited in Berlin until the Second World War, and the Russians took it with them after the end of the war. Parts are exhibited today in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but much of the treasure has disappeared.
3. Nubian Monuments, from Abu Simbel to Philae, Egypt
Abu Simbel is located about 174 miles southwest of Aswan and about 62 miles away from the Sudanese border. In the 13th century BCE, Pharaoh Ramesses II commissioned a number of gigantic construction projects, including the temples of Abu Simbel, the tomb of the Ramesseum in Thebes, and the new capital of Pi-Ramesses in the Nile Delta. These sites were covered by sand over the course of time.
When the Swiss researcher Johann Ludwig Burckhardt allowed a local guide to lead him to a site in Abu Simbel in 1813, he discovered another architectural monument by chance — the remains of the temples of Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari. The Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni began excavating the temple in 1817. The large temple was not completely uncovered until 1909.
In the early 1960s, the world-famous temple complex in Abu Simbel was on the verge of flooding as a result of the Aswan High Dam project. In an unprecedented operation by UNESCO, in which over 50 nations were involved, the site was rescued. UNESCO Secretary General Vittorino Veronese appealed to the world’s conscience in a message that captured the essence of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s mission:
“These monuments, whose loss may be tragically near, do not belong solely to the countries who hold them in trust. The whole world has the right to see them endure.”
4. Angkor, Cambodia
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II, who ruled the powerful Khmer Empire until 1150. Built as a Hindu place of worship and dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the late 13th century. It was first visited by a Western traveler in the late 16th century.
The temple complexes near Siem Reap are often, but incorrectly, called Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, however, is a particular temple in the larger complex. The temple is absolutely symmetrical. It has five towers, the highest of which represents the center of the world, Mount Meru. King Suryvarman II dedicated the temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, with whom he himself identified.
Angkor Wat is only a part of the extensive complex, and many of the other temples are just as impressive: the Ta Prohm temple, overgrown by the jungle; the somewhat secluded Bantei Srei temple; and the famous faces of the centrally located Bayon Temple. Ta Prohm is also popularly known because it was used as a film set in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie.
5. Rapa Nui National Park, Chile
Easter Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that belongs to Chile but it is quite far away from the country. The island chain is located in the middle of the South Pacific, east of Tahiti, and southwest of the Galapagos Islands. This is one of the most isolated places on Earth; the nearest inhabited land is the island of Pitcairn, over 1,000 miles away. Nevertheless, humans once lived in this remote location, leaving a cultural legacy that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Research today suggests that Easter Island was settled by migrating Polynesians from around 500 CE. With the help of modern genetic studies, it has been proven that bones found on the island are of Polynesian and not South American ancestry. Rapa Nui is best known for its stone statues, called moai, scattered around the island. Today there are 887 stone statues, some of them over 30 feet tall. Over the course of the island’s history, ten different tribes took over and controlled a different region of the island. Each tribe built large moai figures out of volcanic rock, possibly to honor their ancestors. However, there are still plenty of mysteries surrounding the enigmatic statues and the people who erected them.
The island got its name from Dutchman Jakob Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722. While the European colonial nations showed little interest in the small barren island in the middle of the Pacific, Chile annexed Rapa Nui in the course of its expansion in 1888. The island was intended to be used as a naval base.
6. Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, China
When simple Chinese farmers built a well in the Shaanxi province in 1974, they had no idea of the sensational archaeology that they would find. After only a few cuts with their spades, they came across the famous tomb of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi (259 – 210 BCE). Archaeologists arrived immediately to begin excavations and came across the world-famous red-brown terracotta army, the guards of the imperial burial chamber.
Today it is estimated that the emperor was surrounded by around 8,000 terracotta figures. Some 2000 have already been brought to light, no two of which are the same in appearance. It had been the life work of Qin to unite the existing kingdoms into a single Chinese Empire in lengthy campaigns. But there was more to his grave than symbols of military might. He had ministers, carriages, acrobats, landscapes with animals, and much more surrounding his tomb.
The terracotta army is only a small part of what exists below ground. It is believed that the burial landscape consists of a completely reconstructed imperial court that extends over a length of 112 miles. Around 700,000 people worked for four decades to build this underground world. Only a tiny fraction of the area of the grave landscape near Xi’an has been studied, and the excavations there will take decades to complete.
7. Mesa Verde National Park, USA
Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwestern part of the state of Colorado, protects around 4,000 archaeological sites. The most impressive of these are the rock dwellings from the 13th century CE Anasazi tribes. The site is located on a table mountain 8,500 feet up.
The rock dwellings on the “Green Table Mountain” date from around 800 years ago, but the area was settled much earlier by the Anasazi tribes. Initially, the people lived in so-called mine dwellings, spread across small villages. But over time they refined their skills and gradually moved into these unique rock dwellings.
Around 600 of these rock dwellings can be found throughout the national park. The largest is the so-called Cliff Palace. It contains 200 rooms with around 30 fireplaces, all carved from the solid rock of the mountain. Mesa-Verde National Park was only the second park in the USA to receive UNESCO World Heritage status after Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.
8. Tikal National Park, Guatemala
Tikal is a major Mayan complex located in the Petén–Veracruz rainforests of northern Guatemala. It is considered to be one of the largest and most powerful Mayan capitals of its time. The first signs of settlement can be traced back to the 1st century BCE, but the city enjoyed the height of its power from the 3rd to 9th centuries CE. During this time, the small state subjugated all surrounding kingdoms, including its eternal rival, the Calakmul. By the 10th century, the city was completely deserted, but the reasons for this rapid decline are still hotly debated among archaeologists.
The dimensions of this Mayan city are immense. The entire area extends over 40 square miles, of which the central area takes up around 10 square miles. This area alone has over 3,000 buildings, and in total, the city might have had over 10,000 structures. The latest estimates have shown that almost 50,000 people settled in the city during its heyday and another 150,000 people could have lived in the vicinity of the metropolis.
The center of the city is known today as the “Great Square” which is framed by the north acropolis (probably the seat of power of the city’s rulers) and two temple-pyramids. Tikal is also known for its many elaborately decorated steles, on which the history of the city, its rulers, and its gods are depicted. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was rediscovered by Europeans in the 19th century and has been the subject of intensive research ever since.
9. Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata
The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE was devastating. Two eruptions suddenly and permanently ended life in the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. From today’s perspective, this catastrophe is a godsend for archaeology, as the volcanic eruption preserved a snapshot of everyday Roman life in the two cities.
In ancient times, Pompeii was considered a wealthy city. Located on a small plateau about six miles south of Vesuvius, the residents had a delightful view of the Gulf of Naples. The Sarno River flows into the sea at the gates of the fortress-like city wall. A busy port emerged there, with ships arriving from Greece, Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Papyrus, spices, dried fruit, and ceramics were exchanged for wine, grain, and the expensive fish sauce Garum from the region.
Despite numerous warning signs, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE came as a surprise to many. Black smoke drifted toward the city, the sky darkened, and ash and pumice began to rain. Panic spread. Some fled, others sought refuge in their homes. About a third of the population was killed in this eruption; some people suffocated from sulphuric fumes, others were killed by falling rocks or buried under the pyroclastic flow. Pompeii was hidden under an 80-foot-thick layer of ash and rubble for over 1500 years.
10. Brú na Bóinne, Ireland
The Irish Brú na Bóinne is often translated as the bend of the River Boyne, an area that was settled by humans over 5,000 years ago. It features a prehistoric grave complex that is older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. The complex has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.
The heart of the protected area is Newgrange. This stunning tomb has a diameter of just under 300 feet and has been reconstructed with white quartzite and monumental blocks. It is surrounded by over forty satellite graves. A unique feature of this structure is its box window above the entrance, about the size of a television screen, around 5-10 feet above the floor. Even after more than 5,000 years, every year on the Winter Solstice a beam of light shines right into the interior of the grave through this gap.
The Dowth and Knowth tombs are slightly younger than Newgrange but are just as impressive because of their detailed rock carvings. The area was also later the scene of important events in Irish history. For example, Saint Patrick is said to have lit the first Easter bonfire on the nearby hill of Slane in 433 CE. At the beginning of July 1690, the momentous Battle of the Boyne took place near Rossnaree, north of Brú na Bóinne.
The Future of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The UNESCO World Heritage List is intended to reflect the diversity of cultural heritage in the peoples of the world, and the richness of their history on all continents. New UNESCO World Heritage Sites are regularly added. UNESCO recognizes the cultures of the world as having equal status, which is why the most important testimonies of all cultures should be represented in a balanced way on the World Heritage List.