World Focus

Getting on Unesco's list a cause for celebration or controversy

Status boosts national pride but may also worsen territorial rows

KRAKOW • An antelope habitat, a men-only island and a sacred burial cave are worthy new entrants on the Unesco World Heritage list, but also made headlines for other reasons.

Unesco's heritage committee added 21 new places to its prestigious list last week, sparking jubilation across dozens of countries but also controversy.

Most notably, Israel was outraged over the designation of the ancient city of Hebron in Palestine not just as a world heritage site but as one that is in danger.

It said the decision, hailed as a success by the Palestinians, denied a Jewish claim to an ancient burial cave that is also sacred to Muslims, reported Agence France-Presse.

According to Unesco, listing a site as being in danger alerts the international community to its condition and can incite rapid conservation action.

  • >1,000

    Number of sites, monuments and natural phenomena (that are of "outstanding universal value" to humankind) listed in the world heritage list. It includes treasures such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, India's Taj Mahal and Jordan's archaeological city of Petra.

  • THE 21 SITES

  • 1. Aphrodisias - Turkey

    2. Asmara city - Eritrea

    3. Assumption Cathedral and Monastery of Sviyazhsk - Russia

    4. Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura - Germany

    5. Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town - Palestine

    6. Historic City of Ahmedabad - India

    7. Historic City of Yazd - Iran

    8. Kujataa Greenland - Denmark

    9. Gulangyu - China

    10. Mbanza Kongo - Angola

    11. Okinoshima - Japan

    12. Taputapuatea - France

    13. Tarnowskie Gory Mine - Poland

    14. Sambor Prei Kuk temple - Cambodia

    15. The English Lake District - United Kingdom

    16. Valongo Wharf Archaeological Site - Brazil

    17. Venetian Works of Defence - Croatia, Italy, Montenegro

    18. Khomani Cultural Landscape - South Africa

    19. Landscapes of Dauria - Mongolia, Russia

    20. Los Alerces National Park -Argentina

    21. Qinghai Hoh Xil - China

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the move as "another delusional decision by Unesco", while the United States announced that it would review its ties with the agency.

The World Heritage list includes more than 1,000 sites, monuments and natural phenomena that are of "outstanding universal value" to humankind.

It includes treasures such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal in India,and the archaeological city of Petra in Jordan.

The listing bestows great honour, but also much responsibility on countries where the sites are.

Higher tourist footfall means more revenue and more funds that are available for repairs and conservation, especially since countries can substantially raise entry fees for a site after it gains a Unesco listing.

But large crowds could damage sites.

Humans could also wreak havoc in nature sites lauded for their wildlife.

The first site to be delisted was Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007 after poaching and environmental degradation almost decimated the oryx population.

The newly listed Okinoshima in Japan, for instance, may consider barring visitors other than priests altogether for fear that the island could be "destroyed" by too many visitors, AFP said.

A listing could also wield political power in sites such as China's Hoh Xil nature reserve, a vast plateau that is a key habitat and breeding ground for the Tibetan antelope.

Pro-Tibet activists have warned that its Unesco status may reinforce China's control over the region and lead to the accelerated resettlement of the area's Tibetan herders, AFP added.

Despite these concerns, the heritage status is still an achievement to be proud of and celebrated.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated Ahmedabad's application in 2010, when he was still chief minister of Gujarat, tweeted on July 9 after its listing: "A matter of immense joy for India!"


The Unesco heritage committee added 21 new sites to its World Heritage list last Wednesday. These are some of them:

Palestine: Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town

One of the world's oldest cities, Hebron dates back to the Chalcolithic period, or more than 3000BC.

Pilgrims from the three major religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - visit because it houses the Tomb of Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahami Mosque, which is believed to be the gravesite of the biblical patriarch Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob.

Some 200,000 Palestinians live in the ancient city centre in the occupied West Bank, alongside a few hundred Jewish settlers who are heavily protected by the Israeli military.

According to Unesco, Hebron - which has been conquered by the Romans, Jews, Crusaders and Mamluks - stood "at the crossroads of trade routes for caravans travelling between southern Palestine, Sinai, eastern Jordan and the north of the Arabian Peninsula".

The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
Hebron is home to about 200,000 Palestinians, as well as a few hundred Jewish settlers under protection by the Israeli army. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

 


Mongolia/Russia: Landscapes of Dauria

The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
The landscape, which has different types of steppe and an abundance of lakes and wetlands, is a habitat for rare species of fauna. PHOTO: E. KOKUKHIN

The nature site is an outstanding example of a steppe ecosystem, providing key habitats for rare animals and a resting place for millions of migrating birds.

It covers nearly 1 million ha of the much larger Daurian Steppe eco-region, which extends from eastern Mongolia to Russian Siberia and into north-eastern China.

Cyclical climate changes, the presence of different types of steppe, such as grassland and forest, and the abundance of lakes and wetlands create a diverse habitat for rare species of fauna, such as the white-naped crane, the great bustard and the endangered tarbagan marmot. It is a critical site for what is considered one of the last mass migrations in Central Asia - the journey of Mongolian gazelle in herds of a quarter of a million animals. It is also home to nomadic communities who have been living in the region for nearly 3,000 years and practise traditional grazing methods.


The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
Male worshippers are allowed on the island once a year on May 27 to take part in a centuries-old ritual. PHOTO: WORLD HERITAGE PROMOTION COMMITTEE

Japan: Okinoshima island

Only one man lives on the sacred island: a priest who guards and prays at three Shinto shrines that make up the Munakata Grand Shrine. Male worshippers of the island's goddess are allowed to go there once a year on May 27 to perform a centuries-old ritual that includes stripping naked and taking a dip in the ocean beforehand.

Located 60km off the western coast of Kyushu island, Okinoshima "is an exceptional example of the tradition of worship of a sacred island", said Unesco. "The archaeological sites that have been preserved on the island are virtually intact and provide a chronological record of how the rituals performed there changed from the fourth to the ninth centuries."

Visitors - limited to 200 men this year - can view over 80,000 precious artefacts, including thousands of gold rings left there as offerings by sailors on the trade route between Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula over 1,000 years ago.


The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th century. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

China: Gulangyu island

The historic settlement is famous for its varied architecture and multicultural history.

It was settled by an international community made up of local people, overseas Chinese and foreigners, historian Wu Yongqi told the official Xinhua news agency. "It was a distinct combination and the integration of their cultures made the island unique," he said.

It is nicknamed "piano island" as there are nearly 600 pianos for its 20,000 residents who live in an area less than 2 sq km. Gulangyu has the first piano museum and only organ museum in China, both established by Hu Youyi, an Australian-Chinese pianist and collector, said Xinhua.

Some 10 million visitors visit every year to look at the more than 2,000 well-preserved buildings dating from the mid- to late-19th century, and enjoy its gardens, quaint alleyways and beaches. It is a six-minute ferry ride from Xiamen in south-eastern Fujian province.


The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear.  PHOTO: REUTERS

Cambodia: Sambor Prei Kuk temple

Sambor Prei Kuk temple may be following in the footsteps of its more famous sister temples Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear in getting a Unesco listing, but this 7th-century structure predates, and likely inspired, them.

The "temple in the richness of the forest" in the Khmer language, is located in an area identified as Ishanapura, the capital of the ancient Chenla Empire, a Khmer civilisation that flourished in the late 6th and 7th centuries and preceded the Khmer Empire. The city ruins cover 25 sq km and include a walled city centre as well as numerous temples, 10 of which are octagonal, considered unique in South-east Asia.

According to Unesco, "the art and architecture developed here became models for other parts of the region and lay the ground for the unique Khmer style of the Angkor period".

The temple lies 206km north of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.


The 7th century temple predates and is likely to have inspired other famous Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. A hotel and stately home on Gulangyu island, which has well-preserved buildings that date back to the mid- to late-19th
The city, whose architecture and culture have Muslim, Hindu and Jain influences, is the first Indian city named as a Unesco Heritage site. PHOTO: AMC

India: Walled city of Ahmedabad

The 600-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat province is famed for its sultanate architecture, elegant temple carvings and rich culture inherited from Muslim, Hindu and Jain influences. Named in the early 1400s after Sultan Ahmed Shah, it is the first Indian city to be recognised as a Unesco Heritage site.

Unesco has praised the city's structures, especially "the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the Fort city and numerous mosques and tombs, as well as important Hindu and Jain temples of later periods". According to CNN, the historic quarter's traditional houses and streets, with intricate bird feeders and community wells, celebrate the fusion of Indo-Islamic architecture and art.

Ahmedabad also stands for peace and unity as it was there that Mahatma Gandhi began his fight for freedom from colonial powers. The larger modern metropolis of the city is home to five million people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Getting on Unesco's list a cause for celebration or controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe