The ruins of an ancient city, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and an icy volcanic landscape are officially part of our collective world heritage.
For the past 43 years, representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have met to evaluate which natural and cultural wonders around the globe merit World Heritage status. Icons including the Galápagos Islands, Macchu Picchu, and the Great Barrier Reef are inscribed on the list. Some sites are endangered by threats such as overtourism and climate change.
This year’s meeting of the World Heritage Committee, held in the walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan, added 29 new cultural and natural properties to the list—the largest number of new added sites since 2001—bringing the total to 1,121. Each site meets at least one of 10 cultural and natural criteria, meaning that they are considered to be a biodiversity hot spot, a masterpiece of creative genius, or a traditional human settlement, among other qualities. Azerbaijan had much to celebrate at the meeting; the historic centre of Sheki with the Khan’s Palace was inscribed this year, making it the Eurasian nation’s third World Heritage site.
From one of the world’s oldest and largest aquaculture systems to the ancient tombs of Japan, here are 29 new World Heritage properties and what makes them worth the trip.
Photo by: Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection
This sacred, dusty plain is populated as far as the eye can see with hundreds of Buddhist temples, stupas, pagodas, and monasteries. Look for ornate frescoes and stylistic differences between the temples on your own, with a guide, or from the sky in a hot air balloon at sunrise.
Four Neolithic and Bronze Age sites showcase a significant underground flint axe-making centre—one of the most comprehensive prehistoric flint mining networks identified to date.
These prehistoric cave dwellings, granaries, cisterns, and temples are thought to belong to a star and “Mother Earth” cult. The site is proof that the largest of the Canary Islands was inhabited by a culture that predated the ancestors of modern-day Spaniards.
Clockwise from top left: Krzemionki, Poland; Risco Caido , Spain; Babylon, Iraq; Mafra, Portugal. Photo By: Dominika Zarzycka, Alamy; Photo courtesy: Orlando Torres, UNESCO; Photos by: Hussein Faleh, AFP, Getty Images; Alberto Novo, Getty Images
This ornate Italian baroque palace and gardens showcase the opulence and power of Portugal in the early 18th century.
Gates, statues, temples, and a theatre are just some of the remaining evidence of the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The same ancient city is credited with engineering the mythical Hanging Gardens, described by the ancient Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Photo by: Reza, Getty Images
The city of Sheki was an important hub along historic trade routes, and its architecture reflects the wealth generated by the silk trade in the 1700s.
The terraced vines of this lush rural landscape are evidence of centuries of agriculture, and remain dedicated to Prosecco viticulture today.
Nearly 12,000 ancient burial mounds undulate through western Bahrain, evidence of an elaborate burial tradition used for royalty and commoners alike for more than 300 years.
Clockwise from top left: Burial mounds, Bahrain; Kladruby nad Labem, Czech Republic; Pskov, Russia; Prosecco vineyards, Italy. Photos by: John Elk Iii, Alamy Stock Photo; CTK, Alamy; Kroshanosha, Getty Images; Photo courtesy: Arcangelo Piai, UNESCO
Five centuries of Russian architecture owe a debt to the northwestern city of Pskov. Its dome-topped buildings and cubic frames—visible today in churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and towers dating to the 15th and 16th centuries—are exemplary evidence of one of the foremost architectural schools in Russia.
For 440 years, this site has been a breeding ground and training site for kladruber draft horses used by the imperial court. “It’s one of Europe’s leading horse-breeding institutions, developed at a time when horses played vital roles in transport, agriculture, military support and aristocratic representation,” according to UNESCO.
Photo by: Li Bo Xinhua, Eyevine, Redux
Along the Yellow Sea’s Bohai Gulf, this intertidal mudflat system is the largest in the world and features swaths of shallow, nutrient- and fish-rich waters. The land supports massive gatherings of nesting, resting, and moulting migratory birds such as the rare red-crowned and white-naped cranes, reed parrotbills, and the spoon-billed sandpiper.
The fortified “pink city” and present-day capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur was built in 1729 and is believed to be the first planned city in India. The buildings’ colours and facades are cohesive; the city was built on a grid layout designed according to Vedic architectural principles; and its different districts reference traditional Hindu concepts.
The spiritual sandstone carvings of the Blackfoot (Siksikáíítsitapi) people are peppered across hoodoo rock columns in the Milk River Valley, the Great Plains landscape near Canada’s border with the United States.
Nine neo-Confucian academic buildings, or seowon, were built between the 15th and 19th centuries into natural landscapes. The design was intended to teach students respect for nature, and the importance of the mind and physical self.
Clockwise from top left: Sawahlunto, Indonesia; Augsburg, Germany; Seowon, South Korea; Great Plains, Canada. Photos by: Afriadi Hikmal, Alamy; Nemo1963, Getty Images; Busan Drone, Alamy; Michael Wheatley, Alamy Stock Photo
This 19th-century colonial mining town in the jungles of Indonesia was the first coal mine in Southeast Asia. Visitors can see deserted railroads, explore a mining museum to learn about the history of the company and tools that were used, and discover how the lucrative industry transformed the area into a population centre.
Canals, water towers, fountains, and hydroelectric stations illustrate the innovative evolution of this city’s water management system over the past 700 years.
Photo by: Yadid Levy, Anzenberger, Redux
The charming coastal town of Paraty served as the terminus of the Caminho do Ouro (Gold Route), along which the precious metal was shipped to Europe in the 17th century. Not only has the city preserved buildings dating to the 18th century, it also borders one of the world’s five key biodiversity hotspots that shelter jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and woolly spider monkeys.
This property houses one of the world’s leading radio astronomy observatories, first used in 1945 and still in operation today. Scientific studies conducted here have advanced our understanding of meteors, the moon, quantum optics, and spacecraft tracking. The site qualified for four of the 10 selection criteria—the most of any newly inscribed site this year.
These elaborate earthen tombs were built into shapes like scallops, squares, and keyholes and filled with armour and clay sculptures. The tombs represent the funerary tradition for elite members of the Japanese Kofun period from the third to sixth centuries, and demonstrate a hierarchical society.
Clockwise from top left: Jodrell Bank Observatory, Great Britain; Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group, Japan; Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří Mining Region, Germany and Czech Republic; Plain of Jars, Laos. Photo by: Jon Super, AP Images; Photo courtesy: Sakai City Government, UNESCO; Photo courtesy: Jan Albrecht, UNESCO; Photo by: Elnavegante, Getty Images
Nearly two dozen sites across two countries—from mining towns to forested shaft depressions to underground caverns—showcase a mining culture and history that influenced the course of medieval Europe. The Ore Mountain landscape was the most important source of silver ore for the continent between 1460 and 1560, and in subsequent years, the area produced tin and uranium.
In northern Laos, more than 2,000 peculiar stone jars—thought to be used in funerary practices for over a thousand years—dot a forested plain. The shards, lids, tombstones, and tubular jars are the most substantial surviving evidence of the Iron Age civilization that created them.
Photo by: Max Galli, Laif, Redux
This majestic national park includes 10 central volcanoes and covers nearly 14 per cent of Iceland’s territory. Visitors can explore geological wonders during glacier hikes, ice cave tours, and jeep rides.
Eight buildings across the U.S. typify “organic architecture” designed by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The only designation for the U.S. this year comes despite its withdrawal from UNESCO at the end of last year.
The slopes of this small mountain overlooking the town of Braga in Portugal’s far north is a Baroque-style Catholic sacri monti, or sacred mountain, built over a period of 600 years.
Clockwise from top left: Braga, Portugal; Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Australia; U.S.A., Hyrcanian forests, Iran. Photo by: Luis Costa, Getty Images, Rodney Dekker, Country Needs People; Angelo Hornak, Corbis, Getty Images; Photo courtesy: Fariba Babaei, UNESCO
These truly ancient forests along the southern reaches of the Caspian Sea have stood 25 to 50 million years. The landscape is home to 180 species of birds and 58 species of mammals, including the vulnerable Persian leopard.
For 6,000 years, wetlands, a lake, and volcanic channels formed by ancient lava flows have helped the Gunditjamara people of southwest Australia trap, store, and harvest eels. It’s one of the oldest and largest aquaculture systems on the planet. Three of the Indigenous Protected Areas within the site are monitored by the Budj Bim Indigenous Rangers.
Several archipelagos in the remote reaches of the southern Indian Ocean form a refuge for one of the highest concentrations of birds (notably king penguins and yellow-nosed albatross) and marine mammals on Earth.
Burkina Faso (left); Liangzhu City, China (top right); French Austral Land and Seas, France (bottom right). Photo courtesy: Sébastien Moriset, UNESCO; Photo by: Xinhua, Wang Dingchang, Alamy; AFP, Getty Images
The lost ancient civilization of Liangzhu, the last Neolithic jade society along the Yangzte River in eastern China, left behind burial sites and evidence of urban planning, including a water conservation system. DNA studies from some of the burial sites suggest the area may have been one of several different human migratory routes, populating the area with diverse but distinct cultures.
Early mines and earthen blacksmith tower furnaces in five locations date back nearly three millennia, and showcase the significance of metal-working in the region.
Meghan Miner Murray
is a contributing researcher for National Geographic Traveler (U.S.A.), a freelance writer, and a scuba guide based on Hawaii Island.
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