UNESCO spotlights 936 world heritage sites

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Pyramid of the Magician at the Uxmal archaeological site, Mexico.

India's Taj Mahal is one. So are the two half-mile-high volcanic peaks on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Ditto for the iconic Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, the Acropolis, the Grand Canyon and 929 other sites in 153 countries around the globe.

Iconic lions welcome visitors to the sacred Greek island of Delos.They're known as “world heritage sites,” meaning these places have been found to have “outstanding universal value to humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. Further, the heritage designation – which provides a big boost for tourism – means that
the sites' home countries have pledged to protect them for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

You'll be hearing a lot about all this in 2012 during a year-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the UNESCO convention that created the heritage project in 1972. On tap are all kinds of events, conferences, workshops and exhibits to be staged in the member countries (technically, they're called “states-parties”). The celebration's opening ceremony will be on Jan. 30 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

An ancient cannon guards the walls of Campeche, Mexico.UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stressed the need to involve all stakeholders in the anniversary, whose theme is “World Heritage and Sustainable Development: The Role of Local Communities.”

Any of the convention's 188 member states-parties can propose heritage sites if they meet at least one of the organization's 10 selection criteria. Included are cultural criteria such as a property that “reflects a masterpiece of human creative genius” and a natural category such as a place with “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.”

Proposed new sites go through a lengthy process of evaluations, reviews and finally recommendations to a selection committee, which meets once a year to approve additions to the list of worldwide heritage sites.

Twenty-five new properties were OK'd in 2011, ranging from the ancient villages of northern Syria to southern Jordan's 183,000-acre Wadi Rum desert landscape. (The latter was used for the famous scenes of Arab armies on the move in the film, “Lawrence of Arabia.”)

At present, the United States has 21 approved heritage sites including the Statue of Liberty and a number of national parks such as Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, Yellowstone (mainly in Wyoming), the Florida Everglades and the Hawaii Volcanoes Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In neighboring countries, Canada has 15 sites including the Historic District of Old Quebec and Dinosaur Provincial Park in the badlands of Alberta. Among Mexico's 31 sites are the historic areas of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and the fortified city of Campeche, along with numerous archaeological sites such as those at Chichen Itza, Monte Alban, Teotihuacan, Palenque and El Tajin.  

More information: Check out the UNESCO World Heritage site at whc.unesco.org.

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