Women walking toward the Taj Mahal

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention turns 50

Cover Photo: Women walk toward the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

This year, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention celebrated its 50th anniversary. In this article, ELEVATION takes a look back at the history and highlights of the program, which “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

A Primer on UNESCO

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Established shortly after World War II, the agency’s mission is to contribute to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. UNESCO’s headquarters are in Paris, France, and the current Director-General is Frenchwoman, Ms. Audrey Azoulay.

In addition to the UNESCO Heritage Sites program, the agency coordinates and funds activities in the following areas:

  • Research and educational leadership: There are UNESCO chairs at nearly 800 educational institutions.
  • Designation of projects and places of cultural or scientific significance: This includes biosphere reserves, the Global Geoparks Network, and Cities of Literature
  • Facilitation of the free flow of ideas: The agency promotes freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and diversity in the media.
  • Special Events: Among them, World Press Freedom Day and International Literacy Day.
  • Special Projects: The International Council on Science, the Free Software Directory, and Migration Museums are included in this category.

UNESCO rose to prominence in 1960 with its coordinated response leading up to and during the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. The project and the resulting buildup of water behind the dam threatened many ancient sites and monuments, including the significant Abu Simbel temple. The result was the largest archaeological preservation effort in history.

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention

In 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which led to the World Heritage sites program. To receive its designation, a UNESCO World Heritage site must be a unique landmark of exceptional cultural, historical, or scientific significance. There are 1,154 such locations in the world across 167 countries. The United States has 24 World Heritage sites, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and Grand Canyon National Park.

The mission of the World Heritage program includes assisting countries in managing and safeguarding their designated sites, providing emergency assistance to threatened properties, and encouraging local participation and international cooperation.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the program, UNESCO has promoted celebrations throughout the year, with special focus on priority areas including climate change, sustainable tourism, and post-COVID recovery. Additionally, the agency convened “fifty leading, innovative, bold, respected thinkers of our times from diverse disciplines for the most interdisciplinary discussion on World Heritage ever to be held.”

Notable World Heritage Sites Around The World

The list of World Heritage sites, which you can find at this link, includes many of the most recognizable and cherished cultural and natural locations in the world. We list some of our favorites below.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile

Easter Island, known for its giant stone heads (moai), was first settled by Polynesians some 1200 to 1600 years ago. Dutch explorers arrived there on Easter Sunday, 1722, hence the name. UNESCO inscribed the site on the World Heritage list in 1995.

Moai on Easter Island - UNESCO World Heritage site

Angkor, Cambodia

The Khmer Empire ruled over this significant archaeological site from the 9th to 15th centuries and are responsible for the existing monuments. The Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple are situated here. It joined the list in 1992.

Angkor Wat - UNESCO World Heritage site

Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur, Egypt

This site was the capitol of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and includes many tombs, temples and pyramids. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the only one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World that still exists. It became a Heritage site in 1979.

The Pyramids of Giza - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The world’s largest assemblage of coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef joined the list of World Heritage sites in 1981. It spans 348,000 square kilometers and ranges from the shallow Australian coast to ocean areas that are over 6000 feet deep.

Great Barrier Reef

Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, Israel

One of the primary holy sites for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the Old City has existed in this Jerusalem location for more than 1300 years. Within its walls are a plethora of historic monuments including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall, and the Dome of the Rock, as well as the iconic Mahane Yehuda Market (“The Shuk”). It was designated in 1981.

The Old City of Jerusalem - UNESCO World Heritage site

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