World Heritage Sites: The How and Why

A very interesting article about World Heritage sites come into being. And sadly, how the whole system is convoluted and steeped in legalase.

How do you get world heritage status? With neat lawns and tidy paperwork

Germaine Greer

Once upon a time there were Seven Wonders of the World. Now there are 830, and we call them world heritage sites. They have been identified as such by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The sites have to be proposed for inclusion by the government of the country where they are to be found, except in the case of the “Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls”, which was proposed by Jordan. For its proposal to be eligible for consideration, the country must be one of the 183 signatories to the World Heritage Convention – which Saudi Arabia is not, therefore Mecca is not a world heritage site, which rather undermines the whole idea.

In 1978, the first year of the scheme, five nations claimed two world heritage sites each: the United States, the Mesa Verde and Yellowstone National Parks; Canada, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and the Nahanni National Park; Ecuador, the city of Quito and the Galapagos; Ethiopia, Lalibela and the Simien National Park; and Poland, the historic centre of Cracow and the Wieliczka salt mine. Meanwhile, Germany claimed the cathedral at Aachen, and Senegal chose the island of GorĂ©e. In mixing built and natural sites, Unesco intended to build a bridge between the two cultures, and in that laudable aim it has persevered.

Last year, the World Heritage Committee revised its criteria to a single set of 10 convoluted participial phrases, which together make about as much sense as UN-speak usually does. The second of them might serve as an example: a site may be nominated because it is thought “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design”.

The committee in its wisdom has agreed that one place where humans can be shown to have importantly interchanged their values over a span of time is the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. In 2004, it was declared a world heritage site, together with its garden of mown lawns and ranks of bedding plants, because they, “as the main extant survivors of a palace of industry and its setting, together reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement of the 19th and early 20th century. The movement showcased technological innovation and change which helped promote a rapid increase in industrialisation and international trade through the exchange of knowledge and ideas.” Australia now has a building to add to its 15 natural world heritage sites, however jarred we might feel by the contrast between it and the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and Uluru.

Countries seeking inscription of world heritage sites in their territory are required to submit a tentative list. In Australia, there are groups of Aboriginal rock paintings that illustrate an “important interchange of human values”, and others that are possibly the oldest examples of graphic art on this planet, but Australia has offered for consideration two lesser candidates – a group of early convict sites in various states and, inevitably, the Sydney Opera House.

In 1999, Syria submitted a tentative list of 14 proposed sites to add to its current total of five (Damascus, Aleppo, Bosra, Palmyra and Crac des Chevaliers). As part of the “cradle of civilisation”, Syria’s vast heritage is of global importance, and the list is intimidating in its extent and richness: from the Bronze Age sites of Ebla and Mari, which endured until the Imperial Roman era, to the Seleucid cities of Afamia and Dura Europos, to the early Christian monuments of Jebel el’Ala, Djebel Sem’an and Maaloula, to the ancient waterworks on the Orontes, the remains of the kingdom of Ugarit and the fortified town of Qasr al-Hayr ach-Charqi. But after seven years, not one of these sites has been granted world heritage status, even though they seem to be exactly what heritage is about. Their very richness, and the ramifications of their history over millennia, militate against the Syrian government’s being able to put together a cogent application for any one of them.

This would matter more if inscription made a difference. The Syrians are the first to admit that, without international assistance, they can’t maintain the sites that have already been accorded world heritage status. Restoration of ancient sites requires expert technological input and astronomical amounts of money. The remains of Syria’s immense past, uncovered by earlier generations of European and American archaeologists, are now exposed to the elements; as a curator in Bosra said to me once, it might have been better to have left them buried safely in the sand. Misguided attempts at reconstruction have resulted in collapsing floors and walls over spaces no one knew were there. Exposed fragments are eroding away.

If “world heritage” means anything, it should mean that the recovery of human history is not a matter for nation states, but for the international community. Rather than leaving it to the individual governments to struggle to produce the right kind of application couched in the current UN twaddle, together with the detailed maps and inventories demanded by Unesco, and then find funding to keep the sites intact, the survival of human heritage should be a global project. All of Syria could be regarded as a world heritage site. But then, you could say the same of Iraq. We are more likely to obliterate them both than to restore either of them.

Monday November 6, 2006 The Guardian