If you've ever scrolled through social media and seen a friend posing proudly at Machu Picchu or the Egyptian pyramids, you've witnessed the majesty of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to National Geographic, the impressive designation is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s "stamp of approval that brings prestige, tourist income, public awareness, and, most important, a commitment to save the irreplaceable."
The tradition started in November 1972 when the organization, born in the aftermath of World War II to help establish the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind," adopted a treaty known as the World Heritage Convention to identify cultural and natural properties of "outstanding universal value." But the classification isn't just an honorary award: World Heritage status means a site's home nation is responsible for protecting it. If a site loses value due to natural disaster, war, pollution or lack of funds, nations that signed the treaty are obligated to help out, and set up emergency aid campaigns if possible.
According to UNESCO's website, sites "must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria" to be included on the World Heritage List. That means potential sites better do one or more of the things below:
- Represent "a masterpiece of human creative genius";
- Exhibit "an important interchange of human values" in areas including architecture, technology, art, town-planning, or landscape design;
- Possess a unique "or at least exceptional" testimony to a past or present cultural tradition or civilization;
- Be some kind of building or landscape that represents a significant stage in human history;
- Be an outstanding example of "a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment;
- Be linked to universally significant artistic or literary events, traditions, ideas, or beliefs;
- Contain "superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance";
- Be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth's history;
- Be representative of significant ongoing ecological and biological processes;
- Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for "in-situ conservation of biological diversity."
The German cathedral located in the eastern part of the Thuringian Basin, was originally built in 1028. Its 13th-century West Choir represents changes in religious practice and the introduction of science and nature into the arts. The choir and life-size sculptures of the founders of the cathedral are masterpieces of the workshop known as the "Naumburg Master."
Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region
The 12 components of this site located in the northwestern part of Kyushu island, Japan, are made up of 10 villages, Hara Castle and a cathedral, built between the 16th and 19th centuries. Together they reflect the earliest activities of Christian missionaries and settlers in Japan, and their unique cultural tradition in the Nagasaki region during the period of Christian prohibition from the 17th to the 19th century.
Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains
The northeastern South African site makes up 40 percent of the Barberton Greenstone Belt, one of the world's oldest geological structures. The area also represents the best-preserved ecology of volcanic and sedimentary rock dating back 3.6 to 3.25 billion years. That's when the first continents were just beginning to form.
Found in southwest China's Wuling mountain range in Guizhou Province, this site ranges in altitude between 1,640 feet (500 meters) and 8,431 feet (2,570 meters) above sea level and is home to a diverse array of plant and animal species. It is an island of metamorphic rock, which originated in the Tertiary Period, between 65 million and 2 million years ago. The site's isolation has created a biodiversity of endemic species, including the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus brelichi), and endangered species, such as the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus), the Forest Musk Deer (Moschus berezovskii) and Reeve's pheasant (Syrmaticus reevesii).
The name of this Canadian site translates to "The Land That Gives Life" and makes up part of the ancestral home of the indigenous Anishinaabeg people who lived from fishing, hunting and gathering. The area represents an exceptional example of the cultural tradition of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan ("keeping the land"), which honors all forms of life and maintains harmonious relations with others.