Observation #1: A Huge Number
UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place or landmark of an outstanding universal value to humanity. Or to be more specific, it is a place or landmark that meets at least one of the 10 criteria of the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For example, “(i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” or “(vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”.
As explained above, the World Heritage Sites are exclusive and hand-picked. The most logical expectation would be that they are also very rare. But that is not the case. Just a quick glimpse over the map is enough to recognize the abundance of World Heritage Sites. They stretch over the seven continents and the five oceans, too!
Every UNESCO World Heritage Site brings an enormous international prestige to the countries where it is located. No surprise is hidden here. The countries are competing every year to inscribe as many as possible sites in the List, just like they do every four years to win as many as possible gold medals at the Olympiad.
Since the adoption of the Convention for Protection of the World Heritage (November 1972) to this day (March 2020) there are in total 1121 properties of an outstanding universal value. The undisputed winners are Italy and China with both 55 sites in the List. Closely after them is standing Spain with 48 properties, then Germany with 46 properties, then France with 45 properties and so on.
Observation #2: Different Colors
The majority of the sites is marked in orange but there are also lots of them in dark green. Apparently, there are two distinct categories of World Heritage and they are: Cultural (in orange) and Natural (in dark green).
The World Cultural Heritage Sites are individual monuments of culture with their surrounding area, as well as entire towns that represent a historic urban landscape, and even entire countries (but please don’t gasp, it is only the Vatican). All those properties have high historic value and demonstrate unique achievement of humankind. This category is also the home of the archaeological ruins and the prehistoric cave drawings.
If we examine the map further, we would notice that the World Cultural Heritage follows along the coastline of seas and oceans, voyages the great navigable rivers, and outlines the mountain chains. In other words, the World Cultural Heritage tracks the footsteps of the human civilization.
World Natural Heritage Sites, on the other hand, are territories that contain standout physical, biological, or geological features. They also shelter threatened species and protect their respective habitats. These are typically national parks, reserves, botanic gardens or even zoo parks.
Examining the map, it appears that the World Natural Heritage occupies the areas “spared” by the civilization, usually in the interior of the continents. We may also acknowledge that it comprises of vast territories because almost every dark green mark is further away from other marks, such as the Grand Canyon or the steps of Kazakhstan.
It is difficult to spot them, but there are some World Heritage Sites which are marked with a circle half in orange and half in dark green. These properties belong to a third category called World Mixed Heritage. They meet at least one criterion for cultural and one for natural heritage. It is exactly these sites that are rare. They are in total 39, thus difficult to spot. A nearer example of mixed heritage is Ohrid with the Ohrid lake in the Republic of North Macedonia.
World Heritage Emblem
The emblem of the World Heritage is a circle transforming into a square. The square stands for the achievement of the human skill and inspiration, while the circle stands for the gifts of nature. The square remains us for the architecture and the circle – for the planet. It is also round and symbolizes the global protection. As a whole the emblem speaks for the interdependence of the world’s natural and cultural diversity.
Observation #3: Complex Numbering
By looking at the map, do you think that the numbering of the World Heritage Sites is more than confusing? Does it cause a complete disorientation? Probably the answer is yes and the reason is the usage of numbers and letters and their repetition everywhere.
In order to crack the logic behind the numbering you must consider that UNESCO is an agency of the United Nations and thus it is organized primarily by countries. And so, World Heritage Sites are numbered separately country by countries, starting always form number 1 according to the year of inscription. On the reverse side of the map there is an overwhelming table with the list of all sites with their complete names.
And what about the letters? There is a fourth category called World Transnational (sometimes Transboundary) heritage. As the name suggests these are sites that spread over the territory of more than one country. Each Transnational site has a unique mark with letters in order of the alphabet according to the year of inscription: A, B, C … Z, and then AA, AB, AC and so on. The mark is placed in each relevant county.
Observation #4: An Invisible Threat
Under specific circumstances, World Heritage Sites could be removed from the List! They could be de-listed! This is possible if their authenticity or completeness has been compromised for a number of reasons: the lack of maintenance; or large and rapid development of the cities; destruction due to the mass tourism; or the accordance of unexpected natural disasters such as large fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, change of the sea level etc.
If a World Heritage Site faces such threats, it is inscribed in the so-called The List of the World Heritage in Danger.
Despite the vast range of threats, the most common is the destruction due to a local armed conflict. Looking at the map we could verify that the heist concentration of sites in danger is in fact in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Kongo and some other heated spots on the planet.