The World Heritage Committee is currently meeting in Bonn (28 June to 8 July) to consider nominations for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In addition, UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova has confirmed that UNESCO is entering into a contract for satellite monitoring of sites at risk of looting and destruction.
At the opening of the meeting on 28 June, an appeal was made for the international community to counter the new threat of violent extremism and cultural cleansing.
However, even in the days following this appeal we have heard of the destruction by ISIS of a 2,000-year-old statue of a lion outside the museum in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria’s antiquities director is reported as saying that the statue had been covered with a metal plate and sandbags to protect it from fighting, “but we never imagined that IS would come to the town to destroy it.” Isis captured Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, from government forces on 21 May, prompting international concern about the fate of the city’s antiquities. Abdelkarim went on to say that “It’s the most serious crime they have committed against Palmyra’s heritage.”
On 3 July the World Heritage Committee inscribed three new cultural sites on the World Heritage List: Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale in Italy; Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (Al-Maghtas) in Jordan and Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia. Thirty-six sites in total were nominated for inscription on the List at this year’s session, and the Bonn meeting will be considering them all between now and 8 July. They include natural sites in South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, Viet Nam and Mongolia/Russia. Cultural sites which are being considered for the List are more numerous and include such diverse sites as the Forth Bridge in the UK, Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia, sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining, Baekje Historic Areas in the Republic of Korea, Bet She’arim Necropolis in Israel, Fray Bentos Cultural-Industrial Landscape in Uruguay, Tusi sites in China, Ephesus in Turkey and Viking Age Sites in Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Latvia and Norway.
Ephesus, the ancient Roman harbour city in Turkey which is home to the ruined temple of Artemis and is one of the original seven wonders of the world, has been seeking inscription on the List for 22 years and might therefore be seen as indicating the exacting standards set by UNESCO. The Mayor of nearby Selçuk has described the efforts made by the Culture and Tourism Ministry, municipality, museum and the excavation team, as well as academics, to comply with the requirements for inscription.
However, at the same time that new sites are being considered for inclusion on the List, UNESCO is facing increased criticism for its failure to protect those sites already inscribed, and, indeed, contributing through the very fact of inscription, to their destruction by reason of the greatly increased tourism which results. In the words of the Guardian: “Where Unesco treads, the tourist bulldozer is sure to follow.” For example, it was reported two years ago that “The unbridled eruption of towers along London’s South Bank, from the thicket of stumps emerging in Vauxhall and Nine Elms to the steroidal plans for the Shell Centre and Elizabeth House in Waterloo” had led UNESCO to issue a warning that the Palace of Westminster could join 48 other sites around the world on the endangered list (the most recent being Hatra in Iraq which was placed on the endangered list on 1 July at the Bonn meeting). Inclusion on this list would be the first step in the removal of coveted international heritage status and, after intense lobbying from the UK Ambassador to UNESCO, the proposal was dropped. Beijing’s Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China are both now at considerable risk following their inscription, and it is reported that the pressure of more than two million annual visitors to Angkor Wat in Cambodia has turned the nearby town of Siem Reap into a mini Las Vegas. However, removal from the List is a very rarely exercised option and only two sites have in fact been removed: in 2007 an antelope conservation sanctuary in Oman was removed after the government slashed the park’s size by 90%; and in 2009 UNESCO decided that the magnificent prospect of baroque palaces in the German city of Dresden had been destroyed by a new bridge and the city was deleted from the List.