In 1954, the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations. Despite opposition from Eygpt and Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece. At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures and hopefully never again will something magnificent like the Colosseum of Rome or the Parthenon of Athens be torn down and destroyed by following generations of rebuilders.
Building on this international success the United States then came up with the idea of combining cultural conservation with nature conservation and a White House conference in 1965 called for a World Heritage Trust to preserve ‘the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.’ The International Union for Conservation of Nature developed similar proposals in 1968 and they were presented in 1972 to the United Nations conference on Human Environment in Stockholm. A single text was agreed and the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16th November 1972.
Today there are eight hundred and seventy-eight listed sites and it isn’t easy to get on the list and to do so a nomination must satisfy impressively difficult criteria which in summary consist of culutral criteria:
to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; to exhibit an important interchange of human values; to bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition; to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or landscape; to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement; to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance,
and natural criteria:
to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; to be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth’s history, to be outstanding examples representing significant ecological and biological processes; to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-site conservation of biological diversity.
It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed costas with concrete condominiums, marinas and golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list.
On every visit to Spain I seem to be visiting a World Heritage Site so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that I have been to twenty and that is nearly half of them. In 2005 I visited Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi and Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Córdoba, the Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville. In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities I visited the Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct, the Historic Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila.
Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays, although when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list. In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture. The following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007. I have also visited Benidorm but for some reason that doesn’t yet seem to have made the list.
Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious but anyway here goes. In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostella I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.
Next time I go to Spain I am going to pay more attention and see how many more I can visit.
Turning for a moment to Greece it will surprise no one that the Acropolis and the island of Delos are both on the list but due to mistakes made in submitting the application form by the Greek Ministry of Culture in 2005 then for the time being Knossos is not there. Everyone is accusing everyone else for this mistake and the Prefect of Iraklion blamed both the Ministry and UNESCO for leaving Knossos off the updated list of World Heritage Sites in 2006. I am surprised that a site that important even has to bother with an application.