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World Heritage legacy

July 8, 2012

The Great Barrier Reef, the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu are all UNESCO World Heritage sites. The 37 sites found in Germany are now part of a DW feature.


Mayors, residents and environmentalists cheered for monuments around the world at the end of June when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee met in St. Petersburg to decide which new sites should be included on the World Heritage List. Twenty-six sites received the honor - including the Baroque Margrave Opera House in Bayreuth, which became Germany's 37th World Heritage site.

The new DW multimedia project “Path to World Heritage” shines a new light on the amazing treasures of German culture and nature. There are eight different interactive routes by which to discover the German World Heritage sites. Videos, photo galleries, essays and interviews take you from the old town of Stralsund to the Völklingen steel mill, from the Wieskirche to the Wattenmeer.

Of international importance

There are now 961 monuments in 157 countries on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. UNESCO ensures that all of these locations posses “outstanding universal significance” and must be superb, unique and exceptional. “The site must also be important outside of the country,” said Dieter Offenhäusser from the German Commission for UNESCO.

UNESCO divides sites into two categories: culture and nature. The Cologne cathedral, the Great Wall of China, and the old town of Marrakech are all examples of cultural assets. City ensembles, industrial monuments and works of art such as cave paintings are also considered cultural assets. Included among the list of natural treasures are landscapes, reserves or geological formations - like the Wattenmeer, Victoria Falls and Yellowstone National Park.

Deutschland entdecken, Weltkulturerbe, Wieskirche - Wallfahrtskirche zum Pilgrimage Church of Wies was designed in rococo
Pilgrimage Church of Wies was designed in rococo style in the 18th centuryImage: DW / Nelioubin

A dam brought the world to action

The trigger for establishing the World Heritage Committee came in the 1960s when the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan Dam. The construction of the dam would subsequently sink the thousand year old temple of Abu Simbel under water. But the world protested. In March 1960, two months after construction began, UNESCO launched a spectacular rescue mission. In a race against time and tide, they collected $80 million to relocate 24 monuments and buildings to higher ground.

In 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was approved and stated that "cultural and natural heritage is increasingly threatened with destruction." In order to counter this decline, UNESCO introduced the World Heritage list. “The main idea is that there are places that are so valuable to mankind that their fate should not be left up to individual countries,” said Offenhäusser.

In 1978, the first 12 sites were announced, including the Aachen Cathedral in central-western Germany.

Stralsund is located on the north-eastern coast of GermanyImage: DW/Maksim Nelioubin

The tango - a global legacy

Over time, UNESCO has launched a number of programs. Today, valuable manuscripts and sound and film recordings are also recognized as World Heritage items. Even a dance - the tango - has managed to receive a title from UNESCO: dances, customs and traditional craftsmanship are distinguished by the committee as intangible cultural heritage.

Germanycompetes every year to make it on the new list of candidates, and there are always more proposals than can be accepted. “There is something magical about a World Heritage site,” said Dieter Offenhäusser. “The site is part of an internationally recognized program, but it is also right at your doorstep.”

This prestige motivates countries to complete the lengthy and complex application process. Of course a world heritage title also attracts more tourists, bringing an economic benefit with it. “Suddenly these places are in almost every guide book,” said Offenhäusser.

But the titles are not without controversy. European sites are over-represented; they make up more than half of all World Heritage sites. Only a quarter of the sites are located in developing countries. Poorer countries are sometimes unable to submit an application for a monument because they lack the financial means.

Dresden's Elbe Valley
Dresden's Elbe Valley lost it's World Heritage statusImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Even a withdrawal is possible

A UNESCO World Heritage status can also be withdrawn. So far, two sites have been removed from the list: the Oryx game reserve in Oman and the Dresden Elbe Valley.

Omanprefers to extract oil rather than protect the rare type of antelope that list on the Oryx game reserve.  

In Germany, the withdrawal was less voluntary: Dresden decided to build a four-lane bridge across the Elbe River. UNESCO said the bridge would destroy the valley's cultural landscape and threatened to withdraw the World Heritage status. An argument ensued. Cultural figures like writers Günter Grass and Martin Walser got involved, saying they saw Germany's reputation as a cultured nation at risk.

But the residents of Dresden decided in favor of the bridge, which they affirmed in a referendum and the UNESCO title was revoked in 2009.

Author: Anja Koch / hc
Editor: Kate Bowen

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