From China to Micronesia, the 2016 UNESCO World Heritage Site list was extensive and varied, providing protection and prestige to cultural and natural sites around the world. It's easy to get a little overwhelmed by all of the numerous beautiful sights our world has to offer - so we’ve given you the low-down on five of the newest additions to the list.
1. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq
Described by UNESCO as a “refuge of biodiversity and the relict landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities,” the Ahwar of Southern Iraq is made up of four wetland marshes and three separate archaeological sites. The aquatic landscape is striking amongst the otherwise barren desert, providing a home for the local population of Marsh Arabs, known as the Maʻdān, whose civilisation dates back 5000 years. Their culture draws strongly on their surrounding natural resources, living in reed houses that can often only be reached by boat.
Photo Credit: Flickr | Salim Virji
The marshes hold a lot of history in their waters: in the 1950s, the Iraqi government started draining the areas for farming purposes and later for oil extortion. Forty years later, Saddam Hussein built extensive dams and drains in an attempt to chase out those persecuted under his regime. This was both an ecological and cultural disaster, draining the area of its natural resources and thereby harming both the wildlife and the human population.
In 2003, the marshes had been reduced to about 10% of their original size, with only a few thousand Maʻdān remaining. Since then, however, the future has looked a lot brighter in the area. The dams have been breached by local communities and water has been returned to the desert - while the recovery of the ecosystem will take a lot longer, its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site provides hope for the area.
2. The Zuojiang Huanshan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, China
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Rolfmueller | Own work
The 49th World Heritage Site to be named in China, this extensive landscape of rock paintings in southwest China are believed to have been created by the ethnic Luo Ye group and date back pretty far - from the period around the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE, to be exact. These 38 panels are called “Pay Laiz” in the local Zhuang language, literally meaning “mountain with colourful paintings.” And colourful they are indeed – the rock panels are covered in red motifs, mainly depicting anthropomorphs, zoomorphs and implements such as swords and daggers.
Over the past decades scholars have tried to figure out the meaning behind these rock motifs – but it remains a mystery to this day. All we know for sure, is that with no other surviving remains of Luo Ye culture, the rock paintings are all that is left to remind us of their existence.
3. The Tian Shan Mountains, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan
Photo Credit: Flickr | Evgeni Zotov
Formerly part of the Silk Route that linked China and Central Asia, the vast mountain system of Tian Shan is referred to in the Chinese language as the “Celestial Mountains” and it seems like an appropriate description. The steep, jagged slopes and shimmering glaciers straddle the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, 500 km wide and stretching 2500 km.
The mountain range is also home to a diverse range of animals, including distinctively Central Asian species such as snow leopards and Manchurian roe, which increased when much of the human population relocated to lower elevations. Those that remain in the region include a variety of different ethnic groups, the most numerous of which are Kyrgyz and Uighur. There is also a significant Chinese population, for whom the mountain is considered sacred and associated with their highest form of God.
4. The Architectural Works of Le Corbusier
Photo Credit: Flickr | Ravjot Singh
This is a bit of a different one. Built over a period of half a century, the architectural works of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier span across the world, including the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Complexe du Capitole in Chandigarh, India, and the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, France.
Dedicated to urban planning, Le Corbusier’s buildings attest to the challenges of creating new architectural styles in response to the needs of modern society and signify the internationalisation of architectural practice. Of his complete works, seventeen projects in seven different countries were awarded the title of World Heritage Site for their “outstanding contribution to the modern movement.”
5. Gorham’s Cave Complex, Gibraltar
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Gibmetal77 | Own work
Whilst technically part of the UK, you’re going to have to leave the mainland for the sunnier shores of Gibraltar. The four caves on the eastern side provide evidence of Neanderthal occupation over a span of more than 100,000 years. That’s a long time to be literally living under a rock.
The sites also provide valuable evidence of climate, sea level and ecological change throughout the years by enabling detailed reconstructions of past environments. Just as interesting are the detailed archaeological information that reveals much of the Neanderthal lifestyle - including identifiable campfire and tool production areas.