UNESCO World Heritage: 10 Travel Sites and How They Were Selected

UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Criteria

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has several branches and initiatives aimed at promoting the subjects in its name across the globe. One of these is the World Heritage Committee which, among other things, decides what locations are worth preserving for various reasons. These reasons are grouped together in a list of ten selection criteria, each denoted by a Roman numeral. To explain the Committee’s selection criteria and World Heritage sites more broadly let us go through this list and examine an illustrative example for every criterion.

(i) Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur

“to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”

First off, it should be noted that most World Heritage sites satisfy more than one selection criterion. Memphis and its Necropolis are recognized as exhibiting features from (i), (iii), and (vi), but for our purposes here we will focus on one criterion per site.

Given that each World Heritage site is a place, most displays of “human creative genius” take the form of engineering feats. Arguably, no other structure of the ancient world is more impressive than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Out of the seven wonders of the ancient world it is the only one still standing, which can be attributed in large part to the expertise of its construction. Counter to the popular myth, the Great Pyramid of Giza was not built by slaves but by a combination of paid laborers who hauled the stones, artisans who mined and shaped them, and engineers who oversaw their placement. For a building to have survived nearly intact for over 4,500 years is not just the envy of modern engineers but a triumph unparalleled in human history.

Of course, the Great Pyramid is not the site’s sole feature. For a time Memphis was Egypt’s capital. Its position along the entrance of the Nile Delta allowed the ancient city to control commerce. Given this advantageous location the area around Memphis was settled and other functions of state inevitably sprang up, the most notable being religious and funerary monuments. The pyramids were designed as tombs for the pharaohs and those close to them, and in addition to the Great Pyramid there still stands the Pyramid of Khafre,  the Pyramid of Menkaure, and the Great Sphinx of Giza. The massive scale of these and other structures dedicated to venerating the dead led to the appellation of necropolis, an Ancient Greek term that translates to city of the dead.     

(ii) Acropolis, Athens

“to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design”

Transitioning from the most famous necropolis to another most famous polis brings us to the Acropolis of Athens. The acro- stem is derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning highest. While many polises denote a type of city, acropolis refers to the loftiest portion of a city. Acropolises were citadels or other structures built on hills for the purposes of cultural elevation and to increase their defensibility via height advantage over would-be besiegers. The Acropolis of Athens, often referred to simply as the Acropolis due to its renown, is a fortified monumental complex that includes the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and a temple dedicated to Athena Nike. These ancient artistic achievements have not only survived over twenty-four centuries but also proliferated their techniques and style across the globe as can be seen in Neoclassical architecture from the Prado in Madrid to the United States Capitol Building.

(iii) Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu

“to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”

At a point where the Andes cut through the Amazon, one and a half miles (or 2,430 meters) above sea level stands Machu Picchu, one of the Inca Empire’s greatest testaments. This city in the clouds remains a marvel of ingenuity with its terraced farms, stone steps, plotted streets and houses, and temples with both religious and astronomical significance. In line with selection criterion (iii), Machu Picchu demonstrates how the Inca ordered their society and provides researchers a glimpse into their everyday lives.

(iv) Paris, Banks of the Seine

“to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”

The Seine is France’s second longest river, though is second-to-none in importance to the country’s capital. For several centuries when wind power and oarsmen served as the engines of ships, rivers and coastal sailing dominated maritime trade. As such the Seine was Paris’ commercial and cultural artery for hundreds of years. Just as major cities coalesce around major ports, prosperous rivers give rise to prosperous riverfronts. The Banks of the Seine are a classic example of this, and given France’s regional importance in secular and religious matters across the centuries it is no small wonder that its architecture provides such an exemplary record of this time period. Some of the Seine riverfront’s offerings include Notre-Dame, an inspirational wonder of the Gothic style, the Place de la Concorde, a public square that other European capitals took notes from, and the Eiffel Tower, a bold monument that shrugged off many older conventions, just to name a few. 

(v) Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System

“to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”

Shushtar is a system of canals and tunnels, in what is today Iran, that began construction during the reign of the Persian King Darius the Great in the 5th century BCE. It diverted the Kârun river into two main canals, one of which is still in use today. Shushtar’s tunnels and canals transported water great distances for use in water mills, crop irrigation, fish farming, and other urban uses. The Persian architects who built this hydraulic system pulled from the knowledge of the Mesopotamians, Elamites, and Romans to harness a natural resource and make otherwise arid land habitable and prosperous.

(vi) Ancient Ferrous Metallurgy Sites of Burkina Faso

“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”

One method of tracking the advance of human civilization’s progress is through the materials of its tools. Using this methodology the Stone Age comes first, followed by the Bronze Age, and then the Iron Age. Humanity’s ability to manipulate its surroundings and use them to its advantage is one of its most notable features, and each stage of this process was a momentous leap forward for our civilization as a whole. Given all this it makes sense that evidence of these transformative epochs would be worth preserving.

The ability to extract iron from ore using furnaces and then shape it into tools via smithing was discovered independently in China, among several Germanic tribes, and in parts of West Africa. Some of the earliest and best-preserved examples of West African smelting sites are found across Burkina Faso. Iron production gave those who developed it an extreme advantage over their neighbors in both agriculture and warfare as iron’s hardness and ability to maintain a sharp edge surpassed every other available material. Iron-tipped tools could cultivate more land using the same amount of work and iron weapons empowered the militaries of those who controlled its production. And this metallurgic tradition is not solely a landmark of the past but a continuing tradition, as blacksmiths in Burkina Faso and elsewhere still practice their craft using the techniques and technologies derived from these sites to serve their communities to this day.

(vii) Namib Sand Sea

“to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”

The Southern African country of Namibia features one of the largest coastal deserts in the world with substantial fields of sand dunes. Rivers appear and disappear amid the sands, though the Namib Sand Sea’s greatest water source is the fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean. Some of its dunes are more or less settled, but parts of the Sand Sea are still actively being shaped and reshaped by currents of fog and wind. This atmospheric force shapes these dunes into unique forms not seen elsewhere. Sediment carried from both the sea and farther inland also color and texture the ever-changing dunes with an unrivaled brilliance.

(viii) Ha Long Bay

“to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features”

Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is another (vii) of exceeding beauty. Over a thousand islands, islets, and limestone pillars dot this picturesque bay, though beyond its aesthetic qualities this Vietnamese site is also of geological interest. Ha Long Bay possesses the most extensive and diverse set of marine karsts (soluble rock formations that are in direct contact with seawater). This has led to the formation of limestone towers, sinkholes, caves, and various other formations of geologic import. The bay’s old age gives geologists and other researchers a window into the distant past of karsts and more broadly how rocks interact with the climate.

(ix) Waterton Glacier International Peace Park

“to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals”

A few World Heritage sites straddle borders, and one of the more extraordinary examples of this is Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. Joining Glacier National Park in the United States with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, this 1932 addition to the World Heritage List combines two significant biosphere reserves into a single site. This region of the Pacific Northwest contains distinct prairie, montane, and alpine ecosystems with mixtures of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. While the joint area of these two national parks is not enormous, the site hosts a considerable amount of genetic diversity, especially among its plant life.

(x) Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve

“to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”

Rounding out our list is another biosphere reserve, this one located on a watershed in Honduras, the Río Plátano. Along with other reserves in Northeast Honduras and a neighboring site in Nicaragua, Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is the largest area of protected land in Latin America north of the Amazon. The reserve contains both ecological and cultural wonders from mountainous rainforests to lowland lagoons, Pre-Columbian ruins, and modern day indigenous dwellings. Like the Amazon, Río Plátano is bursting with biodiversity and is home to several endangered species of plants and animals.

Some locales offer insights into previous generations, while others confer ecosystem services in the here and now. Whether a place is designated as a biosphere reserve, a World Heritage site, or both, locations that bear the weight of the past and present are vital to our future.

Works Cited

“Acropolis, Athens”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 8 2021

“Ancient Ferrous Metallurgy Sites of Burkina Faso”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 9 2021

“Ha Long Bay”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 9 2021

“Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 8 2021

“Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 8 2021

“Namib Sand Sea”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 9 2021

“Paris, Banks of the Seine”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 8 2021

“Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 10 2021

“Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 9 2021

“The Criteria for Selection”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 7 2021

“Waterton Glacier International Peace Park”. UNESCO,, World Heritage Centre,, Accessed March 10 2021

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