Ancient Jericho and other Mena sites named in Unesco World Heritage List 2023

‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid, Djerba, Gordion, Medieval Mosques of Anatolia, Hyrcanian Forests and Caravanserai also among those inscribed

A contemporary view of Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan. Photo: Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
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The Unesco World Heritage Committee, currently convening its 45th extended session in Saudi Arabia, has announced the sites included in this year's World Heritage List.

The list has been around since the 1970s and determines places that have cultural, historical, scientific or other forms of significance and asks for them to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

The committee completed evaluating sites on Wednesday, combining nominations from last year and this year.

Here are the ones from the Mena region that have been inscribed:

Saudi Arabia: ‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid

Saudi Arabia's first Natural Heritage Site, the 12,000-square-kilometre ‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid is located on the western edge of the Empty Quarter, also known as Rub' Al Khali desert, about 700 kilometres south of Riyadh. The desert, which also flows into the UAE, is noteworthy in and of itself, as the planet’s largest continuous sand sea, and Asia’s sole major tropical sand desert.

After the site's inscription, Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud said the site's success "contributes to highlighting the importance of natural heritage on a global scale and reflects the outstanding value of the Reserve".

Managed by the Saudi Wildlife Authority, ‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid constitutes one of Saudi Arabia’s largest protected areas. The region hosts a series of projects reintroducing Arabian species such as the Arabian Oryx and Al Reem Gazelle into the original natural habitats from which they have historically became extinct. The Arabian Oryx programme is considered the most successful in the world.

Aside from its abundant natural heritage, the region is home to the historic village of Al Far, believed to be the capital of the first kingdom of Kindah.

Palestine: Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan

Ancient Jericho/Tell es-Sultan, dating back beyond 10,000 BC, is one of the world's oldest towns. It is located 1.5km north of modern Jericho and 10km north-west of the Dead Sea, situated 250 metres below sea level along the Jordan Rift Valley, which establishes it as the lowest ancient town on earth.

Throughout history, Ancient Jericho, known by many names, ranks among the oldest sites in the Middle East. It showcases an enduring and diverse cultural heritage that spans from the 10th millennium BC (Natufian period) through to the 7th century AD Byzantine era and beyond.

Ancient Jericho also served as a cultural and financial bridge, linking various civilisations through sprawling road networks, thanks to its sustenance from the nearby spring, 'Ain Es-Sultan.

After the site's inscription, Munir Anastas, the permanent delegate of Palestine to Unesco, credited the success to “all Arabs, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which made every effort to host the session and spared no effort to support the Palestinian cause in all international platforms,” according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Tunisia: Djerba

Stretching 514 square-kilometres across the Gulf of Gabes, Djerba is North Africa’s largest island. Its landscape is marked by a striking combination of desert, coastal areas and rural fields with a tapestry of palm gardens, farms and olive trees.

Believed to be the location of Homer’s mythical Ogygia, where Odysseus met the lotus-eaters, Djerba was also the backdrop to Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope.

Filled with ruins from both the ancient Carthaginian and Roman empires, Djerba was subsequently inhabited by early Christians, as well as the Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs. The island is also punctuated with several villages and settlements, characterised by white-walled houses, mosques, churches, synagogues and souqs.

Upon the site's inscription, Tunisia's Minister of Culture, Hayet Guettat-Guermazi said: “The island of Djerba testifies to universal world heritage. This is a historic moment for us. Our property is helping to send a strong signal of brotherhood and universality. We believe diversity is a source of wealth and we believe in the human genius which allows us to overcome challenges.”

Turkey: Medieval Mosques of Anatolia with wooden posts and upper structure

When the Seljuks moved into Anatolia in the 11th century, they immediately began building mosques across the region. These structures, with examples in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, were marked by wooden columns and roofs – a material that has been a hallmark of Anatolian architecture for more than 10,000 years.

Within, the wooden surfaces were adorned with bright ornamental designs known as kalem isi – where floral and geometric patterns were applied with coal powder, using special brushes.

During the Seljuk and Beyliks period, these mosques were concentrated in Konya, Ankara and Kastamonu, but the tradition continued all over rural regions, throughout the Ottoman period, lasting until the 20th century.

Turkey: Gordion

Situated 70 kilometres south-west of Ankara, Gordion is best known as the capital of Phrygia – with a history stretching from the Early Bronze Age to the Medieval period. Historians believe the European Phrygian people established it as their capital in Central Anatolia following the collapse of the Hittite Empire.

After being devastated by an 800 BC fire, much of the citadel was rebuilt, later serving as the base of King Midas. Over the years, it was conquered by Lydia in the West, and then the Persian Empire; before being taken by Alexander the Great. As such, it is considered one of the principal centres of the ancient world.

Among its ruins are 150 wooden curial mounds, or tumuli – including the 50-metre-high Midas Mound Tumulus from 740 BC, which houses the oldest standing wooden structure on the planet.

Azerbaijan/Iran: Hyrcanian Forests

The Hyrcanian Forests stretches 850 kilometres from the Talish Mountains in Azerbaijan, through the Alborz Mountains to Golestan in Iran – forming a large green arc. Composed of deciduous mixed broadleaved forests, parts of the region were inscribed by Iran in 2019.

The ridges of the Talish and Alborz mountain systems create a climactic barrier and watershed between the arid Irano-Turanian Plateau and the Caspian Sea. This, in turn, has created an abundance of precipitation, flowing down through several rivers and creeks into the Caspian Sea.

Iran: The Persian Caravanserai

A traditional form of roadside inn placed along trade routes such as the Silk Road, the Caravanserai represents a type of Persian Architecture developed in response to the needs of the weary traveller.

The structure is a testament to Iran’s historic position between ancient civilisations, and the importance of travel and trade to its economy.

Of the hundreds of Caravansarais scattered across the country, 25 have been identified and nominated for the Unesco World Heritage List. Broadly split into three types – desert, mountain and plain – they vary in design, material and geographic location. Some are made of brick, others of stone and some mixed.

The list will continue to be updated as more sites are announced

Updated: September 22, 2023, 9:19 AM