World Heritage Day: a snapshot of the Middle East's Unesco monuments

Some of the region's most treasured sites have been endangered by decades of conflict

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The Middle East is home to many of the region's most precious cultural sites that serve as major tourists attractions and symbols of national, cultural and religious identity.

Once some of the earliest human settlements after mankind's migration from Africa, providing links to the world's first trading routes including the Silk Road and the Spice Routes, some of these sites are now in jeopardy due to decades of conflict and war.

In the last few years, ambitious efforts have been undertaken by the UN’s cultural agency Unesco to recreate what has been lost and to preserve the region’s rich cultural heritage.

Seven spectacular Unesco heritage sites from across the Middle East and North Africa

Seven spectacular Unesco heritage sites from across the Middle East and North Africa

Every year on April 18, the UN celebrates the International Day for Monuments and Sites to promote awareness of the diversity of cultural heritage, the vulnerability of sites and monuments and the efforts required for their protection and conservation.

Here is a list of the most prominent sites across the region, from pre-Islamic ruins threatened by war to ancient tombs that attract millions of tourists per year.

Babylon, Iraq

Since 1983, Iraqi authorities have attempted to have Babylon, a 10-square-kilometre complex of which only 18 per cent has been excavated, recognised by Unesco.

Their efforts were recognised in 2019 after the Unesco Committee voted to list the sprawling Mesopotamian metropolis of Babylon as a World Heritage Site.

More than 4,000 years ago, the city was the centre of the ancient Babylonian empire that straddled Iraq’s Euphrates River, nearly 100 kilometres south of Baghdad.

Babylon developed into a walled city of mud-brick temples and towers, now known internationally for its hanging gardens, the Tower of Babel and the Ishtar Gate, a blue structure adorned with bulls, dragons and lions representing various gods.

The site was substantially affected by new structures built under the direction of Saddam Hussein and further damaged by soldiers during the US-led invasion that toppled him in 2003.

“At inscription by the World Heritage Committee, several factors were identified as affecting the property including illegal constructions, trash dumping and burning, small-scale industrial pollution, urban encroachments and other environmental factors,” a leading Unesco official told The National.

Babylon is one of 7,000 archaeological sites across Iraq, many of which were destroyed by ISIS or ravaged by lucrative artefact looting.

Petra, Jordan

Once home to the ancient, pre-Islamic Nabataean Arab nomads, Petra was a trading centre for incense, later colonised by the Romans in the first century BC.

Petra has been described by Unesco as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage". The site is half-built, half-carved into the side of a rocky gorge and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages, ancient dwellings and tombs.

In 1985, it was listed as a World Heritage Site and in 2007 was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The site 280 kilometres south of the Jordanian capital Amman is known as a must-see destination for tourists. Petra typically welcomes more than 1.13 million tourists annually, one million of whom are international visitors.

Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, says Unesco, which has described it as the crossroads of several civilisations. It has linked Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

Lying in the heart of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus, Palmyra’s main colonnaded street is one kilometre long and forms the monumental axis of the city.

Syria has six sites listed on the Unesco elite list of world heritage and all of them sustained some level of damage in the 10-year civil war.

But the damage Palmyra suffered was among the most shocking after ISIS took control of the site in 2015, destroying the Temple of Baalshamin, a pagan site more than 2,000 years old that was converted into a church in the fifth century, and the Temple of Bel, a site of worship to the Mesopotamian god of the same name.

Palmyra was once among the country’s top attractions, with as many as 150,000 visitors a year before the civil conflict erupted in 2011. Syrian forces backed by Russia eventually pushed ISIS out of the area, but reconstruction efforts have so far been limited, due to the continuing conflict.

Qalat Al Bahrain, Bahrain

Qalat Al Bahrain is an ancient harbour, fort and capital of Dilmun.

The port city has played a significant role in the country’s history, a place where people and traditions from various parts of the world lived, met and practised their commercial activities.

Its emergence as a melting pot of cultures is reflected in its architecture and development.

The fort is located on top of a 17.5 hectare artificial hill that was built despite more than 4,000 years of continuous occupation. It is also the site of the former capital of Dilmun and has undergone some of the most intensive archaeological exploration in the Arabian Gulf.

Excavations over the past 50 years have revealed residential, public, commercial and military structures that underline the importance of the site over the centuries.

A museum has been open to the public since 2008. It contains five exhibition halls around the massive Tell Wall with more than 500 artefacts on show and many interesting layers of its historical legacy have been revealed over the years.

It is situated in the Northern Governorate, in Al Qalah village on the northern coast about 5.5 kilometres west of Manama.

Al Ain, UAE

Al Ain’s Cultural Sites, including Hafit, Al Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and the oases areas, have been recognised by Unesco as properties that testify to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period, with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures.

The Neolithic era dates back 2,000 to 4,000 years and is known for the development of agriculture.

The site provides pivotal testimony to the transition of cultures in the region from hunting and gathering to a more sedentary life.

Leptis Magna, Libya

Leptis Magna was known to be one of the Roman empire’s most beautiful cities that has come under danger after decades of civil war in Libya.

Located on a hillside above the Mediterranean, the site includes a large basilica, racecourse and amphitheatre which once seated up to 15,000 spectators.

Founded by the Phoenicians before being conquered by Rome, the city was the birthplace of Septimius Severus, who rose to become emperor from 193 AD until 211 AD.

The ancient site, built on 50 hectares of land, was placed on Unesco’s list of endangered places in 2016.

Land of Frankincense, Oman

Frankincense is an integral part of Oman’s culture and heritage.

The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah, the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr, now Wubar, and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in the aromatic resin that flourished in this region for many centuries and mark the area of Oman as one of the most important trading points of the ancient and medieval world.

The famous Hojari frankincense is produced 25 kilometres from the hinterland of Jebel Samhan, at altitude of up to 1,500 metres.

The site dates back thousands of years.

Hegra Archaeological Site, Saudi Arabia

The Archaeological Site of Al Hijr was the first property in Saudi Arabia to make the World Heritage List. Formerly known as Hegra, it is the largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilisation south of Petra in Jordan. It features 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, with some dating back to the first century BC.

The site includes the region of AlUla, which is set to become one of Saudi Arabia’s main tourist attractions.

Meroe, Sudan

The ancient city of Meroe, listed by Unesco in 2011, is on the east bank of the River Nile about 200 kilometres north-east of Sudanese capital Khartoum.

The site comprises pyramids that were built between 2,300 and 2,700 years ago. It was the capital of the Kush dynasty that ruled from the early 6th century BC.

The structures at Meroe are significantly smaller than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and stand at about 10 to 30 metres in height, with steeper faces.

Updated: April 18, 2022, 1:24 PM