Every year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awards the “World Heritage” title to locations around the world that it deems to be of particular cultural or physical significance. Although the concept of “outstanding universal value” may differ from one person to another, the World Heritage Committee outlines ten specific criteria, any one of which a site must meet in order to qualify.
Among these criteria are nods to human history (“to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”), respect for innovation (“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”), and an appreciation for nature (“to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”).
With 1,031 sites in 163 countries thus far having been determined to meet such conditions, the honor is not meant to be an especially exclusive one; rather, the committee’s recognition confers upon the sites a certain protection, both in reminding the public not to take such locations for granted, and in a more tangible sense.
At the 2015 meeting, the WHC launched the international Unite for Heritage Coalition, intended to “strengthen mobilization in the face of deliberate damage to cultural heritage, particularly in the Middle East,” and adopted the Bonn Declaration, “which recommends that heritage protection be included in the mandate of peacekeeping missions as appropriate,” whether harm stems from human conflict or natural disaster.
The 2015 list of new World Heritage Sites names a total of 24 new places deemed World Heritage-worthy and makes provisions for significant extensions to the protected boundaries of three previously designated sites. This year’s honorees are primarily cultural, with only two “natural” sites and one “mixed” site making the cut. Regardless, each of the World Heritage Sites has some element that makes it worth noticing. Here are seven of them.
1. France // Champagne Hillsides, Houses, and Cellars
Champagne is used as a generic term for sparkling wine in the United States, but it's famously used elsewhere exclusively in reference to the varieties produced from grapes in the Champagne region of France (pictured above). Now, Champagne can officially boast about the global significance of its fruitful fields.
2. Turkey // Ephesus
The ancient city of Ephesus boasts the ruins of the two classical civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans. Among the monuments discovered through excavation near the River Kaystros are the Roman Imperial Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre. It was also known historically as the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that has not survived to see modernity, and it may be where the Gospel of John was composed.
3. Mongolia // Great Bhurkan Khaldun Mountain
One of the peaks in the Khentii mountain range in northeast Mongolia, where the treeless plains meet Siberia’s green forests, Bhurkan Khaldun is appropriately associated with the worship of sacred mountains, rocks, and rivers. Believers also revere it as the birthplace and burial ground of leader Genghis Khan.
4. United States // San Antonio Missions
The product of 18th century Franciscan monks attempting to stake their claim along the northernmost boundary of Spain’s colonial holdings, the mission complexes along the San Antonio river basin in Texas comprise the mission buildings themselves, the associated churches and storehouses, the surrounding farmlands, and even the water distribution systems.
5. United Kingdom // The Forth Bridge
Scotland’s Forth Bridge, aptly named for its location spanning the Firth (or estuary) of the Forth River just west of Edinburgh, was constructed in 1882 and has remained in continuous service. Designed by English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker and opened by Prince of Wales Albert Edward (later to become King Edward VII), it has long been an iconic British landmark. It is the world’s longest cantilever bridge to date.
6. Jamaica // Blue and John Crow Mountains
Jamaica’s heavily forested mountain region has been designated World Heritage-worthy as a “mixed” property, referring to the combination of both natural and cultural factors that contributed to the committee’s decision. The area boasts a high level of biodiversity and has been previously recognized as an important global location for the preservation of plant, amphibian, bird, and mammal species. It has also played a crucial role in the history of the nation’s displaced peoples: first as a refuge for the indigenous Tainos escaping enslavement, then for escaped African-born slave captives. Both groups established their own concealed settlements, and the land provided everything they needed to survive.
7. South Africa // Cape Floral Protected Region
Located at the southwestern extreme of South Africa, the portion of the Cape Floristic Province designated as a heritage site is another global biodiversity hotspot, with certain shrub species that exist nowhere else in the world.
The full list of new inscribed cultural properties for 2015 is available at UNESCO’s website.