The 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee kicked off on Sunday in Manama, Bahrain and will continue until July 4th. Its task: select, among 29 candidates, those who will be added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites this year.
UNESCO in times of crisis
In 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage and put in place the World Heritage Committee, charged with the task of choosing which sites will make the list and get the grants. Since then, 1.073 sites have been awarded this status in 167 different countries (the complete list, per country, here). Over the decades, this has been considered as a holy grail to preserve and promote architectural or natural gems for some, or a doomsday device promoting mass-tourism and destroying the sites’ authenticity and beauty for others.
The stakes are high for this year’s session, with the UN agency entangled in a financial and political crisis. Shortly after the United States and Israel announced they were pulling out of the agency last year, its executive body elected its new director-general: former French culture minister – and daughter of a senior advisor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco – Audrey Azoulay emerged as the winner after a heated and close vote opposing her to a Qatari candidate. Some saw this as yet-another proof of the organization’s Western bias.
This criticism is not completely baseless. Eight out of the 11 UNESCO director-generals came from the West (Europe and the U.S.), and only one from Latin America (Mexico), Asia (Japan) and Africa (Senegal). Furthermore, almost 40% of the World Heritage sites are located in Europe: EU nations host 413 of them, almost half of which are concentrated in Italy (53), Spain (46), France (43) and Germany (42). On the other hand, Asian or African countries are grossly under-represented.
Needless to say that this year’s list of laureates will face intense scrutiny.
The 2018 candidate sites
This year, out of the 29 candidate sites, 11 of them are located in European countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Romania, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and… the Czech Republic.
The only Central European contender this year is the Bohemian town of Žatec, located in the north-western part of the country between Karlovy Vary and Usti nad Labem and known for its hop growing industry, dating back to the Middle Ages.
However, some of the candidate sites for the following years have already been made public and Central European countries have some pretty important contenders. In 2019, the Czech Republic will present two other sites up for review: the mining cultural landscape of Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří (the natural border seperating Saxony from Bohemia) and Kladruby nad Labem’s stud farms, token of its decades-old horse breeding tradition. Poland will defend the application of Krzemionki’s prehistoric flint mines, while Slovakia and Hungary will both contend in the “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” category to showcase their ancient roots. Finally, Poland’s Augustów cross-border canal and the Czech Republic’s spas are also part of the 2020 tentative list.
Central Europe already hosts 42 World Heritage sites
Regardless of which sites will be picked in the coming years, Central European countries already have a lot to show for, with a total of 42 World Heritage sites.
Poland comes first, with 15 World Heritage sites, made up of 14 cultural sites (including the historic centres of Warsaw and Kraków, the old cities of Zamość and Torun, Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the centennial Hall in Wroclaw) and one natural landscape (the Białowieża Forest).
Slightly behind, the Czech Republic can nonetheless boast of 12 UNESCO cultural sites. Among others, you’ll find the historic centres of Prague and Český Krumlov, the city of Telč, the castles of Kroměříž and Litomyšl, the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc or Brno’s iconic Tugendhat Villa.
Hungary has no reason to blush either, with 7 cultural sites (including the banks of the Danube and Andrássy Avenue in Budapest, the old village of Hollókő, the Early Christian Necropolis of Pécs) and one natural site (the caves of Aggtelek Karst).
Slovakia, finally, is also home to some breath-taking World Heritage locations: 5 cultural sites (including the historic town of Banská Štiavnica, the wooden churches in the Carpathian Mountains, Vlkolínec and Levoča / Spišský Hrad), as well as two natural sites (the ancient beech forests in the Carpathians and the caves of the Slovak Karst).
If you had to submit one site for nomination next year, which one would it be? Share your ideas in the comment section!