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The Global A-List

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By Tom O’NeilPhotograph by MIchael Yamashita

They need a world of support, and they’ve got it. Today 730 World Heritage sites find salvation in the United Nations.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Best of the best: That’s the lofty standard for making the World Heritage List. Nations lobby hard to get their glorious buildings, wilderness, and historic ruins on the list, a stamp of approval that brings prestige, tourist income, public awareness, and, most important, a commitment to save the irreplaceable.

In November 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inaugurated the list by adopting a treaty known as the World Heritage Convention. Its continuing goal is to recruit the world community in identifying cultural and natural properties of “outstanding universal value.”

UNESCO officials do not see the list as a mere trophy case of superlative places. World Heritage status commits the home nation to protect the designated location. And if a site—through natural disaster, war, pollution, or lack of funds—begins to lose its value, nations that have signed the treaty must assist, if possible, in emergency aid campaigns. To date 172 of the world’s 192 nations have signed the treaty.

The World Heritage program has scored high-profile successes. It exerted pressure to halt a highway near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids, block a salt mine at a gray whale nursery in Mexico, and cancel a dam proposal above Africa’s Victoria Falls. Its funds, provided by dues from the treaty’s signers, have hired park rangers, bought parkland, built visitor centers, and restored temples.

It relies on persuasive powers more than legal threats, but at age 30 the World Heritage initiative has quietly become a force for appreciating and safeguarding the world’s special places.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Last year’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamian Buddhas by the Taliban has fueled debate about how to protect cultural treasures. How can symbols of cultural heritage be safeguarded when the destroyers are the national leaders? Voice your opinion.
More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
While places are deemed worthy of protection, so are people. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has not only adopted the World Heritage treaty to preserve the world’s most treasured places, it has also established programs to honor and protect human cultures. These programs are based on intangible representations of human qualities including languages, oral literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, costumes, craft skills, and traditional knowledge. In some programs entire cultures are honored, such as the Ifugao people in the Philippines who have been recognized for their chants that take up to four days to recite. In other programs a single person, such as a master craftsman, is recognized for skills and techniques that are deemed essential for the continuation of a particular culture.

— Nora Gallagher

Did You Know?

Related Links
The List
Explore the entire list of World Heritage sites—730 entries long—including images, descriptions, and map coordinates for each site.

Island of Gorée
Watch a video featuring one of the World Heritage sites—the Island of Gorée, Senegal—and find out why its disturbing history makes it a place worthy of preservation.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Find out more about the World Heritage treaty, the nomination process, which sites are in danger, and how they are protected.

Human Culture
Visit UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage website to learn more about how endangered human cultures are being preserved.


Masterworks of Man and Nature: Preserving Our World Heritage. Harper-MacRae Publishing, 1992.


NGS Resources
Lubarsky, Jared. “Showcase of the Shoguns,” National Geographic (March 2001), 50-60.

Williams, A. R. “Cuba’s Colonial Treasure,” National Geographic (October 1999), 88-107.

Our World’s Heritage. National Geographic Society, 1987.


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