Category Archive: World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World Heritage Site #311: Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region

Posted by on May 16, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site #311: Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region

UNESCO World Heritage Site #311: Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Lake Ohrid region, a mixed World Heritage property covering 83,350 ha, was inscribed for its natural values in 1979 and for its cultural values a year later. Lake Ohrid is a superlative natural phenomenon, providing refuge for numerous endemic and relict freshwater species of flora and fauna dating from the Tertiary period. As a deep and ancient lake of tectonic origin, Lake Ohrid has existed continuously for approximately two to three million years. Its oligotrophic waters conserve over 200 species of plants and animals unique to the lake, including algae, turbellarian flatworms, snails, crustaceans and 17 endemic species of fish including two species of trout, as well as a rich birdlife.

Situated on the shores of Lake Ohrid, the town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe. Built mostly between the 7th and 19th centuries, Ohrid is home to the oldest Slav monastery (dedicated to St. Pantelejmon) and more than 800 Byzantine-style icons of worldwide fame dating from the 11th century to the end of the 14th century. Ohrid’s architecture represents the best preserved and most complete ensemble obf ancient urban architecture of this part of Europe. Slav culture spread from Ohrid to other parts of Europe. Seven basilicas have thus far been discovered in archaeological excavations in the old part of Ohrid. These basilicas were built during the 4th, 5th and beginning of the 6th centuries and contain architectural and decorative characteristics that indisputably point to a strong ascent and glory of Lychnidos, the former name of the town. The structure of the city nucleus is also enriched by a large number of archaeological sites, with an emphasis on early Christian basilicas, which are also known for their mosaic floors. Special emphasis regarding Ohrid’s old urban architecture must be given to the town’s masonry heritage. In particular, Ohrid’s traditional local influence can be seen in its well-preserved late-Ottoman urban residential architecture dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The limited space for construction activities has led to the formation of a very narrow network of streets.

Although the town of Struga is located along the shores of Lake Ohrid, town life is concentrated along the banks of the Crn Drim River, which flows out of the lake. The existence of Struga is connected with several fishermen settlements on wooden piles situated along the lake shore. A great number of archaeological sites testify to origins from the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age, the Macedonian Hellenistic period, the Roman and the early Middle Age period.

The convergence of well-conserved natural values with the quality and diversity of its cultural, material and spiritual heritage makes this region truly unique.

The Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region is a fantastic world heritage site. The lake straddles Macedonia and Albania, although only the Macedonian side of the lake is part of the World Heritage Site. It is one of only 28 sites in the world that are recognized as a mixed World Heritage Site; recognized for both its natural and cultural value.

I spent several days on the shore of Lake Ohrid for a recent conference I attended. It has the charm of a small sea side resort, but it still doesn’t have the feel of being overrun (although I wasn’t there during the peak season, and I’m sure it is much more crowded then.)

The lake itself is one of the deepest in Europe with a depth of 288 m (940 ft), and is also one of the coldest.

The city of Ohrid has seen history dating back to the ancient Macedonians and has remained an important city throughout history. The Greeks, Romans, Bulgarians, and Ottomans all controlled Ohrid at one point or another and used it as an important center for trade and religion.

Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region is about a 2.5-hour drive from both Skopje and Tirana. Roads are mostly 2-lane and wind through the mountains. As of 2016, there is construction of 4 lane roads to connect it to Skopje, which should cut driving time almost in half.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #310: Durmitor National Park

Posted by on May 15, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Durmitor National ParkUNESCO World Heritage Site: Durmitor National Park/caption]

From the World Heritage inscription:

Durmitor is a stunning limestone massif located in Northern Montenegro and belonging to the Dinaric Alps or Dinarides. It is also the name of Montenegro’s largest protected area, the Durmitor National Park, which constitutes the heart of a landscape shaped by glaciers, numerous rivers and underground streams of which are embedded in the much larger Tara River Basin Biosphere Reserve. Some fifty peaks higher than 2,000 metres above sea level rise above plateaus, alpine meadows and forests, including Bobotov Peak (2,525 metres above sea level). Numerous glacial lakes, locally known as “mountain eyes”, cover the landscape. Despite its many attractions, Durmitor is best known for the spectacular canyons of the Draga, Sušica, Komarnica and Tara Rivers, the latter stands out as Europe’s deepest gorge. Durmitor is a popular tourism destination, known for superb hiking, climbing, mountaineering and canoeing opportunities. The nearby town of Zabljak is Montenegro’s primary ski resort.

Besides the extraordinary landscape beauty and the fascinating geological heritage, Durmitor National Park is also home to an impressive biological diversity. At the habitat level, a rare old-growth stand of European Black Pine deserves to be mentioned. Favoured by the altitudinal gradient of more than 2,000 metres and both alpine and Mediterranean climatic influences, there are more than 1,600 vascular plants in the wider Durmitor Massif. A great percentage is found in the park and many are rare and endemic species. Large mammals include Brown Bear, Grey Wolf, and European Wild Cat. Among the 130 recorded birds are Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and Capercaillie. Likewise, noteworthy is the rich fish fauna, which includes the endangered Danube Salmon. The park is inhabited by farmers and shepherds, traditionally using the high-altitude meadows as summer pastures. The property is well protected and its status and international recognition have helped to prevent irreparable damage from threats, such as upstream pollution and proposed dam construction.

There are a small number of world heritage sites which I have visited where I would consider my visit incomplete. In particular, my visits to the Abbey and Altenmünster of Lorsch, and the Margravial Opera House Bayreuth (both in Germany) were under renovation when I visited. I was there, but I never really got to experience the sites due to construction.

Likewise, I’m going to have to put Durmitor National Park on the “incomplete visit” list. I drove to the park from Sarajevo in Bosnia, which means I entered the park from the west, whereas the more popular entrance is in the east. After several hours of driving up winding mountain roads, I arrived in the park only to find…..a snowdrift blocking the road. It wasn’t huge, but there was no way my Ford Fiat rental was going to get through it.

I’ll definately revisit the park the next time I am in Montenegro. Thankfully the country is pretty small so it isn’t too much effort to get there no matter where in the country you are.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #309: Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge in Višegrad

Posted by on May 13, 2016

Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge in Višegrad

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge in Višegrad

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge in Višegrad across the Drina River in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina was built at the end of the 16th century by the court architect Mimar Koca Sinan on the orders of Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović. Characteristic of the apogee of Ottoman monumental architecture and civil engineering, the bridge has 11 masonry arches with spans of 11 m to 15 m, and an access ramp at right angles with four arches on the left bank of the river. The 179.5 m long bridge is a representative masterpiece of Sinan, one of the greatest architects and engineers of the classical Ottoman period and a contemporary of the Italian Renaissance, with which his work may be compared. The unique elegance of proportion and monumental nobility of the whole site bear witness to the greatness of this style of architecture.

My original plan was to do a day trip to Visegrad from Sarajevo. As it turns out, without even realizing it, I passed right by the bridge on the way to Sarajevo from Serbia. I pulled over my car immediately when I realized my dumb luck, and not having paid close enough attention to my route in Google Maps.

The bridge is……a bridge. From a visitation standpoint, there isn’t much about the bridge per se which will draw people. The city is nice and the river valley is beautiful, but the reason why it is listed is for historic and architectural reasons.

Visegrad is about a two-hour drive from Sarajevo, so it can easily be visited on a day trip. The bridge is for pedestrian traffic only, so you can’t drive on it, but there is a place to park just off the highway, near the start of the bridge. As there is really only one major road going through town, the bridge is almost impossible to miss.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #308 – Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

Posted by on May 10, 2016

Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

UNESCO World Heritage Site – Medieval Monuments in Kosovo

From the World Heritage inscription:

The four edifices of the site reflect the high points of the Byzantine-Romanesque ecclesiastical culture, with its distinct style of wall painting, which developed in the Balkans between the 13th and 17th centuries. The De?ani Monastery was built in the mid-14th century for the Serbian king Stefan De?anski and is also his mausoleum. The Patriarchate of Pe? Monastery is a group of four domed churches featuring series of wall paintings. The 13th-century frescoes of the Church of Holy Apostles are painted in a unique, monumental style. Early 14th-century frescoes in the church of the Holy Virgin of Ljevisa represent the appearance of the new so-called Palaiologian Renaissance style, combining the influences of the eastern Orthodox Byzantine and the Western Romanesque traditions. The style played a decisive role in subsequent Balkan art.

The Medieval Monuments in Kosovo are a set of four Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo. The site consists of:

  • Dečani Monastery
  • Patriarchate of Pec Monastery
  • Our Lady of Ljeviš
  • Gračanica Monastery

The part of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo I visited was the Patriarchate of Pec Monastery in the city of Peja (Pec).

The churches are some of the most important places in the Serbian Orthodox church. The artwork is reminicent of other Orthodox world heritage sites I’ve visited which include the Boyana Church in Bulgaria, the Painted Churches in the Troodos Region of Cyprus, Monasteries of Daphni, Hosios Loukas and Nea Moni of Chios, and Meteora, the last two of which are in Greece.

These sites are also a massive political hot potato.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia, however, doesn’t recognize Kosovo as independent. Even though over half of the members of the UN recognize Kosovo, Serbia and many of its allies (including Russia) do not, and they have been able to block Kosovo from joining the United Nations and UNESCO.

Kosovo came up for a membership vote in UNESCO in 2015 but was unable to get 2/3 approval.

This means that the churches are listed as being under Serbia (which I recognize on my World Heritage List just to keep with UNESCO protocol), but are de facto in territory controlled by Kosovo.

Looting and damage had occurred at some of the churches and today they are under the protection KFOR, a NATO Peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

When I visited the Patriarchate of Pec Monastery, it looked like a military camp. There were no signs on the outside indication it was there, and there was a giant wall with razor wire surrounding it. You had to talk to a guard which took your passport and let you in.

Getting to the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo actually isn’t that difficult, you just need to know that the monastery is there and that you have to talk to the security officer to gain entry. There are no signs telling you what to do. Also, it isn’t in any way dangerous. The walls and military presence look imposing, but it shouldn’t deter you from visiting.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #307 – Aksum

Posted by on April 3, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site - Aksum

UNESCO World Heritage Site #307 – Aksum

From the World Heritage inscription:

Situated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, Aksum symbolizes the wealth and importance of the civilization of the ancient Aksumite kingdom, which lasted from the 1st to the 8th centuries AD. The kingdom was at the crossroads of the three continents: Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In command of the ivory trade with Sudan, its fleets controlled the Red Sea trade through the port of Adulis and the inland routes of north eastern Africa.

The ruins of the ancient Aksumite Civilization covered a wide area in the Tigray Plateau. The most impressive monuments are the monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and the palace ruins dating to the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

Several stelae survive in the town of Aksum dating between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The largest standing obelisk rises to a height of over 23 meters and is exquisitely carved to represent a nine-storey building of the Aksumites. It stands at the entrance of the main stelae area. The largest obelisk of some 33 meters long lies where it fell, perhaps during the process of erection. It is possibly the largest monolithic stele that ancient human beings ever attempted to erect.

A series of inscriptions on stone tablets have proved to be of immense importance to historians of the ancient world. Some of them include trilingual text in Greek, Sabaean and Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopian), inscribed by King Ezana in the 4th century AD.

The introduction of Christianity in the 4th century AD resulted in the building of churches, such as Saint Mary of Zion, rebuilt in the Gondarian period, in the 17th century AD, which is believed to hold the Ark of the Covenant.

Aksum is the most significant pilgrimage site in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and one of the largest tourist attractions in the country. It is important for several reasons:

  1. It was the seat of the Axumite Empire, which reached its peak in the first millennium. The Axumite Civilization was one of the largest and most important in East Africa.
  2. The current standing Stella and other ruins as some of the largest and most extensive in all Sub-Saharan Africa.
  3. It is the location where Ethiopian Orthodox believe the Ark of the Covenant was taken and now resides, making it the most important pilgrimage destination in Ethiopia.

Most of the historical and religious attractions are within easy walking distance of each other. In fact, the main collection of stele is right across the street from the St Mary’s Cathedral.

It is an affordable destination and it is worthwhile to hire a guide at least for a day to provide some context to what you are seeing.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #306 – Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

Posted by on March 23, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site #306 - Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

UNESCO World Heritage Site #306 – Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela

From the World Heritage inscription:

In a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 km from Addis Ababa, eleven medieval monolithic churches were carved out of rock. Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Aksum Empire.

There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the river Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael); and to the south of the river, Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread). The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.

The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors, roofs etc. This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs.

Biete Medhani Alem, with its five aisles, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, while Biete Ghiorgis has a remarkable cruciform plan. Most were probably used as churches from the outset, but Biete Mercoreos and Biete Gabriel Rafael may formerly have been royal residences. Several of the interiors are decorated with mural paintings.

Near the churches, the village of Lalibela has two storey round houses, constructed of local red stone, and known as the Lasta Tukuls. These exceptional churches have been the focus of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians since the 12th century.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are one of the most significant world heritage sites on Earth, but probably the most famous attraction in Ethiopia.

In 1978, they were one of the 12 original sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. The others in that inaugural class were:

With this visit I have now been to 11 of the first 12 World Heritage Sites.

Despite the fact that 11 churches are listed, there are really just three clusters of churches. Many of the churches are just caves dug into the side of one of the main pits, so the door of one church is just a few meters from the door of the next church.

The most popular church, and the one shown in the photo, is St. George’s which was the last of the churches built. All of the lessons and techniques learned on the other churches were put in place on St. George’s Church.

It is easy to walk between all the churches and you can easily visit all 11 in a single day. All of the churches are very small and can only accommodate a small number of people at one time.

The trick is getting to Lalibela which is a small community in the mountains. There is an airport which services the town and has flights daily from Addis Ababa. I’d recommend hiring a local guide for the day, else you will not have any context to what you are seeing.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #305 – Fatehpur Sikri

Posted by on March 9, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site #305 - Fatehpur Sikri

UNESCO World Heritage Site #305 – Fatehpur Sikri

From the World Heritage inscription:

Built during the second half of the 16th century by the Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri (the City of Victory) was the capital of the Mughal Empire for only some 10 years. The complex of monuments and temples, all in a uniform architectural style, includes one of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid.

Fatehpur Sikri is overshadowed by the nearby Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, which is too bad becuase it is one of the great attractions in India in its own right.

Located about 45 minutes outside of Agra (with traffic) Fatehpur Sikri is both a palace and an imperial city. Located on high plateau, it gives a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside as well as cooler temperatures.

I’d highly recommending hiring a guide if you are paying a visit. There are many details which you would never know about unless they were pointed out to you.

Things to take special note of include: the human Parcheesi board, the dramatically different sizes of the buildings for the emperors Mulsim, Christian and Hindu wives, and elevated platform in the building where the emperor heard petitions.

Make sure not to miss the Jama Masjid. It is easy to miss it if you are only in the palace area. It is a massive arch with serves as the entrance to the mosque, made even more impressive because it is set on the top of a hill. As your guide to make sure to take you there.

The parking area for Fatehpur Sikri is a distance away from the palace, so note that you have to take a shuttle bus to get there and back.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #304 – Taj Mahal

Posted by on March 8, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site #304 - Taj Mahal

UNESCO World Heritage Site #304 – Taj Mahal

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Taj Mahal is located on the right bank of the Yamuna River in a vast Mughal garden that encompasses nearly 17 hectares, in the Agra District in Uttar Pradesh. It was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal with construction starting in 1632 AD and completed in 1648 AD, with the mosque, the guest house and the main gateway on the south, the outer courtyard and its cloisters were added subsequently and completed in 1653 AD. The existence of several historical and Quaranic inscriptions in Arabic script have facilitated setting the chronology of Taj Mahal. For its construction, masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the whole of the empire and also from the Central Asia and Iran. Ustad-Ahmad Lahori was the main architect of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is considered to be the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture. Its recognised architectonic beauty has a rhythmic combination of solids and voids, concave and convex and light shadow; such as arches and domes further increases the aesthetic aspect. The colour combination of lush green scape reddish pathway and blue sky over it show cases the monument in ever-changing tints and moods. The relief work in marble and inlay with precious and semi-precious stones make it a monument apart.

There isn’t much to say about the Taj Mahal. It is one of the best-known structures on Earth. During the recent selection of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it was put on the list.

It is without question the single most identifiable thing associated with India. There are numerous Indian restaurants which use it as their name, and you can find a picture of it hanging in many others. If you are playing a video game like Civilization, the Taj Majal is almost always associated with India in some form.

Visiting the Taj Majal and seeing it in person, will convince you that all the attention and notoriety is well deserved.

There is nothing quite like it in scale or quality. If you visit other Mogul tombs before visiting the Taj (such has Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi or the nearby Little Taj in Agra) you will have a much greater appreciation just how magnificent it is. The earlier tombs can almost be considered beta versions of the Taj Mahal both in terms of size and quality.

If you visit the Taj Mahal, I highly recommend arriving as early as possible. The gates open at 7am. I arrived at 5:50am and was first in line. Being there first gives you and opportunity to take some photos without any people. Even 15 minutes after the gates open, the area will be filled with people. To do this you will have to stay overnight in Agra and not just take a day tour from Delhi.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #303 – Agra Fort

Posted by on March 1, 2016

UNESCO World Heritage Site #303 - Agra Fort

UNESCO World Heritage Site #303 – Agra Fort

From the World Heritage inscription:

Near the gardens of the Taj Mahal stands the important 16th-century Mughal monument known as the Red Fort of Agra. This powerful fortress of red sandstone encompasses, within its 2.5-km-long enclosure walls, the imperial city of the Mughal rulers. It comprises many fairy-tale palaces, such as the Jahangir Palace and the Khas Mahal, built by Shah Jahan; audience halls, such as the Diwan-i-Khas; and two very beautiful mosques.

The Agra Fort really gives you an impression of what it was like to live like a Mogul Emperor. Unlike the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort gives a much stronger impression of being a palace. The buildings, which were used as residences for the royal family, are almost entirely covered with marble and semi-precious stones.

The fort is also very close to the Taj Mahal and one can easily be seen from the other. In fact, if you visit the fort in the afternoon, you can get excellent photos of the Taj Mahal.

The Red Fort is a popular destination in conjunction with visits with the Taj Mahal as the two are so close together. Both attractions can easily be visited in a morning or afternoon.

The late afternoons are probably a better time to visit Fort Agra as most of the day trips from Delhi will be gone by then, and the crowds will be smaller.