When Afghanistan's Taliban announced plans in February to destroy all of the country's statues—including two gigantic fifth-century Buddha figures— the cries of outrage reverberated around the globe. Losing these ancient and precious pieces of history was a bitter reminder that our sense of cultural heritage transcends national boundaries. It was a reminder, too, that even the most venerable monuments are vulnerable to change.
With that in mind, T+L polled experts from the world's foremost conservation foundations and compiled a list of the most fragile places on earth. Here, we highlight spots in each region of the world— natural and cultural sites threatened by harsh weather or scarce funding (or, more likely, both). Our advice?Go soon, before they're gone forever.
Jordan: Petra Archaeological Site
Petra's historic richness is as legendary as its decay. The site is often subject to eroding flash floods and earthquakes; unfortunately, the Jordanian government doesn't have the money for preventive maintenance—just damage control. Because little is done to fortify these structures, many have simply collapsed.
Syria: Old City of Damascus
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus dates back to the 15th century B.C. Until a few decades ago, you could walk through the Old City without glimpsing a concrete apartment block or neon sign. But as fragile old buildings crumble, they're being replaced rather than restored.
Montana: Glacier National Park
This 1.1 million-acre park with its glacially sculpted mountains is sometimes called Little Switzerland, but the wildlife here—grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, moose, and elk—epitomizes the western United States. Since 1850, however, when this area was first surveyed, more than two-thirds of its glaciers have disappeared. Environmentalists attribute the meltdown to global warming, compounded by inadequate rainfall. Scientists estimate that at the current rate, the park's glaciers won't exist at all in just 100 years—which will surely affect its animal population.
Malta: Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples
Reminiscent of Stonehenge, these stone structures from the Copper Age (3600-2500 B.C.) are the oldest freestanding megaliths in the world. They predate even Egypt's Pyramids—and their age is showing. Many are collapsing because of rain, salty sea breezes, and vibrations from nearby quarries. Even more heartbreaking is the lack of security, which has left the temples open to vandals who recently overturned 60 stones and etched graffiti on them.
Turkey: Ani Archaeological Site
Ambling from the ruined bridge to the crenellated defense wall and proto-Gothic cathedral, you'd never guess that this medieval ghost town once rivaled Constantinople in power and glory. Its crumbling state is certainly due to natural causes (Ani was built in a seismic zone), but because it has the misfortune of being an Armenian heritage site in Turkey, government officials aren't too concerned about its deterioration. Ani has been the victim of looting and acts of destruction over the years, and reports indicate that concrete is being used to replace the stone, making proper conservation of this 1,100-year-old city impossible.
Ethiopia: Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace, Gonder
The buildings in Ethiopia's former capital are in various states of decline, but the most delicate among them is the Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace, commissioned in the 18th century by Queen Mentewab. It's a prime example of Gonderian-style architecture, a hybrid of Portuguese, Indian, and Ethiopian influences. Owing to decades of neglect, however, the palace roof has caved in, walls have eroded, and pools of water have destroyed the foundation.
Egypt: Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Luxor
Most of the wall paintings in the tombs still have rich colors and distinct lines, despite the fact that they can be traced back as far as the 16th century B.C. While there are numerous threats to these world-renowned monuments, the greatest is tourism. About 1 million visitors throng the passageways every year, and unless the flow of traffic is curtailed and railings are built to protect the frescoes from oily hands, they will continue to be damaged every day.
Brazil: Atlantic Forest, Southeastern Coast
It's estimated that more than 50 percent of the tree species and 90 percent of the amphibians in this rain forest are found nowhere else, giving it the highest percentage of endemism in the world. Despite outcries against the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon, the Atlantic Forest is in fact at much greater risk of disappearing. About 90 percent of the forest has been cleared for farms, which strip the soil of the nutrients needed for regrowth. The Nature Conservancy helped a local conservation group purchase an area twice the size of Manhattan; actions such as this seem to be the forest's last hope for survival.
Chile: Orongo Ceremonial Site, Easter Island
Strung along a ledge of rock, Easter Island's most important ceremonial site (dating from the 15th century) is bordered by the crater of the Rano Kau volcano on one side and by waves on the other. Structures at the southern end of the complex are decorated with petroglyphs; sadly, recent measurements reveal that these stones have shifted six feet closer to the Pacific in the past 30 years. Continuous rain erosion, exacerbated by foot traffic, is undermining the structures' stability, which may ultimately cause Orongo to fall into the sea.
Nepal: Itum Monastery, Kathmandu
Itum, which dates from approximately 1241, is one of the oldest structures in the Kathmandu Valley. Though many of its architectural details are still intact, its future is nevertheless precarious—the rotted timber roof is on the verge of caving in, and the Nepalese government has no money for repairs.
India: Hampi Monuments
Towering temples and palaces carved with animals and gods; pillared mandapas (stone rest houses); 20-foot statues of Ganesh cut from a single stone—all of these precious relics are found in the former Hindu kingdom of Hampi. In the past five years, however, two suspension bridges and a road have been erected, bringing increased visitors. Worse, building them required the dismantling of an important mandapa.
Don't just curse the loss of these treasures. Contact one of the following conservation agencies to see how you can help.
World Monuments Fund 95 Madison Ave., 9th fl., New York, N.Y.; 646/424-9594.
Nature Conservancy 4245 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, Va.; 800/628-6860.
UNESCO World Heritage Center 7 Place de Fontenoy, Paris; 33-1/4568-1000.
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