New Wonders of the World
Every summer, UNESCO names new cultural and natural wonders to its World Heritage List for their outstanding universal value. It’s a way to raise awareness of the preservation of places important to mankind, but also drives tourism and brings fascinating places to the attention of travelers wondering where to go next. This year’s crop of new wonders—some obscure, some already famous—spans the globe and suggests the range of human experience and achievement.
Among the wonders added in 2012, the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon in Palau delivers both a unique natural topography and the cultural legacy of stoneworking villages abandoned in the 17th and 18th centuries due to climate change. Lovely painted farmhouses in the Swedish countryside testify to the skill of folk artists, while nearly 200 species have been identified from fossils in China’s Yunnan province. Taken together, these wonders provide a visceral connection to the past and remind us of mankind’s shared history.
This is especially true for countries that can seem inscrutable or challenging to visit. Iran, for instance, claims two of the new wonders on UNESCO’s list. Jerry Dekker, of Irantraveler.net, believes Americans should look beyond political hyperbole to explore the country for themselves. Of the Masjed-e Ja-mé mosque in Isfahan, Dekker says: “What makes the place so unique is that not only can one have a visual experience of learning architectural history but one can also absorb the real power that lies behind Islamic architecture."
Some wonders stimulate the senses in other ways. Case in point: Rio de Janeiro’s gorgeous cityscape of sultry beaches and forest punctuated by the world’s largest Art Deco statue: Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. The UNESCO designation of Rio's Carioca Landscapes is timely, with both the Olympics and the World Cup coming soon to Rio. Yet it is also timeless: the site made the World Heritage list in large part because of the long-standing human settlements in the region along with Rio's cultural influence on Brazilian artists and musicians.
See all the 26 new wonders and be warned: you may have another dream trip to add to your own list.
Lena Pillars Nature Park, Russia
The giant stone colonnades of Lena Pillars Nature Park line the banks of the Lena River in the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. Isolated from each other, the pillars soar to heights of 100 meters or more than 328 feet, and are also rich in Cambrian fossils. They formed by freeze-thaw action over the millennia due to the area’s extreme changes in temperatures.
Bali Province’s Subak System, Indonesia
Bali won points with UNESCO this year not for its beaches but for its inland farming regions, specifically five rice terraces and connected water temples that make up a water management and irrigation system of subaks (canals). This setup dates back to the ninth century and includes the Royal Water Temple of Pura Taman. The subak system is itself a philosophical concept harmonizing the spiritual, natural, and built world, and represents the exchange of ideas between Bali and India. Locals say it’s a major reason why Balinese rice growers are among the most successful in Indonesia.
Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau
This gorgeous lagoon counts 445 uninhabited limestone, volcanic-origin islands, some in the shape of mushrooms, over 247,000 acres. It represents the world’s greatest collection of marine lakes (seawater lakes separated from the ocean)—and also boasts a reef system with more than 385 species of coral. Human traces stretch back more than 3,000 years, including 17th- and 18th-century stoneworking villages abandoned due to climate change and population pressure on the fragile ecosystem.
Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth, Germany
A fantastic model of German Baroque, the 500-seat Margravial Opera House was commissioned by Margravine Wilhelmine in the mid-1700s. Designed by architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, complete with paintings and intricate carvings, it paved the way for the grand public operas that proliferated across Europe a century later. In 2013, the theater will host events for the 200th anniversary of the birth of German composer Richard Wagner.
Landscape of Grand Pré, Canada
The archaeological remains in this bucolic setting testify to hardy European farmers who used dykes and the aboiteau wooden sluice system, a labor-intensive method that prevented saltwater tides from flooding the Pré marshland of Nova Scotia—one of the world’s most extreme tidal regions. The preserved area is more than 3,200 acres and was first developed by 17th-century Acadians of what was New France.
Rio de Janeiro’s Carioca Landscapes Between the Mountain and the Sea, Brazil
The most famous of the wonders chosen by UNESCO in 2012, the Carioca Landscapes is crowned by the 1930s Art Deco statue of Christ atop Corcovado. It gazes down at the native Atlantic forest growing in Tijuca National Park—as well as Rio’s see-and-be-seen beaches.
Site of Xanadu, China
Xanadu was a real place north of China’s Great Wall, first described to westerners by Italian explorer Marco Polo. As the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire, Xanadu was designed to combine the Mongolian nomadic, warrior culture with the sophistication of the native Han Chinese and was planned using feng shui principles in 1256. The city’s role as a religious center helped spread Tibetan Buddhism through northeast Asia. Today, remains of temples, palaces, and tombs spread over nearly 62,000 acres.
Lakes of Ounianga, Chad
Saline and freshwater lakes are scattered within this portion of the Sahara desert to dramatic effect. There are four lakes in Ounianga Kebir, the largest being Yoan at roughly 885 acres and a depth of more than 88 feet. High in salt content, it supports primarily algae. Ounianga Serir is the other section, with 14 fauna-filled freshwater lakes amid sand dunes.
Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy, Bahrain
The Persian Gulf nations now bring to mind skyscrapers and air-conditioned shopping malls, but long before oil was discovered, pearl diving was the region’s main source of wealth. Seventeen buildings and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress complex in Muharraq City make up this site, along with three oyster beds and a section of the seashore. Visitors will find traditional shops, a mosque, and the former residences of merchants made rich by the pearl trade, a mainstay from the second century until the 1930s, when the Japanese invented cultured pearls.
Sangha Trinational, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo
These untouched wilds of tropical Africa stretch through adjacent national parks in three different countries—Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Congo—in the northwestern Congo River Basin. The total covers more than 1.85 million acres. Waters here teem with giant tigerfish and Nile crocodiles, while on land, elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees roam the forests along with many endangered African species.
Western Ghats, India
“Old as the mountains” perfectly describes India’s Western Ghats, a mountain chain that makes the more famous Himalayas look young. The tropical ecosystem here is influenced by the Indian monsoon season; warmth and constant moisture support more than 325 forms of birds (the great pied hornbill, for instance), mammals, reptiles, fish, and various flora, many threatened elsewhere.
Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem
One of the world’s holiest sites attracts millions of annual pilgrims, many following a route from Jerusalem (six miles away) developed centuries ago. The first known church here was constructed in 339, while the current structure was built over the site in the sixth century and still includes the earlier, original floor mosaics. Different Christian sects maintain the complex, which includes Franciscan, Latin, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian convents, monasteries, and church buildings, along with bell towers, colonnades, and gardens. Yet infighting among the caretakers over their respective sections has left much of it in a fragile condition.
Garrison Border Town of Elvas and Its Fortifications, Portugal
At this Portuguese town a few miles from the present Spanish border, the fortifications began in the 17th century, when Portugal gained independence from Spain. Those designed by the Dutch Jesuit priest Cosmander are considered the best surviving examples of Dutch fortifications in the world. Among the churches, seek out the impressive 16th-century Church of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, with its blue and yellow tiled interior. Elvas also notably still gets its water from the 4.5-mile Amoreira aqueduct.
Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland, Sweden
Seven 19th-century wooden houses stand out as exquisite examples of a tradition of painted rooms that goes back to the Middle Ages in Sweden. Well-to-do farmers used these rooms for entertaining, and they display a mix of high and folk art created by artists working in Baroque and other styles—many of whose names have been lost to history.
Chengjiang Fossil Site, China
China’s Yunnan province is rich with fossils from the early Cambrian period, dating back nearly 530 million years to a period when most of earth’s major animal groups developed. Well-preserved fossils show both soft and hard tissues from more than 196 identified species in what was once a marine ecosystem here. Many of the fossils are still a mystery.
Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: A Shared Heritage, Morocco
In Rabat, the Moroccan capital with roughly 650,000 inhabitants and a scenic perch on the Atlantic, the planned French colonial city dating from the early 20th century mixes with portions dating back to the 12th century. You’ll spy a variety of stylistic landmarks, such as the Hassan Mosque (circa 1184), royal residences, Art Deco landmarks, and the Jardins d’Essais gardens.
Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley, Malaysia
Humans have been hanging around the forested Lenggong Valley for nearly 2 million years, the longest recorded outside of Africa. The valley is known for its palm plantations, as well as illegal forest logging, and comprises four archaeological sites in two sections. You’ll find ruins from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Metal ages in both open-air and cave shelter settings.
Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan, Iran
Isfahan is awash with religious monuments, and among the most remarkable is the Masjed-e Jāmé, or Friday mosque. The sprawling complex was continually developed from the year 841 until the present era. It is the first Islamic structure to mimic the four-courtyard layout of Sassanid palaces. That design, along with the ribbed, double-shelled dome and intricate tile work, soon became a standard for mosques across Central Asia.
Bassari Country’s Bassari, Fula, and Bedik Cultural Landscapes, Senegal
The Fula, Bassari, and Bedik peoples populated this part of southeast Senegal from the 11th to 19th centuries and developed agricultural and architectural forms that were often in harmony with nature. The Bedik villages feature peaked thatched-roof huts, while the Bassari environment used terraced rice paddies. The sites showcase a still thriving local culture and built environment.
Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey
Discovered only in the 1950s, this 91-acre site is dense with archaeological treasures dating back to 7,400 B.C. Eighteen Neolithic civilization layers have been uncovered on the older, taller eastern hill. Within are wall paintings, sculptures, household objects, and other items, which show the transition from villages into a highly organized urban lifestyle over a 2,000-year period. Within the western mound are ruins dating from the Chalcolithic era (6,200–5,200 B.C.), among them, houses that were joined in a street-less urban pattern, each entered via the rooftop.
Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel, Israel
Nearly a hundred years of archaeological research has been done within the cave sites of Tabun, Jamal, el-Wad, and Skhul on Israel’s Mount Carmel range—and there’s much more to learn. The archaeological elements date back more than half a million years, from ancient burial and stone architectural sites to others that illustrate our evolution to early agriculture and animal husbandry.
Heritage of Mercury, Almadén, Spain and Idrija, Slovenia
Mercury, known in olden days as quicksilver, was key to speeding along the extraction of gold from the Americas by the Spanish Empire. That explains the cross-Continental importance of these two mining sites, one in Almadén, Spain, and the other in Idrija, Slovenia, once a part of the Spanish Empire under the Hapsburgs. Only recently shuttered, they are the largest mines of their type in the world. In Slovenia, there are interesting sets of buildings beyond those used for mining, such as Gerwerkenegg Castle and a beautifully carved underground chapel where miners would pray for safety.
Historic Town of Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast
Grand-Bassam was planned as capital of the Ivory Coast, when it was known as the Gulf of Guinea, under French control in the 1890s. The city grew up around the already existing fishing village of N’zima, which is also included within the UNESCO designation. Cosmopolitan in its heyday, Grand-Bassam was virtually abandoned when yellow fever broke out soon after its founding—inadvertently aiding the city’s preservation.
Major Mining Sites of Wallonia, Belgium
These designated sites are part of an industrial coal-mining belt stretching through Belgium with four intact collieries, or mining sites and their connected buildings. These are the best preserved of hundreds of such sites in use into the early 20th century. The Grand-Hornu colliery (pictured) is particularly striking, with a utopian-like design by Bruno Renard, while the Bois-du-Luc site is one of the oldest, dating back to the late 1600s.
Gonbad-e Qābus, Iran
This soaring tomb stands nearly 17 stories high and was built for the Ziyarid ruler and literary figure Qābus Ibn Voshmgir in the year 1006. It’s the only major remaining structure from the ancient city of Jorjan, a cultural and scientific center destroyed by 14th- and 15th-century Mongol invasions. Among the largest brick towers in the world, it shows traits of both native Persian and Islamic architecture, along with the influences of Central Asian nomadic structures. The structure is built of fired, unglazed bricks, rising in the form of a gently tapering, ribbed, 10-sided cylinder crowned by a conical brick roof.
Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, France
It’s more about brawn than beauty in this part of France, where coal was mined from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries. Spread over nearly 300,000 acres, the site has 109 individual components, many of which demonstrate the intense social controls within these mining communities, meant as model worker villages and outfitted with schools, religious buildings, railways, offices, and other mining company structures. A visit here pays tribute to an important period in European industrialization and informs how and why workers began to mobilize in unions.