My favorite World Heritage Sites Vol. 1

June 3, 2017 Global Heritage Comments (0) 2263

If you wander back through the dozen years of this blog, you will encounter a fair range of World Heritage Sites.  Since 1972 UNESCO has inscribed more than a thousand, a significant number of which are “cultural heritage” sites.I have been involved in saving heritage for over 34 years and I have been fortunate to visit a number of World Heritage sites – here are some of my favorites.


Now considered the most popular World Heritage site in the world, Angkor is a wealth of temple sites built over a half millennium in the Cambodian jungle near Siem Reap.  Most famous is the eponymous 13th century Angkor Wat – the largest religious structure ever at 500 acres, but the rich sculptural achievements of the 14th century Bayon are equally mesmerizing.

From my 2001 visit

Angkor Wat 2012.

From a more recent visit 2012 or so. One of the 52 face towers at the Bayon.


I have blogged about Angkor a few times, most recently a couple years back on my way to a more distant Khmer site in 2012.

see the little pig under the cart?  Bayon

Vishnu as pivot churning the sea of milk from 3rd gallery, Angkor Wat

Devas churning at Angkor Thom – I can’t get enough of that churning…

Ta Prohm.

You also get to see this “arrested decay” approach to conservation at Ta Prohm, built by Bayon king Jayavarman VII and where conservation has been (in general) less interventionist, allowing the strangler figs and banyans to have their way.

Ta Prohm copyright Felicity Rich 2012

Oaxaca and Monte Alban

Way back in 1991 Felicity and I visited two World Heritage sites on our honeymoon, including the one that was previously the most popular World Heritage site, Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico.

We also saw the nearby site of Mitla with its distinctive carved key patterns that I would see a week later on the new Rudy Lozano library in Pilsen, Chicago.


Sixteen years later Felicity and I visited one of my all-time favorite World Heritage sites, which also happens to be a massive open pit strip mine.  Falun, in Sweden, where they have been mining copper since AT LEAST 1347.

Industrial heritage has always been part of my brief, and Falun was both visually exciting and historically fascinating – I blogged about it at the time (2007).

Best red paint EVER!!

San Antonio Missions

For the last year I have LIVED IN a World Heritage site, one that was inscribed two years ago – which I celebrated in a blog at the time.  I also blogged at length about the San Antonio Missions SEVEN years ago.  A unique site in the United States for its combination of cultural and built heritage.

Matachines at Feast of the Virgin, Mission Concepcion

About a decade ago I visited the only World Heritage site in Illinois, the fabulous Cahokia Mounds.  United States sites tend to be natural or really ancient and archaeological, unlike those in Europe.

Monks Mound.  You can see the Gateway Arch in St. Louis from the top.


I spent two months backpacking through India in 1986 and I did manage to see quite a number of World Heritage sites, beginning in Tamil Nadu with Mahabalipuram, site of the great shore temples of the Pallava dynasty and this killer sculpture of the Birth of the Ganges..

Well this is embarassing

This was a new heritage site at the time, and actually several of the sites I saw in India were only inscribed as World Heritage after 1986, like Brihadesvara temple in Tanjore, Jaiselmer in Rajashtan, Agra Fort, Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, Fatehput Sikri and of course the Qtab Minar, inscribed in 2013.

Nandi at Brihadeswara Temple, Thanjavur, 1010 AD

Qtab Minar, Delhi.

India has several of my very favorite World Heritage sites, starting with the building so famous we don’t even need to name it.

Like so many great works of architecture, it has no purpose as shelter.

But the ones that really blew me away were the cave temples at Ellora and Ajanta (inscribed 1983).  Ajanta is know for its setting – a onetime riverbend – and its paintings, some 2000 years old.


Cave 10, Ajanta

boddhisatva painting at Ajanta

Temple 16 – Kailasa – at Ellora is still like my favorite building in the world because it is an architectural inversion – twice the size of the Parthenon carved out of the living rock from the top down.  Epic.


The other one that figuratively blew me away (and that is not all the figures got up to) were the “sex” temples of Khajuraho, a wonderful unity of art and architecture at a time when physical and spiritual enlightenment were more interchangeable than even today.  These are kind of out of the way but really worth the visit.

Oh, and in 2008, I got to visit Ahmedabad, which just became India’s first city to be inscribed as World Heritage!  I was there during Uttarayan and loved it.

Manek Chowk, Ahmedabad, 2008.

The city is known for its pols, neighborhoods of cheek-by-jowl buildings with occasional courtyards, a fire inspector’s nightmare but a haven for community formation.

Utturayan the kite-flying festival, 2008.

Siti Saiyad Jali, Ahmedabad – the carved latticework tree is a symbol of the city.

I have barely traveled in England in recent years, but I did see Edinburgh and Durham in 1987, and Felicity and I visited Ironbridge Gorge in 1994.

Durham Cathedral

Edinburgh Old Town – wow look at that car!  I was there for Fringe Festival

Ironbridge – the town on the Severn – birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

We went back after Felicity was born and stumbled across some more World Heritage sites, including the industrial town of Saltaire and the ruins of Fountains Abbey, both in Yorkshire.

Saltaire – by Sir Titus Salt

Fountains Abbey – the cloister (note man and baby)

We traveled to Mexico again in 1992 and managed both the center of Mexico City and Teotihuacan, which I would rank among the greatest archaeological sites in the world.

Cathedral, Mexico City

This is part of the excavation of the Templo Mayor under the Zocalo 25 years ago.  They recently found a circular temple and part of a ball court in this area – it was in the news this week!

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Tlaloc and Quetzal, Teotihuacan

The next year we were in Italy, home to more World Heritage sites than anywhere else (China will pass them soon) and of course we saw Rome and Florence but I think my favorite site was Hadrian’s Villa, hard by another site, Villa d’Este.  Hadrian’s Villa inspired my investigation into historic site interpretation, largely because it had the most obtuse architectural signage I had ever seen – in four languages.  But it is also an architectural historian’s dream because Hadrian was basically building a museum of architecture from throughout the empire.

Hadrian’s Villa

Square fluted columns, arranged in a square

Now that is a bedroom…

I forgot about the body shaming.  Traumatic.

Fountain at Villa d’Este

We went to Ireland a bunch in the late 90s and early 00s, but like the U.S. their World Heritage sites tended to be archaeological, like the famed 5000-year old passage tomb at Newgrange.

In 2010 a visit to the Netherlands allowed a first visit to Utrecht and a 20th century modern architectural World Heritage site by Gerrit Rietveld.

In 2013 I spent Easter in Tripoli and saw Sabratha the next day, which was fantastic.

From Phoenician to Greek to Roman to Byzantine to Arab

More infrastructure – Sabratha

In 2012 I got to work in a World Heritage site, the Cercado in the center of Lima, which you can learn about in this blog.  Most of Peru’s heritage sites are cities like Lima and Cusco and Trujillo.

Typical Lima balcones

Cusco center

Typical Cusco Inka stone walls


And of course there is the most popular World Heritage Site in South America in Peru.  This little town, built and occupied for only 80 years, but commanding one of the most stunning sites in the world.  ANYTHING would look awesome in this place.


Machu Picchu – as if you didn’t know.

Infrastructure – the terraces that made it possible – I wrote a blog in 2012 about the infrastructure at Angkor and Machu Picchu – you can see it here.

walls and windows, Machu Picchu

more to come…


















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