Embark on an enchanting odyssey through time across the Middle East's most fascinating cultural sights, newly inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list
On September 25, 2023, the World Heritage Committee concluded its 45th meeting in Riyadh Saudi Arabia, with the addition of 42 new sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Comprising 33 cultural attractions and nine natural sites, these additions bring the total number of UNESCO World Heritage sites to 1,199, spanning 168 countries. First introduced in 1972, the list identifies places of cultural, historical, natural or scientific significance, with an aim to protect and preserve these landmarks that provide outstanding universal value for future generations and safeguard our global heritage.
The new list spans the length and breadth of the planet, from the island of Anticosti in Canada to the Old Tea Forests in China. Many have also been identified in this part of the world, chosen for their deeply rooted connections to the region's past and their modern-day significance.
Uruq Bani Ma’arid, Saudi Arabia
The kingdom's first natural site to be inscribed on the list, Saudi Arabia's Uruq Bani Ma’arid reserve is situated on the western fringes of the Rub al-Khali (The Empty Quarter). Spanning 12,750 square kilometres, this expansive reserve is one of the planet's most breathtaking desert landscapes. Its varied topography allows a multitude of wildlife habitats to thrive, with the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx, once on the brink of extinction in the wild, being especially noteworthy. The reserve is also a sanctuary for the Arabian sand gazelle as well as over 120 indigenous species of flora and fauna, contributing to the region's ecological richness.
Wooden Hypostyle Mosques of Medieval Anatolia, Türkiye
Encompassing five mosques built in Anatolia between the late 13th and mid-14th centuries, these unique houses of worship are important examples of Islamic architecture in the region. Each mosque is located in a different province of present-day Türkiye and is among some of the best-preserved wooden hypostyle structures in the world.
Characterised by an unconventional structural design, the exterior of these mosques is built using traditional stonemasonry, complemented by multiple rows of wooden interior columns that provide support to the flat wooden ceiling and the overarching roof. The delicate interplay of masonry and wood contributes to the unique aesthetic appeal of these gems, which is only enhanced by the woodcarving and handiwork seen in its fittings and furnishings.
Situated off the coast of Tunisia, the island of Djerba, which spans 514 kilometres (making it the largest island in North Africa) tells an inspiring story of human resilience. Around the 9th century, the settlements that began to develop here thrived despite the island's semi-dry, water-scarce environment. The neighbourhoods evolved into one community through the development of complex routes around the island, allowing the people to share commodities, communicate, practice religious rituals and overcome the challenges of the environment together.
Numerous remnants from these communities endure even today, including the ruins of white-walled houses, mosques, churches, synagogues and souks scattered throughout the island.
The Persian Caravanserai, Iran
Out of the hundreds of caravanserais scattered across the Silk Route, 54 found in Iran have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. When trade began to thrive in the region, these roadside inns flourished as they offered vital provisions to travellers, pilgrims and caravans, including shelter, food and water.
The selected few were chosen as they exemplify the pinnacle of influence and value among their counterparts. They exhibit diverse architectural styles, adaptive responses to climatic conditions and varied construction materials, extending across vast distances and evolving over centuries. Together, these caravanserais encapsulate the rich narrative of Iran's history, while illustrating how they evolved and expanded over time.
Situated in an expansive rural landscape around 90 kilometres southwest of Ankara, Gordion is a multi-faceted archaeological site. Dating back to the Iron Age, it once served as the ancient capital of Phrygia, and its pivotal location made it a crucial trading hub, linking the east and west. Today, the site reveals the layered history of Phrygian culture and economy through key elements such as a citadel mound, lower and outer town areas, fortifications, burial mounds and tumuli.
Hyrcanian Forests, Azerbaijan and Iran
The Hyrcanian Forests of Iran were first inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019, but the 2023 edition has recognised portions of the site that extend into Azerbaijan to include the Dangyaband and Istisuchay Valley. Dating back 25 to 50 million years, the Hyrcanian Forests form a unique forested massif along the southern edge of the Caspian Sea. The newly inscribed section comprises diverse ecosystems that are home to apex predators like leopards, wolves and brown bears, found within a rich tapestry of rare and endemic tree species, some as old as 500 years.