Jul 21, 2011 5:46:07 AM
Before it’s too late: the world’s most endangered sights
Tourism, political instability and urban development threaten some of our greatest natural and cultural history – do your bit for preservation and consider some cool alternatives.
1. Abu Mena, Egypt
Rising groundwater, urban growth and agricultural development threaten the archaeological site of Abu Mena, 45km southwest of Alexandria. The consequences for this early Christian settlement are startling – the clay soil liquefies with excess water and immense cavities open under large areas of the complex, forcing authorities to underpin endangered buildings with sand in an attempt to prevent further damage. A great alternative involves heading underground to Alexandria’s Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, a rabbit warren of early Egyptian sarcophagi that’s claimed to be one of the seven wonders of the medieval world.
Egyptians flock to Alexandria in summer and hotels become scarce; head there in the still-warm winter (December to February) to get the eerie catacombs to yourself…and the deceased.
2. Medieval monuments, Kosovo
Synonymous with conflict and destruction, Kosovo hides a rich seam of Byzantine-Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and a medieval history many people are unaware of. Four forlornly beautiful relics – the 13th- and 14th-century monasteries of Decani, Patriarchate of Pec and Gracanica, and the Church of the Virgin of Ljevisa – form the collective known as the Medieval Monuments. Ornately decorated with wall paintings, the sites remain endangered due to political instability. By contrast, the capital city of Pristina is embracing the modern world – simply hang out in buzzing bars and cafes in this confident nation crackling with fierce pride and independent spirit.
The airport is 17km west of Pristina; a taxi ride is the only way into the city and will set you back around €25.
3. Bagrati Cathedral & Gelati Monastery, Georgia
Back in the 3rd century, Georgia became one of the first countries to adopt Christianity and it seems they’ve been building churches, cathedrals and monasteries ever since. Most famous is the site at Bagrati. The 11th-century cathedral is a Christian religious masterpiece, while the Gelati Monastery is richly adorned with frescos and wall paintings. Ruined during the Ottoman Empire, restoration began in 1952. Today, concerns surround the method of reconstruction, which is believed to be endangering the entire site. For a different religious fix, stick to the capital, Tbilisi – the city has dozens of churches, many of Georgian and Armenian heritage and rich in cultural significance.
The 12th-century Metekhi Church in Tbilisi stands on a cliff overlooking the Mtkvari River and is a great viewpoint to look out over the city.
4. Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, Belize
Sandwiched as they are between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, all Central American countries have strong aquatic diversity. Belize, nuzzling Mexico’s far southeast corner, offers 386km of idyllic coastline and the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere. Pristine atolls, lagoons and corals, plus iconic sights like the 124m-deep Great Blue Hole, attract divers from across the globe. But excessive mangrove cutting and ongoing coastal development are threatening the fragile balance of the ecosystem. Instead of diving, head upwards to the Maya Mountains, home to Belize’s highest peaks and a number of ancient Maya ruins.
At 1124m, Doyle’s Delight is Belize’s highest peak; Lubaantun is a ruined Maya city dating from around 800 AD.
5. Tombs of Buganda Kings, Kasubi, Uganda
When fire tore through the Tombs of the Buganda Kings in March 2010, a national scandal erupted. Constructed in the late 19th century, the Unesco-protected tombs celebrate four kings of the Buganda kingdom, a sub-national kingdom within Uganda. With the cause of the fire unknown, looting and rioting broke out, as the relationship between the Buganda tribespeople and the government grew increasingly tense. Both sides have vowed to reconstruct the sacred site, but unrest remains. In the meantime, take a look at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine, a memorial to over 30 Buganda victims of the 1886 religious massacre that occurred here.
Namugongo Martyrs Shrine is 12km northeast of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Frequent tours run from the city.
6. Coro, Venezuala
On Venezuela’s central northern coast is the Spanish colonial city of Coro, dating from the early 16th century and a principal example of Caribbean earthen architecture. Some 602 historic buildings, mostly 18th- and 19th-century churches and merchants’ quarters, form the city’s core. A strong Dutch influence can also be seen. The site was added to Unesco’s endangered list in 2005 as a consequence of climate-change-induced rain damage and insensitive development plans. As an alternative, consider a trip to nearby Médanos de Coro National Park, where you can explore constantly shifting sand dunes that reach 40m in height.
The national park is open from 9am to 6pm.
7. Rice terraces, Cordilleras, Philippines
Rice farming defines Asian civilisation and the terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, on the northern island of Luzon, are a 2000-year-old icon of agricultural heritage. Known as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, the man-made terraces cling to impossibly steep valleys and meld seamlessly with nature’s verdant backdrop. Symbolic of sacred folklore and ingenuity, many terraces are now neglected as the modern world lures young farmers to the city, and the site is ill-equipped for large numbers of visitors. The Cordilleras Mountains are home to Mt Pulag, the Philippine’s second-highest peak (2992m), which makes a great alternative to visiting the terraces.
Permits for climbing Mt Pulag are available from the offices of Mt Pulag National Park at Ambangeg, a 250km drive north from Manila.
8. Rainforests of the Astinanana, Madagascar
Around 60 million years of geographic isolation have afforded Madagascar a unique ecosystem, so unusual that scientists call this ‘the eighth continent’. Most animal species are endemic and while lemurs are the star attraction, you’ll also find curious creatures such as the tenrec, fanaloka or aye-aye. The Rainforests of the Atsinanana are six national parks. But illegal logging is threatening the forests, leading to international anxiety and calls for strict embargoes. Avoid exacerbating the situation by heading to a less troubled corner – the isle of Nosy Komba offers hidden coves and great high-altitude trekking.
Boats to Nosy Komba run at 9am daily from Hell-Ville on Nosy Be; the trip costs approx. MGA5000.
9. Everglades National Park, Florida, USA
It’s not every day that the USA appears on the world’s ‘at risk’ radar, but this isn’t the first time the Everglades have been under threat. Containing the western hemisphere’s largest mangrove ecosystem, the park is struggling with reduced water flow and increased nutrient pollution, which are degrading the aquatic network and damaging marine species. While the government works to correct the problem, try Biscayne National Park as an alternative. Downtown Miami might be on the near horizon, but here you can swim, snorkel and kayak to your heart’s content, or simply pitch a tent and gaze at the view.
Allow 60 to 90 minutes to drive from Miami to Biscayne National Park; check out the park’s website for fees, access instructions and suggested activities.
10. Walled City, Shirvanashah’s Palace & Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan
To many people, Baku means industrial wastelands and oil dollars, but there’s a cultural history here that is more valuable than the countless wellheads. The 12th-century Walled City of Baku, in an area first settled in the Palaeolithic period, exudes the history of empires including the Arabic, Persian and Ottoman. Spectacular highlights include the Maiden Tower, a 12th-century bastion and symbol of national identity, and the ornate 15th-century Shirvanshah’s Palace. These and other sites are priceless examples of iconic architecture but are threatened by the continued spread of modern development. Less threatened is the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape in the semi-desert of central Azerbaijan, a collection of 6000 rock engravings that chart ancient human settlement.
You can visit the rock art as a day trip from Baku; fly in on Azerbaijan Airlines.
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