Regardless of where you’ve traveled, chances are you’ve visited at least one UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. From the Sydney Opera House to Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China to the Statue of Liberty, many of these landmarks of human civilization are known throughout the world. But UNESCO’s official list, which features more than 1,000 entries, also includes some sites that have remained under the radar despite their historical significance.
Amphitheatre of El Jem
Constructed during the height of the Roman Empire, this 3rd-century monument once hosted gladiator contests – and seated more than 35,000 spectators. One of the last surviving such amphitheatres, it later served as a Berber citadel that protected the El Jem settlement from invading Arab forces.
Bronze Age Burial Site of Sammallahdenmäki
Constructed roughly 3,000 years ago, this vast site consists of more than 30 cairns built from granite. Many of the tombs reflect Sun worship, a common practice among Scandinavian denizens of that period; anthropologists believe their reverence for the solar body was linked to agriculture. The location also features two structures – one oval, the other rectangular – for which historians have yet to determine a practical purpose or religious significance.
Coffee Cultural Landscape
Comprised of 18 settlements, this site in the Andean foothills allows visitors to take a closer look at the coffee-growing industry through a cultural lens. Have you ever said you can’t live without coffee? Tell that to the local campesinos who have cultivated the valuable bean for generations.
This settlement of 11 penal institutions is a startling reminder of Australia’s history; long before it became a country, the world’s largest island served as a dumping ground for Great Britain’s convict population. More than 160,000 men, women, and children were shipped to Australia between 1787 and 1868, and many of them spent time on these notorious grounds.
Historic Mosque City of Bagherat
Built under the command of Turkish General Ulugh Khan in the mid-1400s, this Islamic community is comprised of dwellings, tombs, bridges, roads and some 360 mosques – all rendered from sun-baked bricks, mortar and lime. Despite the rudimentary materials, the structures are indicative of expert building techniques with respect to spatial planning and arrangement.
Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site
Country: El Salvador
This once-thriving agricultural center was buried under nearly 20 feet of volcanic ash when the nearby Laguna Caldera blew its top around the turn of the 7th century. Unlike the Italian city of Pompeii that was wiped out by Mount Vesuvius, archaeologists believe that most Joya de Cerén residents fled after a sizable earthquake warned them of the impending catastrophe. Today, the settlement is remarkably well preserved and surveys have yielded hundreds of personal items, from garden tools to kitchen utensils.
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Situated at the tip of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, historians believe that this 11th-century Viking community was the first European settlement in North America. Prior to the Scandinavians, the site was home to indigenous native populations dating back more than 5,000 years. Numerous Viking artifacts are on display, and many of their houses – topped with peat roofs – are still standing.
Known as the ‘Louvre of the Desert’, Tsodilo is home to thousands of rock art paintings within an area of only 10 square kilometers. The oldest specimens date back to the Stone Age, and Tsodilo’s reverence as a place of worship has sustained to the present day. The artwork remains highly preserved, thanks to the durable quartzite canvas.
By Brad Nehring