The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — better known as UNESCO — has curated a world-famous list of World Heritage sites highlighting the most beautiful natural landscapes, historically significant ruins, and artistic masterpieces around the world. The 1,092 properties that have made this prestigious list "reveal the most compelling chapters of Earth's history," National Geographic says.
With this list, which was inaugurated in 1972, UNESCO sets out to protect cultural and natural sites of "outstanding universal value." The first criterion — properties under consideration must meet at least one of 10 — states that the site must "represent a masterpiece of human creative genius." Needless to say, the standard is pretty high. But once a property makes the cut, UNESCO will take it under its wing, from hiring park rangers to look after it to preventing it from being bulldozed for a freeway system. Once recognized as a World Heritage site, many places attract more tourism and receive more public awareness and preservation efforts in turn.
This year, UNESCO has added 20 sites to the World Heritage list. From the alleged "world's first temple" in Turkey to a Mexican valley that holds the most columnar cacti in the world, these are 2018's new additions.
20 Mount Fanjingshan, China
Southwest China's Wuling Mountain Range is known as the "gene database of China," The Telegraph says. Its highest peak, Fanjingshan, is home to 4,395 plant species and 2,767 animal species alone. UNESCO describes it as "an island of metamorphic rock in a sea of karst," originating in the Tertiary period dating as far back as 65 million years ago. Both its aesthetics — a marvelous beech forest — and unique ecosystem — naturally helping to preserve China's ancient relict plants — has made it China's 13th natural World Heritage site. It's certainly the only place in the world where you'll see the rare Guizhou Snub-nosed monkey. Now, with 53 total sites nationwide, China has the most in the world.
19 Chaîne des Puys - Limagne, France
This volcanic fault line in the center of France was created 35 million years ago, in the aftermath of the formation of the magnificent Alps mountain range, according to UNESCO. This site demonstrates rifting, a significant stage of plate tectonics. The Limagne fault is comprised of 80 dormant volcanoes, Forbes says, now covered by a blanket of vegetation due to lack of activity — the last eruption took place in 4,040 B.C. — earning the ancient site its nickname of the "Green Volcanoes." The new UNESCO site runs through a notable wine region of France, Côtes d'Auvergne in the Loire Valley, which means that tourists can visit the youngest of the volcanoes, Puy de Dôme, then go to the valley for an unmatched glass of French wine.
18 Al-Ahsa Oasis, Saudi Arabia
Encompassing 2.5 million date palms and sitting on 30,000 acres of land, UNESCO calls this new World Heritage site the largest oasis in the world. Occupying the eastern Arabian Peninsula, the Al-Ahsa Oasis features gardens, ancient fortresses, mosques, and archeological sites alike. This vast relic first saw humans in the fifth millennium B.C., according to the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage, when they would farm with sophisticated irrigation canals that still extend along the eastern areas of Al-Ahsa today. Although classified as a desert oasis, Al-Ahsa offers plenty of foliage; in fact, it is considered the greenest part of Saudi Arabia.
17 Ancient City of Qalhat, Oman
Another wondrous gem of the Middle East, the Ancient City of Qalhat on the east coast of Oman was developed as a port city between the 11th and 15th centuries C.E., according to UNESCO. Today, researchers look to this antique estate as evidence of international trade between Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia, back when the Hormuz princes reigned. Today, Qalhat looks more like a city of rocky ruins than the major port it used to be, possibly because of an earthquake that many believe hit the city during the 14th century. Nonetheless, the significant remains that are left behind are a modern-day reminder of the Bronze Age.
16 Caliphate City of Medina Azahara, Spain
This once-forgotten Spanish city has been rediscovered at last. Medina Azahara was "laid to waste," according to UNESCO, between 1009-10, during the civil war that ended the Caliphate. The remnants of what used to be an urban hub during the Umayyad dynasty, down to its decorations, were untouched for 1,000 years, helping to preserve the ancient metropolis so that when it was rediscovered during the early 20th century, it gave researchers a rare glimpse of the Western Islamic population that once thrived there but has since vanished. Dubbed "the Shining City," Medina Azahara is the largest archeological site in Spain, spanning over a million square meters. The Culture Trip calls this destination just a few miles outside of Cordoba an "underdog attraction" because it is often left off of tourists' itineraries, but now that it's been recognized as a World Heritage site, that might not be the case for long.
15 Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
Towering pillars aligned in rings, engraved with carvings of wild animals suggest that this archeological site in the Germus mountains of Turkey could have been the world's first temple, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Prehistoric peoples who carved these 11,000-year-old stones did so without metal tools or pottery, which hadn't yet been invented. The holy stones depict foxes, lions, and scorpions, some of them reaching up to 16 feet tall. According to UNESCO, these early, open-air temples in the Upper Mesopotamia area were likely used for funerary rituals 11,500 years ago — a time that we now generally consider to be pre-civilization.
14 Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region, Japan
Less than a century after Christianity first appeared in Japan, it was banned. Churches were destroyed and Christians were punished — sometimes exiled — to the point where, by the 1640s, there wasn't a single priest left living in Japan. Christians martyred at first, but only until they realized that if they all die, the religion would inevitably die with them, so they hid. After the ban was lifted in 1873 and these "hidden Christians" could practice their faith freely again, they erected Catholic churches in the Nagasaki Region on Kyushu island with their own money and gusto. The 12 components that comprise the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Hidden Christian Sites include 10 villages, a castle, and a cathedral.
13 Ivrea, Italy
The 20th-century city of Ivrea was established by Camillo Olivetti, the founder of Italy's leading manufacturer of typewriters and office computers at the time. What makes it so historically significant today is the architecture of its buildings and the layout of the town itself, which UNESCO calls a "model social project" that "expresses a modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture." Things were moving from the mechanical space to new-age digital industries, Italy Magazine says, and Ivrea moved with it, employing the top architects and urban planners of that time to design a city plan that would foster "Movemento Comunità," community movement.
12 Naumburg Cathedral, Germany
Germany's Cathedral of Naumburg is a representation of the movement from late Romanesque to early Gothic architectural styles. It's easy to see Romanesque influence in the cathedral's exterior arches and vaults, and the Gothic influence in the couple of choirs inside the structure. While construction on the cathedral began in 1028, the choirs that were erected later reflect changes in religious practice, namely the introduction of science and nature. Inside of one of the choirs, life-size statues honor the founders of the cathedral, a contrast to the typical subjects of sculptures — often times saints and biblical characters— during this era. UNESCO calls the Naumbug Cathedral "an outstanding testimony to medieval art and architecture."
11 Sansa, Republic of Korea
Seven Buddhist monasteries in the mountains of South Korea, Sansa perfectly represent Korean-style architecture, featuring a courtyard ("madang") bordered by four buildings: the Buddha Hall, pavilion, lecture hall, and dormitory. They were established from the 7th to 9th centuries, in the Three Kingdoms period of Korea, during which Buddhism was officially approved. These seven stunning temples summon spirituality, and you can get a unique taste of the Buddhist lifestyle with a fully immersive templestay. "These mountain monasteries are sacred places," UNESCO says, "which have survived as living centres of faith and daily religious practice to the present."
10 Sassanid Archaeological Landscape Of Fārs Region, Iran
A landscape of ridges extending from the Zagros Mountains, the aerial view of Fārs is remarkable. Consisting of eight archaeological sites — including fortified structures, palaces, and city plans, according to UNESCO — this region in south-central Iran was inhabited during the Sassanian Empire from 224 to 658 C.E. These ancient structures show the influence of Roman art, which was common in the architectural styles of the Islamic era. Even after so many centuries, Fārs is still home to ethnic groups, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, whose primary occupations include sheep herding and carpet weaving.
9 Thimlich Ohinga, Kenya
This pre-historic site in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, Africa, is defined by a stone wall that is believed to have once been used as a fort for pastoral communities and their livestock. The ancient enclosure was created during the 16th century C.E. by strategically placing stones in an interlocking pattern, holding the fort together without the cement or mortar used now in modern times. It's the largest and best-preserved of its kind, UNESCO says. The newly named World Heritage site has provided great insight into settlement traditions in the Lake Victoria Basin during that era.
8 Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles, India
Part Victorian Neo Gothic, part Art Deco, the adjacent ensembles in Mumbai, India, have earned a spot on the World Heritage list because they represent the city's "phases of modernization" throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Bordering the green Oval Maiden recreational grounds, the eastern side presents public buildings in the style of Victorian Gothic, constructed during the 1880s, while the western side presents structures in the style of Art Deco for commercial and entertainment uses. These 20th century Art Deco artifacts were built to cater to the climate of India, employing breezy balconies and verandas. Utilizing Indian design, the architects behind the buildings coined the style that we now call "Indo-Deco."
7 Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, South Africa
These mountains are home to one of the world's oldest geological structures, the Baberton Greenstone Belt. Here in these Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in northeastern South Africa, you'll find volcanic and sedimentary rock dating all the way back to when the primitive earth's first continents started forming, UNESCO says. Simply put: these billions-of-years-old stones show some of the oldest signs of life on earth. Just recently, in 2014, scientists found evidence of a terrestrial meteor impact here, which is now believed to be the largest to date.
6 Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia
Another natural wonder, Chiribiquete National Park in the Amazon rainforest is the country's largest protected area. Its tabletop peaks tower over lush forest, making for a remarkably massive landscape. The Native Americans called these sandstone mountains "tepius." The rock shelters at the base of the tepius are decorated with more than 70,000 pictographs depicting hunting scenes, ceremonies, and battles, from some 20,000 years ago to now. Colombia's Chiribiquete Park also has one of the highest rates of plant diversity in the area, BBC reported. UNESCO says that the biodiversity of this site is linked to values "that are strongly associated to the beliefs and spiritual values of the indigenous peoples living in the property."
5 Pimachiowin Aki, Canada
In the indigenous language of Ojibwe, Pimachiowin Aki means "the land that gives life," and the Anishinaabeg people who once roamed here respected all forms of life. UNESCO says Pimachiowin Aki is an "exceptional example" of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan, a cultural tradition also known as "keeping of the land," which includes honoring all gifts from the Creator, maintaining harmonious relationships, and respecting the land. Not only is it culturally significant, but this area is also home to part of the largest stretch of boreal forest — nearly 30,000 square kilometers! — on earth, according to its website.
4 Archaeological Border Complex of Hedeby and the Danevirke, Germany
Hedeby is known for being a former medieval city in Schleswig-Holstein that has stayed true to its Viking roots. It is home to an archaeological site that houses the remains of an emporium dating back to the 1st and 2nd millennia C.E. The site is defined by walls and ditches made from the earth, a harbor, and a cemetery. Traces of roads and buildings have been found here, too. Because it was located on major trade routes between the Frankish Empire and Scandinavia, the Archaeological Border complex of Hedeby and the Danevirke became an important marketplace throughout the entire Viking age.
3 Aasivissuit-Nipisat, Greenland
Aasivissuit-Nipisat is located in an ice-free area of Greenland, inside the Arctic Circle. UNESCO has recognized it for its cultural and historical significance as a former Inuit hunting grounds, bearing witness to seasonal migrations and ancient medicine dating back to 2500 B.C. These historic hunting grounds that lie between the ice and the sea have preserved communal winter houses used by prehistoric peoples and hold evidence of their early caribou hunting techniques. "It bears testimony to the resilience of the human cultures of the region and their traditions of seasonal migration," UNESCO says.
2 Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley, Mexico
This site is home to what UNESCO calls the richest biodiversity in all of North America. Here in the Mesoamerican region, the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley holds the most columnar cacti of anywhere in the world. These seas of agaves and yuccas are the stuff of desert dreams. Aside from its unique and remarkable floristic landscape, possessing 365 endemic species, the valley also demonstrates the early domestication of crops, UNESCO says, and an impressive water management system — consisting of intricate canals, aqueducts, and dams — that is also the oldest in the continent.
1 Bikin River Valley, Russian Federation
The Bikin River Valley is an extension of a pre-existing UNESCO World Heritage site: the Central Sikhote-Alin mountain range inscribed in 2001 for its rich and unusual temperate forest. Here, researchers found that northern-region fauna (such as the brown bear) and southern-region fauna (such as Himalayan bear) seemed, to their surprise, to mix and coexist. About 100 kilometers north of the original site, Bikin River Valley is three times the original's size. It encompasses vast coniferous forests and houses such majestic creatures as the Siberian tiger, a "critically endangered species" that Greenpeace hopes UNESCO will help protect.