It is thanks to Turkey and Asian tourists that I started to better appreciate the UNESCO World Heritage Sites’ concept. Asian tourists often let these sites inspire them for holiday itineraries, an example that I now fully embrace myself. World Heritage Sites gloriously reflect world history and universal beauty, described in UN language as being of “outstanding universal value” with a “unique value for mankind”.
The world already has recognized over 1,000 sites in 163 countries, with many more to come. Turkey at the moment is home to 16 confirmed sites, but 59 (!) more of its locations are on the waiting list. Over the past years also the importance of non-material heritage gained ground. The famous Turkish Whirling Dervishes and the somewhat unnerving sport of oil wrestling, for example, are already included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
World heritage is not only about beauty and value, but also about politics. Take for example the recent qualification of Ani, former capital of an Armenian kingdom more than 1,000 years ago. Ani is to be found at the Eastern edge of Turkey, separated from Armenia by just a small river and a collapsed bridge. Its selection during the 40th Session of UNESCO’S world Heritage Committee in July 2016 in Istanbul not only went rather smooth, but also, in spite of complicated bilateral relations, led to a warm Armenian thank-you to Turkey for taking care so well of this common heritage.
Another important topic last July was Palmyra, the beautiful Roman city in Syria that has been badly damaged by ISIS: how to balance restauration and authenticity. I have seen with my own eyes in Iraq how former dictator Saddam Hussein ruined a precious site of Babylon by using wrong materials and not respecting the original character of the buildings.
Some of the Turkish Heritage Sites are close to the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul: the Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmet mosque. There is more. Turkey, a country at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, has been the cradle of many civilizations, from Luwan and Hittite times to the Ottoman Empire. Roman, Greek, Persian and Central Asian influences spread all over the country and left many beautiful ruins and buildings. This immensely rich past has given Turkey and the rest of the world (amongst others) Troy, Nemrut, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Cappadocia and Pergamon.
Turkey also has a long waiting list; the handling of visitors can be at times a concern at many of the sites and thus preventing them getting on the final UNESCO-list. I love being the only tourist at historic locations, but cannot fail to see that unfortunately sometimes sufficient supervision is lacking.
My favorite World Heritage Site in Turkey so far? I visited Ani on a cold and windy (±6 degrees) April day, wandering around during more than four hours on a desolate but amazing site, surrounded by hills and green pastures. Ani is often called ‘the city of 1,000 churches’. Some of the churches are still in good shape; most of them are in ruins. Ani was once the capital of a kingdom in a region that was part of so many different empires like the Persian, Russian and Ottoman.
My wife and I have so far visited over half of the heritage sites in Turkey. We still have many to go, including those on the waiting list. Only after we have seen them all we might perhaps be prepared to leave this history rich and beautiful country.