In 1972, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the World Heritage convention with the goal of identifying cultural and natural sites of "outstanding universal value" around the world. These sites must meet one of 10 selection criteria, ranging from “human creative genius” to significant ecological and biological processes. In other words, these sites are the world's most important historical, natural, and cultural places.

In 2019, UNESCO named 29 new heritage sites. They're all worthy of exploration, but here are five highlights.

Bagan, Myanmar

Ancient structures in Bagan at sunset
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Bagan was the capital of the ancient Pagan kingdom, which would later constitute the present-day Southeast Asian region of Myanmar. The history of Bagan stretches back farther than the Pagan Empire, though it was during the 11th century that the empire began to flourish with Bagan as its heart. From 1044 to 1287, Bagan became a center of scholarship with teachings as diverse as grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and legal studies. However, religion was the foremost element of the culture. Mahayana Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, and a number of Hindu schools all coexisted in the Pagan kingdom. It was a result of these diverse religious influences and the prosperity of the kingdom that over 10,000 varying religious monuments were constructed during Pagan’s peak.

The kingdom fell to Mongol invasions throughout the 13th century. However, much of the heritage survived or was restored. Today, the countryside of Bagan is adorned with hundreds of ornate temples, stupas, and pagodas of varying architectural styles.

Khan’s Palace – Shaki, Azerbaijan

Decorated ceiling in Khan’s Palace
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In 1743, Haji Chalabi Khan staged a successful revolt against the Persian Safavid empire, establishing the Shaki Khanate. From 1743–1819, the Shaki Khanate ruled over what is now Azerbaijan, with the capital at Shaki in one of Persia’s most powerful feudal states. Trade in the Khanate included tobacco, fruit, and various crafts, but most importantly silk, as Shaki was centered in a key region along trade routes for the silk trade.

The most powerful display of wealth generated from within the Khanate was displayed in the construction of the Palace of the Shaki Khans, built in 1797. Stained-glass windows adorned the halls of the palace atop decorative tiles, across from fountains and adjacent to frescoes painted upon all the interior walls. Today, the summer residence still stands as a testament to the opulent design of the palace and the khanate’s former wealth.

Paraty, Brazil

Pristine coastline in the town of Paraty
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Along the Brazilian Costa Verde, amidst the rich tropical flora on the coastline of Rio de Janeiro, sits the town of Paraty. Portuguese colonists founded the town in 1597. A century later, gold mines were found in the mountains of nearby Minas Gerais, and Paraty became the central hub of what was to become the “Caminho do Ouro,” or “Gold Trail.” The Gold Trail connected Paraty to Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, and Diamantina as a trade route for gold and supplies.

Today, cobblestone streets line the tranquil town amid churches designed with baroque architecture. The territory of Paraty also serves as a center of biodiversity that shelters jaguar, white lipped peccary, and woolly spider monkeys.

Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria – Spain

Sun beaming over the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria
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Another hub of biodiversity, the Risco Caido is a grand mountainous region on the Canary Islands formed by volcanic activity. Within the Risco Caido exists an intricate network of hand-carved caves. Cave Six houses a gigantic lunar and solar calendar carved into the walls with holes permitting rays of light to delineate the equinoxes. The structure takes on a particular significance as it is believed to be the handiwork of pre-hispanic aboriginal culture native to the Canary Islands.

Seowon, Korea

Aerial photo of buildings in Seowon
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The Joseon dynasty was a Korean empire that ruled the land from 1392 to 1897. The Joseon dynasty instilled a new order along the Korean peninsula accompanied by cultural and artistic shifts. They established the first Korean tea ceremony and the Korean gardens while art moved from idealized Chinese styles to realism. Notably, the Joseon dynasty moved away from Buddhism and towards Confucianism. It was within this new framework that they established the Seowon.

Seowons were institutions of learning founded on principles of neo-Confucianism constructed as pavilions around key geographical features such as rivers and mountains. In line with Confucian teachings, the construction and lessons of the Seowon emphasized a connection between nature, the body, and the mind. Though the schools were dismantled under the Yuan dynasty, six Seowons remained and stand to this day as symbols of Korea’s history.

Preservation Requirements

Photo of ancient religious statues
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In order to be considered as a World Heritage Site, the site in question must have adequate protection and management in place as enforced by the country in which the site exists. Inclusion into the World Heritage list is a promising sign that these sites will remain with us into the future, and we can only hope that each country does its part in preserving these wonders of the world.