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7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.

There are over 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in places ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, each with some significant cultural or natural history attached. While many of these places serve as tourist destinations, the World Heritage Sites are designated as such for their cultural, historical, and natural significance. Understanding the significance of over 1,000 areas around the world is far too daunting a task, so here's just seven of the most unique UNSCO World Heritage Sites. For the most part, this list will avoid mentioning already well-known sites like Machu Pichu and will instead focus on those sites that don't get as much love.

1. The Buddhas of Bamiyan

The Buddha statue in 1963 (left) and after its destruction in 2008 (right).

Wikimedia Commons

In Afghanistan's Bamiyan valley stood two massive Buddha statues, hundreds of feet tall, carved straight into the side of a cliff. The Silk Road cut through Bamiyan, which became an important monastery for Buddhist monks as well as a center of art and philosophy in the ancient world. The monks carved caves throughout the Bamiyan mountains where they lived, and some time between the 3rd and 6th centuries, they carved these massive Buddha statues.

Unfortunately, the Taliban blew up the two Buddha statues in 2001, declaring them to be idols and in protest of funds reserved for the statues' preservation that could have been used to feed the Afghani population, which was experiencing a famine at the time.

Since then, the various UNESCO member states have gone back and forth on plans to restore the statues. As of this writing, it seems like a restoration will be going ahead in the near future. Even without the Buddha statues, however, the site is still an impressive place, perhaps even more so for its tragic history.

2. Petra

Al Khazneh, or "the Treasury" of Petra.

Photo by Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

Over 11,000 years ago, a people called the Nabataeans settled in a mountain basin in modern-day Jordan in a place we call Petra. Over time, they carved a massive city out from the rose-colored stone of the surrounding mountains. At its peak, the city hosted 20,000 inhabitants.

The city sprawls across the mountain side, half-carved and half-built, covering 102 square miles. Incredibly, archaeologists estimate that 85% of the city still remains buried and unexplored.

3. The Rock Islands

Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands of Palau. The lake is so-named because of the diversity of the many jellyfish species that inhabits it.

Wikimedia Commons

Located in the island state of Palau, the Rock Islands' name belies their stunning natural beauty. There are about 300 islands in this archipelago, and the last census conducted in the region put their population at 6.

The islands are the remains of ancient coral reefs and limestone, and while they themselves are quite beautiful, the real treasure lies beneath them, in the waters. The coral reefs and diverse marine life make this spot a mecca for divers. The islands also boast a number of blue holes, marine sinkholes that make for a striking landscape and diving environment.

4. Hampi

The Vitthala temple of Hampi.

Wikimedia Commons

The more-than 1,600 ruins of Hampi are the remains of the Vijayanagara Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom in India. The exact age of the site is difficult to pin down, but the oldest archeological finds date to the 3rd century BCE.

Hampi is primarily known for the incredible architecture used in the design of its many temples, forts, shrines, halls, and complexes. Of particular note is the Vitthala temple and its community hall, which contains 56 stone pillars of varying shapes and sizes that produce musical notes when struck.

5. Samarra

The spiral minaret of Samarra.

Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, many world heritage sites are located in places with a history of conflict. Samarra can be found in Iraq and was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, which existed from the 6th century to the 16th.

Samarra contains a great number of Islamic holy sites, including the Great Mosque of Samarra and its spiraling minaret. Many of these sites became the target of sectarian violence in the mid-2000s, particularly the al-Askari Mosque. In 2006, the mosque's golden dome was bombed, and in 2007, its minarets were destroyed by al-Qaeada. While Iraq remains a dangerous place to travel to, it has fortunately become much less so in modern times. Hopefully, its cultural history can be preserved.

6. Gough and Inaccessible Islands

The steep cliffs of Gough and Inaccessible Islands.

By Ron Van Oers

Although they tend to attract tourists and sightseers, not all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites are intended to be visited. As the name might suggest, Gough and Inaccessible Islands are famous for being remarkably untouched by humans. As a result, their natural ecosystem is unprecedentedly pristine, making these islands among the most untampered-with places on Earth.

Located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the islands jut out of the water, forming steep cliffs that make them… well, inaccessible. They're home to several species that breed exclusively on the islands, and owing to their isolation and pristine nature, they're invaluable to biological research.

7. The Everglades National Park

The Everglades from above.

Wikimedia Commons

While the Everglades are certainly better known than many of the UNESCO sites on this list, it was included because it may not exist for very long. The Everglades, which have been described as "a sea of grass flowing imperceptibly from the hinterland into the sea," is an important ecological area with diverse animal life, including crocodiles, wading birds, and the threatened manatee.

UNESCO added the Everglades to its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 2010, and for good reason. Poor water management has resulted in the drainage of much of the park as well as high levels of nitrates and mercury. Developers have begun constructing buildings along the park's borders, often encroaching into the boundaries of the park itself. Invasive species have moved into the area, disrupting the natural balance of the native ecosystem. But the biggest threat is rising sea levels as a result of climate change, which threaten to put most of the park underwater. If you're hoping to visit the park and experience its rare and unique ecosystem, now's the time.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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