World Heritage at 50: Can We Give a Future to Our Past?

November 22, 2022 | 2:05 pm
The temples at Abu Simbel in Egypt, shown with a crowd of tourists exploring them Yungchin Li/FLickr
Victoria Hermann
Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute; Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University

Not far from where world leaders are gathered at Sharm El Sheikh to negotiate the latest round of climate commitments lies a 3,000-year-old temple that revolutionized how we think about humanity’s shared sense of continuity. 

Past the briny beaches of the Red Sea and down the fertile banks of the Nile, the relief sculptures of the Abu Simbel Temples stand in intimidating silence. The stoic stares of Ramesses II and his chief wife Queen Nefertari, painstakingly hewn from a sandstone mountain, carry the architectural glories and engineering feats of a bygone empire into this millennium. 

You’ve likely seen the colossal shrines in the 1977 Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, or more recently as a backdrop in this year’s remake of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. The statues have become something of a stand-in symbol for Ancient Egypt in Hollywood. And yet, despite their modern stardom, in 1960, the Temples at Abu Simbel faced a dire fate. The construction of the Aswan Dam across the Nile River promised the irrigation needed to feed a growing economy and population, but it would come at the high cost of flooding the Temples at Abu Simbel under 200 feet of water.  

But as the temples awaited their drowning, something miraculous happened. The world chose action over ambivalence. From every corner of the planet, governments, companies, charities, and private citizens joined together in an international effort to save the monuments.  

Led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the “now or never” campaign to protect the Temples at Abu Simbel appealed to the imaginations of people around the world with a simple but radical idea: that the value of some heritage sites extend beyond borders and lifetimes. Sites like Abu Simbel were more than testaments of Egyptian history; they were the indivisible inheritance of all humanity from one generation to the next. And that these sites, our non-renewable legacy, must be preserved through a shared, global commitment.  

The campaign, and the idea of world heritage, won.  

Stone by stone, the Temples at Abu Simbel were dismantled by some 3,000 workers over five years and relocated out of harm’s way. In 1972, the concept of world heritage sites was codified in an international agreement, so that places of cultural significance would always have a mechanism for nations to cooperate on their conservation for future generations.  

This week marks the 50th anniversary of that treaty, the World Heritage Convention, and humanity’s commitment to protect places of outstanding universal value from decay and destruction.  

The anniversary marks more than a semicentennial signing of a treaty. It is a reminder to world leaders gathered at COP27 that history is worth saving. And, with courage and a commitment to collective action like that at Abu Simbel, history can be saved in the face of seemingly intractable destruction.  

Today, the climate crisis poses seemingly intractable destruction to sites on every continent. 

Climate change is the fastest growing threat to historic sites and the greatest danger to our planet’s most spectacular natural heritage. One in three natural sites and one in six cultural heritage sites are threatened by climate change. For world heritage forests like the Redwoods of California or the central Amazon in Brazil, the threat jumps to 60 percent. For marine sites like the Great Barrier Reef, 66 percent are at risk of disappearing. And like their natural heritage counterparts, archeological sites like Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island and historic cities like Venice cannot survive the climate crisis unaided.  

Climate impacts threaten far more than the tangible integrity of redwoods and Rapa Nui megaliths. They also disrupt the transmission of cultural knowledge essential to community resilience. And while dedicated local leaders are using expertise and passion to safeguard sites, more is needed to protect humanity’s inheritance. 

As sites across the world face increasing threats from fires and floods, we again need a collective action from world leaders to prioritize their preservation by including cultural heritage in climate commitments. 

Cultural heritage has a place in every component of climate policy. Designating adaptation financing for sites and their custodian communities is not only critical to preserving history for future generations; it is equally crucial in supporting the livelihoods and cultural economies tied to sites today. Uplifting carbon sinks, sustainable cultural practices, and low carbon architecture of heritage sites can help countries reach their mitigation goals. And addressing heritage loss and damage, the irreversible cost of inaction, is central to achieving climate justice.  

By committing to both climate action and heritage preservation, world leaders hold the potential to save humanity’s shared sense of continuity—culturally, and existentially.   

As leaders leave COP27 and Egypt, they can return to their home countries with a promise to give a future to our shared past. Their pledges can safeguard our historic sites so we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention and the success of once again preserving the very histories, traditions, and cultures that make us who we are. 

But like the fate of the Abu Simbel Temples, the future pathway of our planet is not yet set. It’s a choice. 

Victoria Herrmann is a Senior Fellow at The Arctic Institute and Assistant Research Professor at Georgetown University, where she leads an NSF-funded Research Coordination Network on Arctic migrations. She also directs a National Geographic Society funded multi-year initiative which aims to use science, storytelling, and community-led solutions to protect heritage sites against climate impacts across the world.

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