Babylon was once a thriving, splendorous city of the ancient world, home to hundreds of thousands of people and ruled by such famed historic leaders as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. Today, visitors to the site might have a hard time picturing its illustrious history; much of the ruins, located in modern-day Iraq, are unexcavated, and the area has sustained considerable damage from human development, ill-advised restoration efforts and conflict. But in a major nod to Babylon’s cultural importance, the ancient city was recently added to Unesco’s World Heritage List, along with 28 other sites.
Launched in 1978, the list now includes more than 1,100 sites of “cultural and natural heritage ... considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” This year’s additions can be found around the world, include both developed and natural landscapes, and range from locations that are thousands of years old to relatively modern additions.
Among them are the ancient metallurgy sites of Burkina Faso, which boast a history of iron production dating back to the 8th century B.C.; Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park, a spectacular swath of land comprised of canyons, river systems and subglacial volcanoes; Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene, a historic wine-growing region in Italy; and Jaipur, an 18th-century city in India that is famed for its majestic architecture. Eight buildings by the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, were also added to the list.
To qualify for World Heritage status, sites must meet at least one of ten selection criteria, and securing the coveted designation can be hard work. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, for instance, said it took 15 years of “extensive, collaborative efforts” to complete the nomination process. Financial assistance is available to sites on the World Heritage List, particularly to those that are threatened. But for the most part, the designation is honorary, conferring prestige that “often helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation,” according to Unesco.
A nomination could fall through if Unesco feels that a country needs more time to bolster its management plan for a given site; according to Iliana Magra of the New York Times, that was the case this year for Jamaica’s Underwater City of Port Royal, also known as the Sunken Pirate City due to its history as a swashbucklers’ hub. Babylon, a major historic site, has only now been included on the Heritage List because in the past “it hasn’t been treated very well,” writes NPR’s Jane Arraf.
In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein razed a large part of the city to build a replica on top of the original ruins. Later, he built a palace for himself on another part of the site. The U.S. invasion of Iraq brought further damage; according to NPR’s Bobby Allyn, military helicopters landed on the remains of the ancient city and heavy vehicles drove over its ruins.
Iraqi authorities hope that the site’s new World Heritage status will help draw tourists to the country—something officials have been trying to do in the wake of Iraq’s victory over the Islamic State. And for everyday Iraqis, news of the World Heritage designation was cause for celebration.
“People are out and about town, riding in their cars, being happy and glad that they're Iraqi,” Jeff Allen, program director of the World Monuments Fund, tells NPR. “And that's a wonderful thing that this is doing for them.”