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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Top 10 lesser known World Heritage Sites

Spark buzz  |  at  12:30  |   |  No comments

1  Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein

More commonly known as The Cradle of Humankind, this site is a complex of over 36 limestone caves in South Africa, not far from Johannesburg. Within these caves scientists have found a huge number of hominid fossils dating back over 3.5 million years, with one cave alone containing over a third of all hominid fossils ever found. The caves also show signs of occupation as well, including the first ever in-situ hominid stone tools, and the oldest controlled fire dated to over 1 million years ago. Scientist believe prompt burials, along with the unusual conditions within the caves, allowed for the bodies within to become fossilized, which in itself is an extremely rare occurrence. Some of the better known finds include Mrs Ples, the most intact skull of an Australopithecus Africanus ever found, although the sex is not definitely female, x-rays of the teeth seem to show that this was a sub-adult. Another famous find is Little Foot, an amazingly complete hominin skeleton which is believed to be between 2.5 to 3.3 million years old. This site shows us not only where our species came from but how we evolved over millennia, earning it top spot on my list.
2  Takht-e Jamshid

More commonly known as Persepolis, it is located in the south of Iran and was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Construction was started around 515BC by Cyrus the Great, but the most impressive works were completed by Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great (yes the bad guy from 300) in around 470BC. One of the most awe inspiring structures on this site is the Apadana palace which was the main hall of the kings, where the tributes from nations within his Empire would have been received. The building was supported by columns 20m high, topped with a brace carved to the shape of lions or bulls. I have seen an example of these braces in the Louvre and it gives you an amazing idea of the size and scale of Persepolis. The site also contains the gate of nations, the hall of 100 columns, the imperial treasury, council halls, military quarters, reception halls, cisterns, drainage, sepulchers, royal tombs, royal stables, chariot houses and a number of palaces and royal residences, all covered in engravings and mosaics. The city was destroyed in 330BC, by Alexander the Great, possibly in revenge for the destruction of the acropolis in Athens, but the ruins still contain many beautiful carvings and are testament to the wealth and power of the Persian empire.
3  Lascaux Cave

Lascaux is group of caves in southwest France which were decorated over 17,300 years ago, with Paleolithic cave paintings. The public were allowed to view the caves in 1948, but by 1955 the carbon dioxide exhaled by the visitors had damaged the paintings causing the cave to be closed, the art was restored and is now monitored on a daily basis. The images are mostly of animals known to have lived in the area at the time, but images of humans and abstract signs are also present. Some of the images have been carved into the cave but the majority of art has been painted on using mineral pigments. A large portion of the paintings are of horses, but stags, cattle, aurochs, felines, birds, bears and rhinoceros’s are also represented. There are many theories on why this cave was decorated in this manor: it is thought that some of the art may represent star charts, as the constellations of Taurus and Pleiades can be found within the cave. There are also theories that this would have been a scared space to communicate with deities, a gathering place to plan a hunt together or even a record to celebrate the success of a hunt. We will probably never know but these images give us a fascinating look into our past.
4  Tropical Rainforest Sumatra

The Tropical Rainforest of Sumatra is made up of three national parks on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, and was chosen due to its outstanding scenic beauty and natural habitats for in-situ conservation. The three parks all contain different habitats, allowing for a large diversity in both flora and fauna. The parks are home to Rafflesia Arnoldi, the world’s largest flower, and Amorphophallus Titanum, the worlds tallest flower, as well as 174 species of mammals and 380 species of birds. Of these specimens, 16 are endemic and 73 are currently threatened. Species such as Orang-utans, Sumatran rhinoceros, bornean clouded leopards, Asian tapirs, Sumatran elephants and the leather back turtles are all found within this site, making it one of the most diverse and important conservation sites in the world. The sites main threat is residential expansion and encroaching human occupation, both of which is being battled by a number of different preservation groups.
5  Wadi Al-Hitan

The Whale Valley is found in a desert in Egypt, the site contains fossils showing the evolution of whales from land mammals to the ocean going creatures we are familiar with today. Fossils of the Archaeoceti suborder such as Basilosaurus and Dorudon are common, but the skeletons of sea cows Sirenia, elephants Moeritherium, crocodiles, sea turtles and sea snakes have also been found at the site. The sheer number and quality of these fossils found in such a high concentration make this site unique. The quality of preservation is so good that stomach contents have been found preserved, while the combination of other species found at the site make it possible to reconstruct the environmental and ecological conditions. The site has produced hundreds of high quality fossils showing the earliest sub-species of whales which are helping to unravel the mystery of the evolution of whales.
6  Wudang Building Complex

The Wudang Mountains are a small mountain range found in eastern China, which have been inhabited since at least 250 AD. The area is known for its Taoist monasteries, which were renowned as centers for meditation, martial arts, agriculture and medicines. People traveled to this area to research, learn and practice these skills. The palace and temple complex was constructed in the Ming Dynasty and within it are buildings dating from the 7th century. One of the more famous temples is the Golden Hall; built in 1416, the hall is constructed from gilded copper. It consists of 20 tons of copper and over 300kgs of gold, and was supposedly forged in Bejing, then moved to Wudang. The Nanyan Temple perches precariously on top of a cliff, in legend it is known as the place from which Emperor Zen Whu flew to heaven. The entire temple, including beams, gates and windows, is carved from rock and within the temple are gilded bronze statues of dozens of Taoist deities. Scattered across the cliffs are 500 gilded iron statues of heavenly officials. Another notable building, the Purple Cloud Temple is made up of several halls, the Dragon and Tiger Hall, the Purple Sky Hall, the East Hall, the West Hall and the Parent Hall. This temple contains shrines to Zhen Wu throughout his life. It also houses relics including the Green Dragon Crescent Blade which dates back to the 7th century.
7  Ellora caves

Ellora is the site of monumental, rock cut, cave temples representing Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religions, built from 400AD in close proximity to each other to show the religious harmony in the area. The structures are multi level buildings, carved directly from caves within the mountain face, and include monasteries, shrines and places of worship. Many of the buildings have vaulted ceilings and are all intricately carved, with most of the shrines containing large carved deities. During construction, 200,000 tonnes of rock had to be removed from the site by generations of workers. Some notable caves are: the Buddhist shrine Vishvakarma, which features a multi-storied entrance, a large hall with vaulted ceilings and a 15ft carving of Buddha in a preaching pose; The Indra Sabha is a two level Jain cave with a monolithic shrine, like all of the Jain caves it once had richly painted ceilings, part of which are still visible today. It also has fine carvings of lotus flowers, Yaksha Matanga on an elephant and Ambika sitting on a lion under a mango tree. Kailasanatha is the centerpiece of Ellora, made to resemble mount Kailash, the home of lord Shiva, this Hindu shrine was built by Krishna I in around 760AD. The structure is covered in detailed and intricate carvings, including sacred bulls and life-sized elephants supporting the shrines.
8  Lalibela

Lalibela is a rural town in the north of Ethiopia. It is also one of the countries holiest cities and a centre for pilgrimage. The 13 churches in the town have been carved completely from rock directly into the ground. It was under the instruction of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela during his reign as Emperor of Ethiopia, that these churches were constructed, the layout and names of the buildings in Lalibela are a representation of Jerusalem. This has helped to date the churches to around the 1200s, after the 1187 capture of Jerusalem by Saladin. The largest monolithic church in the world, Bet Madhane Alem, is also home to the Lalibela Cross: a 12th century processional cross. Bete Maryam is thought to be the oldest of the churches, and Bete Golgotha is where it is believed King Lalibela is entombed. These churches are very unusual in that they are carved into the ground instead of into a cave or a cliff face, as most other rock carved buildings are. This process must have been very slow work and each church is carved with painstaking detail and stands as testament of the dedication of these people to their religion.
9  Monte Albán

Monte Albán can be found on a low mountain range in southern Mexico. The site is one of the earliest pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sites ever found, dating back to at least 500BC, the valley it is situated within also shows signs of inhabitancy from as early as 2000BC. The site offers a unique glimpse into the Zapotec history and culture. At the centre of the site is the main plaza surrounded by civic and ceremonial buildings as well as the elite homes. The site also features two ball courts, monumental stairs, hundreds of tombs and over 300 Danzante carved stone monuments. Most of them are of male war prisoners, tortured and sacrificed, with many being leaders of competing villages. The site also contains over 40 conquest slabs within the walls of buildings, these slabs give the names and sometimes details of places conquered by Monte Albán. From these it has been possible to confirm Cañada de Cuicatlán was conquered by the Zapotec.
10  Alcobaça Monastery

The Alcobaça Monastery in central Portugal was founded by king Afonso Henriques in 1153, and took 99 years to complete. This was the first building of the gothic style in Portugal, and is still the largest church in the country, it is of no surprise it went on to become one of the most important medieval monasteries in Europe. The monks of the monastery spent their lives meditating on religion and producing manuscripts, until it was pillaged by the French in 1810, it had one of the largest medieval libraries recorded. This monastery was the chosen burial place for many royals during the 13th and 14th centuries, their elaborate tombs are some of the best surviving examples of medieval engraving and sculptures in Europe. The tombs of Pedro I and his mistress, Ines de Castro, are particularly intricate, both feature relief of the occupant on the lid of the tomb, the kings tomb rests on carved lions while Ines is supported by carvings of creatures which are half man – half animal, and are covered in engravings showing angels and biblical scenes. The best known tomb is Queen Urraca’s, a Romanesque tomb engraved with an image of the Queen on the top, while around the body of the tomb are reliefs of the Apostles, the King and their children. This building is truly a showcase for the skills and dedication of the medieval craftsmen of Europe.

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