Ancient City of Babylon
It comes as a bit of a surprise that the city of Babylon has only now been inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites. The 4,000-year-old city on the banks of the life-giving Euphrates is one of the most famous imperial capitals in antiquity. It was the seat of southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) and capital of the Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire. It reached its height in the 6th century BC, and was famous for its Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, the site, located 85 kilometres south of Baghdad in Iraq, has suffered damage from modern-day warfare, from destruction during the rule of Saddam Hussein to its being used as a base for US troops. Iraq has been lobbying for Babylon’s inscription since 1983, and the year 2019 finally saw its inclusion.
Another significant ancient capital newly inscribed on the list is Bagan in Myanmar, built in the 9th century and capital of the Bagan kingdom which was roughly the size of the modern-day republic of Myanmar. The Bagan kingdom reached its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, until it was overrun by the Mongols. Located in the bend of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) river, it is now a site of Buddhist pilgrimage, with its wide, verdant area covered with temples, stupas, and monasteries. (Stupa is Sanskrit for “heap”, referring to the architectural structure.) Many of the temples house important Buddhist frescoes and sculptures. (See our tours to Myanmar.)
Paraty and Ilha Grande, Brazil
Paraty and Ilha Grande, located between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, are already well-known tourist destinations in Brazil, now made more famous by their recent inclusion as a World Heritage Site. Included in one listing, “Paraty and Ilha Grande” include the historic centre of Paraty, a well-preserved coastal town that was once the end-point of the Portuguese Caminho do Ouro (Gold Route) through which gold was shipped to Europe, and four protected natural areas of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The island of Ilha Grande used to house a maximum-security prison until the mid-90s. It is now famed for its incredible beaches and forests. (See our tour to Brazil.)
Royal Building of Mafra, Portugal
Located northwest of Lisbon, the Royal Building of Mafra was built in the 18th century by the order of King João V. It consists of a Royal Palace, the royal chapel shaped like a baroque basilica, a monastery, a library containing more than 30,000 volumes, a garden (Cerco), and a royal hunting park (Tapada). This extravagant complex was made possible by the gold coming into Portugal from Brazil, and by King João V’s vision of a monument to proclaim the power of the Portuguese empire. (See our tours to Portugal.)
Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
The Vatnajökull National Park stretches across more than 1,400,000 hectares of volcanic and glacial land, nearly 14% of Iceland’s territory. Two of ten volcanoes within the park are among the most active in Iceland. The park contains Iceland’s natural treasures and incredibly varied landscapes. Its inscription signals the need for its conservation, as the glaciers are in a steady process of decline due to climate change. (See our tour to Iceland.)
The Sassanid Archaeological Landscape
This series of archaeological sites includes Bishapur, which Odyssey visits in our Small Group Tour of Iran. Bishapur (Shapur’s City) was the capital under the Sassanian king Shapur I. Shapur’s armies defeated the Romans three times, and his city is full of strong Hellenistic-Roman and Persian influences in the architecture of its temple, audience hall, and defence structures. It was here that the Roman General Valerian spent his final days in captivity.
The Sassanian Empire was one of the most influential in the region’s history, lasting from the early 3rd to the middle of the 7th century. The empire had an active military and an extensive bureaucracy and distinctive art and architecture, often considered to represent a cultural peak of Persian civilization.
The newly declared world heritage site in fact contains eight archaeological sites stretching across the southeast of Fars Province. It covers Firuzabad, Bishapur, and Sarvestan. Included in the listing are the ruins of a number extraordinary structures, including palaces and fortifications. It is especially fascinating for showcasing the influence of Roman and Greek culture on this era of Islam.