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Ten curious facts about world heritage beyond Canada's borders

Trivia nut Heather Yundt uncovers some of the lesser known, yet compelling curiosities of UNESCO's past and present global icons

  • Apr 30, 2013
  • 1,002 words
  • 5 minutes
One of 11 monolithic churches in Ethiopia chiseled entirely out of rock Expand Image

From Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and India’s Taj Mahal to Egypt’s pyramids and the monoliths of Easter Island, UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list is dotted with famed attractions. With 946 one-ofa- kind locations beyond Canada’s borders, there’s no shortage of places to visit — but here’s a list of 10 that may have slipped under your radar.

Rock-Hewn Churches, Ethiopia When Muslim conquests in the 12th century blocked Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land from Ethiopia, King Lalibela decided to construct a “New Jerusalem” close to home in Lalibela. The result was 11 monolithic churches, each chiselled entirely out of rock. One church, Biete Medhani Alem, at 33.5 metres long and 11 metres high, is the largest monolithic church in the world.

Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila, Mexico
It seems apt that one of the world’s most famous spirits is produced near the foothills of its namesake volcano in Mexico. After all, tequila has a reputation for destroying a million Friday nights and Saturday mornings. But the drink, produced from the blue agave plant, has become part of the country’s national identity, and has a history dating back to the 16th century. It’s so special, in fact, that nafta has recognized it as a product unique to Mexico, and only five states in the country have the authority to produce the beverage and call it tequila.

Surtsey, Iceland
It’s 32 kilometres off Iceland’s southern coast, but distance isn’t what makes this 141-hectare island the most difficult World Heritage Site to visit. Formed by volcanic eruptions from 1963 to 1967, Surtsey is off-limits to most people because it serves as a natural laboratory for scientists studying “the colonization process of new land by plant and animal life,” including lichens, fungi, 89 species of birds and 335 species of invertebrates.

Macquarie Island, Australia
The southernmost UNESCO World Heritage Site is the place to go if you want to see evidence of what things look like six kilometres below the ocean floor without getting wet. The island, 1,500 kilometres southeast of Tasmania, is the only place in the world where the Earth’s mantle is actively exposed at sea level, due to tectonic activity.

Statue of Liberty, United States
Lady Liberty has welcomed millions to America since it was completed in 1886. Standing just under 93 metres (from the ground to the tip of its torch), the iconic figure is made of copper sheets laid over a steel frame. Although the statue weighs more than 200 tonnes, the thickness of its shell is just 2.38 millimetres — less than that of two stacked U.S. pennies.

Canaima National Park, Venezuela
If the thought of the world’s highest waterfall plunging 1,002 metres from the top of a table mountain formation into a lush valley below makes you want to whisk yourself away to a land of adventure, you’re not alone. Venezuela’s Angel Falls, which is more than 17 times the height of Niagara Falls, was the inspiration for Paradise Falls in Disney’s hit animated film Up, and is located in this three-million-hectare park.

Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, Oman
One of two sites ever to be delisted by UNESCO (the other was Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley, in 2009), Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary lost its World Heritage Site status in 2007 after the country’s government reduced the size of the protected area set aside for the rare antelope by a whopping 90 percent.

The Jantar Mantar, India
Stargazing has fascinated humankind for millennia, but in early 18th-century Jaipur, it was literally a big deal. This observatory, one of five built by Maharaja Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734, features monumental works of masonry designed to improve the accuracy of astronomical measurements — including a 26.1-metrehigh sundial, the world’s largest.

Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia
Words such as “rainforest,” “giant,” “rotting meat” and “corpse” may elicit visions of Jurassic Park, but in Indonesia they usually mean you’re talking about one thing: a plant. Nicknamed the “corpse flower” for its foul smell, the titan arum has one of the world’s largest flowering structures, reaching up to three metres in height. Apart from a handful of botanic gardens, the species exists only in the Sumatran rainforest.

Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site, Marshall Islands
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they didn’t pave paradise — they blew it up. This string of islands, part of the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands, is still feeling the effects of a series of nuclear tests that the United States government conducted from 1946 to 1958, making it, according to UNESCO, a symbol of “the dawn of the nuclear age.” On a lighter note, the island is also believed to be the namesake of the bikini swimsuit, which made its debut the year trial detonations began in the region.

By the Numbers: UNESCO World Heritage sites



the total number of World Heritage sites, as of 2012


the year the most World Heritage sites were inscribed (61 sites)


the percentage of World Heritage sites located in Europe and North America


the percentage of World Heritage sites located in Africa


the number of World Heritage sites in Italy – more than any other country in the world


the number of states with no World Heritage sites


the number of Canadian World Heritage sites among the first to be inscribed in 1978 (L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site & Nahanni National Park)


the number of World Heritage sites currently listed as endangered, 42 per cent of which are in Africa


the number of sites that have had their World Heritage status revoked (Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary & Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley)


the total number of hectares inscribed as World Heritage sites around the world – that’s more area than Algeria

Source: UNESCO World Heritage List Statistics


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