You’ve probably heard the term World Heritage Site (WHS) thrown around in travel circles, or you’ve seen it plastered across a travel brochure. What is the significance of them though? A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area selected by the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The programme is intended to conserve these sites due to their cultural, physical or natural significance.
The criteria for a landmark or area to be selected as a WHS is extensive and I won’t ramble on about the policy and criteria. To be selected, a landmark or area has to meet a set of 10 standards (six of them need to be cultural and four natural). Here are a few of them (to see the rest of them, you can follow this link):
- To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
- To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
- To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
- To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
If a site or landmark happens to meet all of the 10 standards, then it may only be shortlisted and then it will be put through another selection process.
East Africa’s World Heritage Sites
There are 135 WHS in Africa, located across 37 countries. Ethiopia and Morocco have the most sites with nine each, followed by Tunisia and South Africa with eight sites each. Together, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have 25 (a full list of Africa’s WHS can be found at this link).
Ethiopia has been steeped in obscurity because of its location on the horn of Africa. Compared to the rest of east Africa, Ethiopia remains a mystery and this is why it’s been dubbed ‘Africa’s newest travel adventure’. It has yet to live up to high expectations placed on it by the travel industry, but with a number of breath-taking natural and cultural World Heritage Sites, that could soon change.
- City of Axum (Aksum) – Historically known as the Kingdom of Axum, this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Africa. At its height, Axum included modern day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan. Western Yemen and parts of Somalia. The city was an important cross roads between Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World. The structures, and more famously the Pillars of Axum, are still some of the best preserved of ancient civilisations in Africa.
- Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region – King Fasil settled in Gondar and established it as a permanent capital in 1636. Before it declined in the late 18th century, the royal court had developed from a camp into a fortress, called Fasil Ghebbi. The fortress itself and the structures beyond its walls are phenomenal, they demonstrate a remarkable relationship between internal cultures and cultures beyond the Kingdom of Ethiopia.
- Simien National Park – Located in northern Ethiopia, Simien National Park has some of the most incredible landscapes in Ethiopia and East Africa. Deep valleys (dropping 1,500 m in some places) and jagged peaks characterise this landscape, which have been shaped by nature, weather and local agriculture. Apart from the unforgettable scenery, visitors will also have a chance to see the endangered Walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf and Gelada baboon.
Natural brilliance reveals itself far and wide in Uganda, so much so that it’s almost an attack on the senses – in a good way. A mixture of landscapes, coupled with plenty of wildlife and birdlife provide one of the greatest nature experiences in East Africa.
- Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Located on the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, Bwindi is a biodiversity hotspot with some research suggesting that it has the greatest number of tree species for its altitude – it’s not called the ‘impenetrable forest’ for nothing. The great amount of biodiversity owes its origins to Bwindi’s volcanic past where the dormant volcanoes once released a great deluge of ash over many years. Bwindi is also home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas which provides visitors with one of the best and intimate wildlife experiences there is.
- Rwenzori Mountains National Park – The Rwenzori Mountains seem to be something of a well-kept secret in Africa. Covering 99,600 ha these mountains don’t receive the number of visitors they deservedly should, and with amazing snow-capped peaks to take in you will be left wondering why. The Rwenzori’s are a vital, and the most permanent, water source of the Nile River. Mountain rivers, tiered vegetation (including unique alpine flora, native to the Albertine Rift) and hidden waterfalls make this WHS something to remember. The greatest feature of the Rwenzori would have to be Mount Stanley (5,109 m). A lot less busy than the routes to Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Stanley to some degree provides a greater challenge, as climbers have to contend with dense vegetation and obscure trekking paths that aren’t well worn. The peace and solitude at Margherita Peak is well worth the effort though.
- Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi – On the Kasubi hillside adjacent Kampala are the Tombs of Buganda Kings. This kingdom is the largest of the traditional kingdoms in Uganda with 6 million Baganda making up the largest ethnic group (approximately 16.9% of Uganda’s population). These tombs are where the previous four kings (Kabakas) are buried. The grounds provide an important spiritual connection for modern day Bagandas to their past. The main tomb on the grounds is the masterpiece and has been in existence since the 13th century. Its standing echoes the great cultures, kingdoms and societies that once were a feature of East Africa.
If you’ve ever seen a photo of a savannah sunset, there’s a high chance that it was taken in Kenya. It’s said that this is where safaris were born and so was the word ‘safari’, which means journey in Swahili. With eight WHS, there’s plenty to see and explore in Kenya.
- Lake Turkana National Parks – Consisting of three national parks (covering 161,485 ha) with Lake Turkana at its centre, this desolate part of northern Kenya boasts a seemingly extra-terrestrial landscape. The lake may look like a desert oasis (also known as the Jade Sea due to its breath-taking colour), but it’s also the world’s largest alkaline lake. The geology and fossil records of Lake Turkana represent an important part in Earth’s history. Hominid discoveries and important geological evidence piece together important evidence for the Pliocene and Holocene periods (4 million to 10,000 years old).
- Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley – This lake system is comprised of three alkaline lakes (Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita). Major tectonic and volcanic events have shaped this distinctive landscape where a great diversity and concentration of bird species exist – including 4 million lesser flamingos that move between the three lakes throughout the year. The mix of steep escarpments, hot springs and volcanic outcrops culminate into a diverse natural landscape.
- Lamu Old Town – Located 350 km (217 miles) north of Mombasa is Lamu Old Town and represents one of the best preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. Lamu has managed to maintain its social and cultural identity, as well as its integrity. Inhabited for over 700 years, this town was one of the most important trade centres in East Africa. You will feel like you are stepping back in time, as the town is a culmination of narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings, where Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles coalesce.
Tanzania boasts seven WHS within its borders and shares another two with Kenya and Malawi (Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley and Lake Malawi National Park). Archaeological evidence has suggested that Tanzania is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth and a lot of this evidence is due to extensive studies on Tanzania’s various WHS.
- Stone Town, Zanzibar – Just like Lemu Old Town, Stone Town was once an important trading point between Africa the Middle East and Asia. A lot of its trading history is steeped in slavery and the town has retained its urban fabric, with a lot of the town virtually intact. Most of the buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries with key buildings such as Old Fort, the house of wonder (a large ceremonial palace built by Sultan Barghash) and Christ Church Anglican Cathedral (commemorating the work of David Livingston in abolishing the slave trade and built on the site of the last slave market).
- Serengeti National Park – With 1.5 million of hectares of savannah, this is where the ‘greatest show on earth’ takes place. Two million wildebeest, including zebra and gazelle (to a lesser extent) migrate clockwise around the Serengeti for approximately 1,930 km (1,200 miles). Close behind the herds are a mix of predators (hyena, leopard, cheetah and lions) that lie in wait. The sheer amount of wildlife culminates into one of nature’s greatest spectacles and the best safari experiences there is.
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area – Vast expanses of savannah, woodlands and forests, set in a volcanic crater, mesh together to form one of the world’s most pristine natural ecosystems. This WHS has global significance for biodiversity conservation and archaeological research (showing a long sequence of human evolution and human-environmental dynamics, spanning over 4 million years). Coupled with the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Having great cultural, societal and natural significance, World Heritage Sites are an important part of East Africa’s tourism mix. With only 12 sites discussed here, this leaves plenty more for you to explore and discover.