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Celebrating World Heritage

18 April 2022

After a visit to Egypt in around 450 BC, the ‘father of History’ Herodotus wrote with amazement about the engineering achievement and the unimaginable cost needed to construct the pyramids: 

'There are writings on the pyramid in Egyptian characters showing how much was spent on onions and garlic for the workmen; and so far as I well remember, the interpreter when he read me the writing said that sixteen hundred talents of silver had been paid. Now if that is so, how much must needs have been expended on the iron with which they worked?' [1]

His words helped to inspire later Greeks to travel and see for themselves the most beautiful and marvellous sites accessible to them across the Hellenistic empire. Over three centuries, these travellers’ wishlists were refined into what we remember today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only the pyramids with their immense stability survive – the temples, statues, gardens and lighthouse lost centuries or millennia ago to plunder and natural disaster.

Today, over 900 locations across the globe are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites because they make outstanding contributions to cultural heritage. These sites tell stories of human ingenuity (Herodotus would have approved the induction of Egypt’s Pyramid Fields among the earliest cohorts); of cultural connection (such as Stone Town in Zanzibar, with its unique blend of Arab, Indian, European and African cultural traditions); and of civilizations lost to time (see the stunning architectural remains of the Vijayanagara Empire, last of the great Hindu kingdoms of India, at Hampi). This World Heritage Day, we celebrate these exceptional sites and renew our commitment to their preservation for future generations.


Images: Christ Church Cathedral in Stone Town, built in 1873, and Virupaksha Temple in Hampi, which dates back to the 11th-16th centuries. 

But we can do more, because we know that the world’s heritage is not confined to these 900 sites – that heritage can be found everywhere people have lived: in places of worship and historic factories, in workers’ cottages and canals. Because ‘heritage’ is simply a noun we use to describe places that tell the story of humanity.

Most often, the story is a local one. One favourite example of mine is the surviving tower of St Mary Magdelene perched high on the hill in the oldest part of Budapest. There has been a church here since the 13th century, which was expanded in later medieval period before serving as a mosque for fifteen years around 1600. Later, the building served as an archive for the Franciscan community, as a garrison church for the castle guard, and an early 20th-century museum. Damaged in the Second World War by Allied bombing, the church suffered a botched restoration and only its tower was ultimately saved.[2] The story of the church is in many ways a microcosm for the history of Budapest. Preserved as a stable ruin, the tower and church remains were reopened to the public in 2017 after decades of closure, and visitors can now enjoy magnificent views from the tower while learning about the extraordinary history of this small patch of earth.


Image: St Mary Magdalene, Budapest tower. 

In the UK, similar projects are underway, in which surviving historic buildings are being revitalised to act as witnesses to the histories of their towns and places. In Coventry, Historic Coventry Trust has been conserving and reopening sites from medieval town houses at Priory Row and the Drapers’ Guild Hall – both attesting the city’s rich history as a hub of trade and industry – to the disparate Anglican and non-Conformist cemetery chapels that remind us that centuries of English life were marred by violent disagreement over differing practices of Christianity. Projects such as these are underway across Britain, and we celebrate them today as the local representatives of ‘world heritage’ that connect us all to humanity’s past.


Image: Restored Priory Row Cottages in Coventry, which date back to the 15th century. 

Other organisations, including Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, are working with charities and universities across Europe and the wider world to develop knowledge-sharing partnerships that see new generations trained in core heritage skills. Trainees both in the UK and in partner organisations in Bulgaria, Estonia and Taiwan are benefitting enormously from these programmes – learning alongside new friends about traditional building techniques including masonry, timberwork and flintknapping. These partnerships help broaden trainees’ horizons and foster the development of a genuinely global heritage sector.


Image: Heritage Trainees in Bulgaria. Photo courtesy of Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust.

Herodotus, according to historians Peter Clayton and Martin Prince, ‘looked back into history, mesmerised by the achievements of the past which had survived into his own world. He looked around the world of his day, curious to study the effects of the past on the present, and of the present on the future.'[3]

This focus on the future is, perhaps paradoxically, at the heart of what heritage is about. Today, we are proud to celebrate all those charities working across Britain and the world to create a better tomorrow for what survives from yesterday.

Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Head of Programmes and Impact

[1] LacusCurtius • Herodotus — Book II: Chapters 99‑182 (, 125.

[2] Kapisztrán tér - Parish Church of Saint Maria Magdalene, Magdalene Tower (

[3] Peter A Clayton and Martin Prince, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Routledge: London, 1988), Introduction, pp. 6-7.

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