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The 1,115th wonder of the world

The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, after it was named a Unesco World Heritage site.


The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, recently named a Unesco World Heritage site

Baku, Azerbaijan, 7th July

Professor Teresa Anderson waited patiently as the Water Management System of Augsburg finally got the recognition it had craved for so long. The Krzemionki Prehistoric Striped Flint Mining Region made the grade too, much to the delight of the team from Poland. So did Laos’s ‘Plain of Jars’, an area greatly admired for its “tubular-shaped megalithic stone jars used for funerary practices in the Iron Age”. It was hard cheese, though, for the Großglockner High Alpine Road, whose application was denied, to the upset of the Austrians.

The emotions ebbed and flowed among the delegates at the cavernous Baku Convention Centre as the results were announced. Finally it was time for Anderson’s big moment, the verdict on Jodrell Bank’s candidacy. “It is with great pleasure that this committee declares approved decision 43COM8b.35. Approved! Thank you!” said the chairwoman with a big smile and a little bang of her gavel. Cue elation at the British table as Jodrell Bank became the 1,115th site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

For Anderson, director of the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, the award marked the culmination of ten years of unpaid work, carried out with her husband, Tim O’Brien, professor of astrophysics at the University of Manchester. “We’ve both got day jobs, so we did it in whatever spare time we had,” she tells me three months later. “It was a labour of love, just us two little scientists up against the UN.” Things came to a head between August 2017 and January 2018, when the pair were working on the final nomination dossier. “It took up every evening and every weekend,” says Anderson. “I think we had Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off but otherwise we just worked solidly on it, around the kitchen table. It was all-consuming, like writing another PhD.”

“Lovell unveiled a 250-foot-diameter beast mounted on gun turrets from mothballed World War I battleships”

Their painstakingly assembled dossier tells the story of Jodrell Bank Observatory, an array of huge radio telescopes set up by astronomer Bernard Lovell. After World War II, Lovell was attempting to study cosmic rays using radar detection equipment at the University of Manchester but the signals kept getting disturbed by interference from the city’s electric trams. Setting out to find a location free of such interruptions he picked some fields owned by the university’s botany department in rural Cheshire and set up the Jodrell Bank Observatory.

It was here, in 1957, that he unveiled the largest steerable dish radio telescope in the world, a 250-foot-diameter beast mounted on gun turrets from mothballed World War I battleships. It was the only telescope on Earth able to follow the trajectory of Sputnik’s booster rocket by radar as it circled the planet a few weeks later. Since then it has been used as part of an early-warning system for Soviet nuclear attacks, as well as in researching cosmic rays and tracking potential alien radio signals as part of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programmes. Now known as the Lovell Telescope, it is employed, along with other radio telescopes at the site, for research into black holes and dark matter, star formation and astrochemistry.

Anderson and O’Brien’s pitch emphasised Jodrell Bank’s role in understanding humanity’s place in the universe as well as its heritage. “It’s the only remaining working radio astronomy facility in the world that was there at the beginning of the science,” says Anderson. “The rest of them have now got car parks or industrial sites on them. And it’s not just another cathedral, it’s the first working observatory to be inscribed, so it makes a huge contribution to the diversity of the World Heritage List.”

Jodrell’s nomination document was developed with help from officials from the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who put it through its paces. This is not a relaxing process. “They make you jump through hoops,” says Anderson. “Then they set the hoops on fire and make you jump through them again.”

The successful campaign to save the ancient Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel in 1960 led to the creation of the UNESCO World Heritage list

Nasser and the Nubians

The seeds of Anderson’s fiery hoop-jumping odyssey were sown in the Egyptian revolution of 1952. The uprising against the ineffectual King Farouk brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement to power – and one of their first decisions was to construct a major new dam on the Nile at the city of Aswan. This would lead to the flooding of a huge area of the Nile valley, which contained hundreds of temples and monuments from ancient Nubia.

Nasser requested Unesco’s help in protecting the sites and in 1960 the organisation launched an appeal to its member states. This funded the painstaking relocation of the ancient temples of Abu Simbel in the Nile Valley to higher ground and the salvage of thousands of precious artefacts. The success of the initiative led to similar safeguarding operations in Indonesia, Italy and Pakistan, and sparked the idea for a roster of the world’s best sites, with the aim of preserving them for “the entire world citizenry”. In 1972 the World Heritage List was launched, as a sort of Lonely Planet bucket list compiled by career bureaucrats.

These days the process of classifying the world’s most important heritage sites is expensive – the average cost of mounting a campaign was estimated at between £261,000 and £387,000 in a 2007 report by British consulting firm PwC. It’s also arduous. First a site needs to get onto its country’s ‘tentative list’, jostling with dozens of other candidates for the privilege. There are currently 1,720 sites tentatively listed by 178 countries, a small number of which will be nominated for consideration by Unesco each year. These sites submit large dossiers of evidence whose positive and negative points are then weighed in agonising detail in front of hundreds of delegates at the World Heritage Committee over the course of 11 days.

Since the 35th annual meeting of the committee in 2011, the world has had the dubious privilege of being able to watch its deliberations live-streamed in real time. Between the occasional drama of the inscription announcements it is a meticulous, solemn, plodding process, enough to make even the most enthusiastic of delegates reassess their life choices. Its real world effects, however, can be profound. Newly-inscribed sites gain bragging rights, valuable international publicity, major increases in visitors and protected status under the UN’s international treaties, meaning their home nation has to protect them, and other nations have to step in to help in emergencies.

Brahms and list

The driving force behind Anderson and O’Brien’s Jodrell Bank pitch was simple. “We believe that astronomy is a really important part of human endeavour and human culture,” says Anderson. “It wasn’t on the list and it seemed important to us that it should be.”

Sadly the motives of World Heritage pitchers are not always so pure, says Chloé Maurel, an academic at the Institute of Modern and Contemporary History in Paris who conducts research into Unesco. “In many cases the notion of world cultural heritage has been diverted from its official purpose, and has been used as a tool to drive tourism,” she says.

Sometimes this can inadvertently lead to the destruction of the site’s original appeal, a phenomenon referred to as ‘Unesco-cide’. Maurel gives the example of the colonial-era Casco Viejo district of Panama City, whose inscription in 1997 led to an influx of international tourists and wealthy foreigners, the brutal eviction of the area’s working-class occupants and the gentrification of their former neighbourhood.

World Heritage status can also be used as a political weapon. Such was perceived to be the case with Hebron, the ancient city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, whose inscription on the list as a Palestinian site in 2017 led the Israeli foreign ministry to accuse Unesco of promoting “fake history”. The decision was one of the reasons cited by the US when it ended its Unesco membership in January 2019, leaving behind $600 million in outstanding dues.

The list has been widely accused of being Eurocentric. “Most of the sites classified as world cultural heritage are in Western countries – that is to say the rich countries – where most churches, cathedrals, castles and so on are located,” says Maurel. Italy, for example, has 55 World Heritage Sites while Angola, which is four times its size, has just one.

One of Unesco’s reactions to the criticism, perhaps understandably, has been to create more lists.

In 1997 it introduced the ‘Memory of the World’ register to preserve key historic documents and to give opportunities for recognition to a broader range of countries. This started out with pleasingly uncontroversial items like Philippine paleographs, an ancient Korean medical encyclopaedia and the collected papers of Johannes Brahms.

Before long though, says Maurel, the register “became a new theatre for the clash between China and Japan.” Japan submitted a dossier of 333 farewell letters from WWII kamikaze pilots, written before their one-way flights. China countered by submitting documents relating to Japan’s 1937 massacre in the Chinese city of Nanjing. Japan’s submission was rejected and China’s was accepted: Japan reacted by cancelling its annual ¥3.85 billion (£27.5 million) payment to Unesco.

In 2008 Unesco doubled down with its new ‘List of Intangible Cultural Heritage’. The current, somewhat disparate line-up of 508 intangible highlights features a Namibian fruit festival, an Egyptian “stick game” and a Mongolian “coaxing ritual for camels” (listed as “In Need of Urgent Safeguarding”). There’s a “joyous dance” from Malawi whose participants “perform twisting body and elaborate foot movements”, alongside Spanish flamenco and the perilous-sounding “shrimp fishing on horseback” from Belgium.

Another Belgian intangible, the Carnival of Aalst, which made the list in 2010, fell under something of a cloud in March 2019, when Unesco asked for urgent clarification from its organisers of what the Brussels Times described as “the parade’s carnival floats depicting Orthodox Jews with crooked noses standing atop stacks and sacks of gold coins”.

An organisation that started off in the 1970s by listing the Galápagos Islands, the Historic Centre of Kraków and Chartres Cathedral as key pieces of human heritage has ended up classifying Slovakian bagpipe culture, the Portuguese manufacture of cowbells and anti-Semitic carnival floats under the same ever-broadening umbrella. It’s little wonder, then, that some truly left-field candidates feel emboldened to throw their hats in the ring.

BENIDORM, SPAIN – JULY 22: People sunbathe at Levante Beach on July 22, 2015 in Benidorm, Spain. Spain has set a new record for visitors, with 29.2 million visitors in June, 4.2% more than the same period in 2014. Spain is also expected to be the main destination of tourists seeking a value-for-money all-inclusive holiday after the Tunisia attack. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The full package

“Of course Benidorm can be recognised as a World Heritage Site!” says Toni Pérez, the upbeat mayor of the Spanish city of Benidorm. “Tourism in Benidorm is proof that this new city of the twentieth century works for humanity. All the values ​​that are supposed to be good values ​​of a society, people find them in Benidorm… It’s a human creation that stands out for all the happiness it has brought to the world.”

Now is the perfect time, he believes, for his Costa Blanca beach resort to gain a tip of the hat from Unesco. “I believe that things must be protected when they are in their moment of splendour,” he says. “If the ancient centre of Córdoba had been built 30 years ago, wouldn’t we protect it fi we could? Would we wait 800 years to protect it?”

In order to submit a proposal for World Heritage status, a prospective site needs to fulfil one of ten eligibility criteria. The campaigners aiming to inscribe Benidorm believe it fulfils six of them, including representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius”. This feels like a bit of a stretch to some people. “The proposal may sound far-fetched, given the established idea of Benidorm as a place of bars and karaoke joints, home to international retirees and the English working class at play”, wrote journalist Rubén Esquitino in El Pais in 2015. However, he noted, “Among urban planners and sociologists, it has been several years since this prejudice was overcome.”

Professor Mario Gaviria, a sociologist at the University of Navarra, and winner of Spain’s National Environmental Prize, saw the strength of Benidorm’s case and started gathering together a pitch, based around its efficient management of water resources, the natural beauty of its setting and its key role in the invention of the package holiday, which has helped draw 250 million tourists to the city. In 2011 he claimed that “A city that is a reflection of a liberating European culture, such as Benidorm, should be a Unesco World Heritage Site, just like flamenco.”

“Benidorm is a world reference for tourism,” says Mayor Pérez, who picked up Gaviria’s project after his death in 2018 and has committed to seeing it through. “It has a unique set of skyscrapers and urban design. The whole world is addressing sustainability. Benidorm is very sustainable! All new cities are being built tall and compact, because they are more efficient. Benidorm has been that way for 60 years!”

Its easy to be borne along by the mayor’s tidal wave of enthusiasm for his town. A solid argument can be made for inscribing a place that has brought holiday joy to so many people’s lives and has helped open up international travel to all (although the sustainability of millions of people flying in to the Costa Brava each year is questionable). The positive media and public reaction to the inscription of Jodrell Bank shows that there’s an appetite for recognising and preserving new types of sites.

But on the other hand, if Benidorm stands a decent shot at World Heritage status, then why not Magaluf? Torremonlinos? Clacton-on-Sea? Blackpool has already expressed an interest in joining the UK’s tentative list. Where does it end?

“If the World Heritage List continues to grow, it may lose its relevance,” predicts Maurel. “Classifying too many World Heritage Sites could simply end up by killing the list’.

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