Baku, the capital of my native Azerbaijan, is proud to be hosting 2,500 delegates from 180 countries for the 43rd annual summit of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which runs until July 10.
Attendees will debate 42 nominations to the World Heritage List, a vital programme that protects cultural heritage worldwide. To make it to the list, a site must have deep cultural, historical or scientific significance, often judged to its importance to the collective interests of humanity.
Azerbaijan itself is home to two unique world heritage sites. Firstly, there is the Walled City of Baku, which incorporates the beautiful Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower. Secondly, there is the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, a collection of around 6,000 rock carvings that date back between 5,000 and 20,000 years, located 40 miles southwest of Baku.
The Walled City of Baku, a key feature of the city’s magnificent skyline, was founded on a site inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. The walls reveal a continuous influence of Zoroastrian, Sasanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman and Russian architectural styles.
Travel out from Baku’s medieval Islamic core, and you find yourself immersed in more elaborate 19th and early 20th-century European styles, followed in turn by glistening modern skyscrapers.
I would encourage all the delegates to the UNESCO summit to take the time to visit these splendorous sites. A special edition of UNESCO’s World Heritage Review explores other wonderous sights, crafts, cuisines and cultures from across Azerbaijan through richly detailed photography.
But this ancient heritage does not mean that Baku does not embrace the modern or the forward-looking. It is home to some of the most cutting edge and modern architecture in the region, including the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by internationally renowned Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. As such, Baku is investing in its cultural heritage for generations to come.
Entry into the World Heritage List brings with it not only prestige but also financial and diplomatic support for maintaining the sites, ensuring that visitors from all over the word get the chance to enjoy and learn as they explore them.
In recent years, we have seen multiple threats to world heritage sites. These have included climate change, unregulated developments and even, in the case of Syria, pillaging and destruction by terrorist groups.
In their press statement this week, UNESCO have said that the Baku summit is an opportunity to examine the state of conservation of the 166 sites that are already on the World Heritage List. In fact, 54 of the heritage sites identified by UNESCO are now on a danger list, with developments closely monitored.
Deputy Director General of UNESCO Ernesto Ottone said at a press conference this week that he wants his experts to travel to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Cultural monuments there were severely damaged in the region’s conflict, and 20 years later, it is vitally important that the international community engage with efforts to accurately record and preserve the monuments and the heritage of the Karabakh region.
The kind of international cooperation promoted by UNESCO is a compelling example of what can be done to preserve, protect and promote culture and heritage internationally.
When I arrived in London to study for my degree in 2008, hardly anyone I met could point to Azerbaijan on a map. There was so little understanding of its culture and history. Moreover, there was a complete lack of awareness of major events like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – relatively recent by historical standards and right on Europe’s doorstep.
Ventures like TEAS Press Publishing House support efforts to preserve Azerbaijani culture. But as an international business leader, I also know that promoting that culture abroad to a wide variety of modern audiences is very important, as is working closely with international partners like UNESCO to preserve heritage when it is at risk of being lost.
Read my article on UNESCO on Emerging Europe here.