How cultured are you?

When people are asked why they travel abroad on holidays  they usually cite reasons such as weather (if you’re Irish!), cuisine, history, scenery, people. The list is obviously longer and more nuanced than that but I think we would all agree that one of the single most important reasons why many people travel abroad is for a taste of that other country’s culture and heritage. The Google dictionary defines the word ‘culture’ as ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively’ and ‘heritage’ as ‘Valued objects and qualities such as cultural traditions, unspoiled countryside, and historic buildings’.

Although there isn’t a global ranking as such of national cultures, there is a way that one can ‘measure’ the relative depth and richness of a country’s heritage and that’s by seeing how many world heritage sites each country can boast of.

In case you’ve ever wondered what criteria a site needs to meet in order to be listed as a world heritage site, here they are — all ten of them:

  1. to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
  2. to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
  3. to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
  4. 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;
  5. to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
  6. to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);
  7. to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  8. to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  9. to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
  10. to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

OK, so who, in world heritage terms, are the global heavyweights?

Well, not unexpectedly, Italy comes in at the top of the list with 47, followed close behind by Spain with 44 and China with 43. Other countries in the ‘Top Ten’ include France (38), Germany (37), Mexico (31), India (29), United Kingdom (28), Russia (25) and the USA follows in 10th place with 21 sites. Ireland features three sites: Newgrange, Skellig Michael and The Giant’s Causeway.

The reason I make mention of these numbers is that they may influence where you decide to travel to next as the numbers are as good an indicator of the richness of a country’s culture and natural treasures as any other yardstick that you might choose to measure them by. What is particularly interesting though — when you dig down a little deeper into the stats — are that little Belgium has as many world heritage sites as Peru (11) or that Sweden (15) has more than Portugal (14) or that Australia and Brazil (both 19) have more than Japan (16), Iran (15) or even archaeologically and historically  rich Turkey (11).

And in case you’re wondering: Greece — the cradle of western civilisation — comes in with a surprisingly low 17!


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