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Cyburbia

A Window on the World

September 21, 1997|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Americans love "Best of . . ." lists, but there is a big one that most of us have never heard of.

Luckily, it's readily available on the Internet's World Wide Web, but you should by all means avoid it if you have a pressing appointment or if it's near bedtime. The World Heritage List is a site to get lost in for hours. It's the ultimate digital locale for daydreaming.

Starting in 1972, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, began compiling this list of cultural and natural locations around the globe that have "outstanding universal value." Currently, there are 506 places listed--380 of them classified as "cultural," 107 of them are "natural" and the remaining 19 are "mixed."

The idea was to not only recognize these places--whether they be monuments, buildings, archeological ruins, historical sites, volcanoes, mountains or forests--but also to work toward safeguarding and preserving them.

In many countries, making the list is a big deal. A friend visiting from Japan said there is much excitement there whenever one of that country's special places--such as the temples of Kyoto or the ancient cedar forest known as Yakushima--is voted in by UNESCO. Some countries put out postage stamps commemorating their World Heritage List sites.

In the U.S., the UNESCO list is more or less waiting to be discovered, and the Web is the perfect place to do just that. A good starting point is its home page at http://www.unesco.org/whc.

Many Web sites created by large institutions are a bit bureaucratic, and this one is no exception. You can click to many sections that provide information about how the list was created, the criteria for sites being included and how the acceptance process works. But the route to the list itself is not readily apparent.

Try clicking on "All About the List," and it will finally lead you to a page where you can find a link to "The World Heritage List."

The list is arranged by country, from Albania's Butrinti ruins of what was once a Greek and then Roman city, to Zimbabwe's Khami Ruins National Monument, a former trading crossroads where objects from both Europe and China have been found in archeological digs. Click on any of these listings and you get a brief description of the place and a small picture.

For more information about UNESCO's World Heritage List, you can access a site maintained by a Caltech professor who obviously loves travel. His list at http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~salmon/world.heritage.html includes far more extensive links. For example, clicking on Butrinti on his site gets you a more detailed history of this fascinating place and a series of photographs that give you a much better idea of what it looks like now.

But whatever way you access the list, you won't find it easy to pull yourself out of it. Many of the sites you expect to be there are certainly present: India's Taj Mahal, Greece's Acropolis, France's Versailles, Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, China's Great Wall, Chile's Easter Island, Mali's Timbuktu and the U.S.'s Grand Canyon.

Some locales in the world are so jammed with historical and cultural spots that the list has adopted entire city centers, such as those of Florence and Siena in Italy, Kyoto in Japan and St. Petersburg in Russia.

Even more rewarding, I think, are discovering places you never knew existed.

I had never heard of Khajuaho in India, an ancient city that was added to the list in 1986. But one look at this incredible "City of Sculptures," and I got a bad case of wanderlust. Here, 22 of what archeologists believe were once 85 spectacular temples still exist. Several of them have highly detailed carvings that show scenes of hunting, feasting and dancing. There are hundreds of carvings of deities and numerous erotic sculptures.

The temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries but were almost unknown to the outside world until a British traveler wrote about them in 1838.

And while in the neighborhood, why not visit Pakistan's Thatta, added to the list in 1981? This city contains remains from centuries-old dynasties and from what was once the Mongol empire.

I had heard of the archeological sites of Petra in southern Jordan, but had no idea how breathtaking this 2,000-year-old city, added to the list in 1985, truly was. About half of its buildings were literally carved into the salmon-colored rock of the region.

In Europe, an intriguing site is the "Defense Line" of Amsterdam. This network of 45 forts, which made the list in 1996, is the only one known in the world to be based on the control of water. An intricate system of canals and locks--which date back to 1883--allow for temporary flooding to slow down enemy attackers.

In Mexico there are famous pyramids that are rightly on the list, but I was especially attracted to the relatively unknown El Tajin ruins in Veracruz. The pyramid here is far smaller than those that are more famous, but this one is a jewel that I would love to see in person.

There are several sites on the list that would currently be almost impossible for a U.S. citizen to see in person. For example: Lepcis Magna, a city founded in the 10th century BC by the Phoenicians and later home of conquering Romans. The ruins here are spectacular. But they are located in modern-day Libya.

For now, you'll have to be satisfied with Lepcis Magna as just the stuff of daydreams.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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