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Report: Ancient ruins worldwide 'on verge of vanishing'

By Mark Tutton for CNN
  • Three historic sites in the Middle East are "on the verge of vanishing," says report
  • Global Heritage Fund has identified 12 sites at risk of irreparable loss
  • Well-preserved sites can pay for themselves by attracting tourists, says GHF
  • UNESCO warns that badly managed tourism can be just as much of a threat

(CNN) -- Twelve historic sites around the world are "on the verge of vanishing" because of mismanagement and neglect, according to a new report.

The report, by San Francisco-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF), identifies nearly 200 heritage sites in developing nations as being at risk, highlighting 12 as being on the verge of irreparable loss and destruction.

Three sites in the Middle East, Iraq's Nineveh, Palestine's Hisham's Palace, and Turkey's Ani, are among those most in danger.

The ruined city of Ani, on the border of Turkey and Armenia, dates back to the 11th century. Once known as "The City of a Thousand Churches," many of its remaining buildings are now on the brink of collapse.

GHF executive director Jeff Morgan told CNN, "Ani is probably one of the top 10 sites in the world, right up there with Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. It's incredible."

We say we're going to use tourism for economic development purposes, but you really need an assessment of the economic geography of the place.
--Art Pederson, UNESCO

Morgan said Ani has been "caught in a political morass," because of its position on the border of two countries that don't have diplomatic relations.

Nineveh, near Mosul, in northern Iraq, was capital of the Assyrian empire from 705 to 612 B.C.. But Morgan says it is now at risk -- not from the conflict in Iraq, but from lax planning regulations that have led to around 40 percent of the archaeological site being covered by modern development.

Hisham's Palace, in the Palestinian territories, is the remains of a winter palace built by the Islamic Umayyad dynasty. It was destroyed by an earthquake around 747 A.D. and, like Nineveh, is now threatened by urban development.

"There's no expertise there to be able to care of it," said Morgan.

GHF's 12 sites 'on the verge of vanishing'
Mahansrhangarh, Bangladesh
Mirador, Guatemala
Palace of Sans Souci, Haiti
Maluti Temples, India
Lamu, Kenya
Famagusta, Cyprus
Taxila, Pakistan
Intramuros and Fort Santiago, The Phillipinnes
Chersonesos, Ukraine

He said that in the Palestinian territories "there are all these ancient sites that are being destroyed because they're building apartment blocks and commercial builds on top of the core archaeological areas and there's no regulations to stop them.

"They feel like, 'We've been doing it for thousands of years, so what the hell?' But the difference is today, those sites can be economic engines for those places."

Morgan argues that restoring these heritage sites will attract tourism that can pay for their ongoing preservation and bring sustainable income to local communities. He said there is huge potential for cultural tourism throughout the region.

"The whole Middle East is a treasure trove," he said.

"Petra [in Jordan] is already huge. There's Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria. Jordan has Jerash, Libya has Sabratha and Iran has huge tourism to all its sites because they're so incredible."

But outstanding heritage sites may not be enough to attract tourists to locations such as Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

As well as security issues, developing nations often lack the necessary infrastructure to encourage tourism.

UNESCO's Art Pederson, an expert in sustainable tourism, told CNN, "We say we're going to use tourism for economic development purposes, but you really need an assessment of the economic geography of the place. Do you have the roads, the transport, the needed infrastructure to make this possible?

"There's a lot of talk about using heritage assets to generate these kinds of benefits but we need to really get serious about doing the legwork to assess whether it's possible or not."

Badly regulated tourism can itself present a threat to historic sites, said Pederson.

Although Morgan said there is a dire shortage of funding and regulation for historical sites in most Middle Eastern countries, he said there are success stories in the region.

Among them, Catalhoyuk, in Turkey, where Morgan said locals had been trained to conserve the site and preserve its murals, and where tourism is well controlled.

"In the Middle East, sites have been looted and pillaged and rebuilt on for thousands of years," he told CNN.

"That's why what's happening now is so critical -- because of scarcity. There are so few intact ruins and historic districts left."

Read the full report here: