The peculiar case of Turkey's enormous UNESCO Tentative List

On April 14, 2020, five sites of historical importance located in the area of Turkey were added to the UNESCO Tentative List, extending it to 83 positions. These new additions include a small historical town of Central Anatolia, a huge port city of the Aegean coast, a beautiful valley in Kayseri Province, a neo-Hittite site in Southern Anatolia, and Roman-era fortifications situated in the south-eastern part of the country. Moreover, two castles on the Aegean coast were added to the previously registered list of fortresses and trading stations on the Genoese trade routes. We have provided an overview of these sites in a separate article. This is a varied and well-balanced collection of the places of enormous significance for the history of the region.

Karatepe-Arslantaş archaeological site
Karatepe-Arslantaş archaeological site

All these objects are, undoubtedly, of great historical importance and deserve protection and international recognition. At this point, however, we would like to draw your attention to one particular aspect of the UNESCO World Heritage List. As it has already been mentioned, these sites have so far been registered onto the so-called UNESCO Tentative List (TL). This is a kind of a waiting room for historically and culturally significant objects, where they linger for a shorter or longer period before the entry onto the main UNESCO World Heritage List (WHL). The countries that are parties to the "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" decide on entering the selected objects to the Tentative List. There are currently nearly 200 such countries, and almost all of them keep their TLs.

Naturally, the main difficulty is the transition of a given site from the Tentative List to the World Heritage List, and it depends on the World Heritage Committee. During the annual sessions, it selects the objects from the nominees submitted by individual states of the Convention. Each such nomination application must be preceded by the entry on the TL made at least a year earlier. So much theory. How does it look in practice and numbers?

Apart from Turkey, a lot of our readers are from the US and the UK so let us check the numbers for these countries first. The US has 24 sites on the WHL while 19 are on the TL, meaning that the number of the accepted sites is slightly higher than the ones still waiting for UNESCO's recognition. In the UK, the proportion is much more in favour of the registered sites - 32 of them on the WHL and only 10 on the TL. These numbers suggest that in the case of the US and the UK, the majority of the sites once nominated are accepted and entered onto the WHL.

For Turkey's close neighbour, Greece, these numbers are 18 and 14, respectively, so the proportion is 9/7, and again there are more sites already inscribed onto the WHL, not lingering in the waiting room. The two countries with the largest number of sites in the WHL are Italy and China. In the case of Italy, there are 55 sites in the WHL and 41 in the waiting room, and in the case of China - 55 and 60, respectively. It is only in the case of China that we first encounter a situation where there are more pending sites than those inscribed on the World Heritage List.

After this review, it's time to look at the situation of Turkey, a country with a fascinating history, with an infinite wealth of archaeological sites, ancient cities and historic buildings, not even mentioning beautiful places of great natural value. There are currently 18 sites on the World Heritage List - the same number as in Greece and 6 less than in the case of the US. How many objects have been reported by Turkey and are they still in the waiting room? Here we come to the heart of our considerations - there are currently 83 such places! This means that there are nearly five places still not recognized by the UNESCO Committee for one site enjoying the World Heritage status. Let us just add that the ancient city of Ephesus, probably the most famous archaeological site in Turkey, waited for the honour of entering the WHL for as many as 22 years. What's more, the latest site from Turkey, added to the World Heritage List, is Göbekli Tepe, which received this award in 2018. Over the past two years, none of the monuments waiting in the long queue has been added to this list.

Celsus Library in Ephesus
Celsus Library in Ephesus

What can this mean? How can we explain this peculiar situation of Turkey's UNESCO sites? While it is not our intention to offer here a full explanation of this phenomenon, below we present a handful of suggestions. They are the effects of reflections and discussions in the editorial team of Turkish Archaeological News, supported by our experience gained during many research trips around Turkey.

First of all - the short-lived enthusiasm of the parties registering the sites onto the Tentative List. Everyone can see that the Turkish authorities register a lot of places on the TL, without the preparation for a long-time effort necessary to carefully document all these applications and convincingly present them in a manner that would guarantee their entry on the World Heritage List. It seems that UNESCO is overwhelmed with the sheer number of Turkish candidates, but Turkey's applicants do not have enough patience, strength and resources to bring these matters to an end. It may also seem that the entry of a particular site onto the TL is perceived as an outstanding achievement by itself and the recognition by UNESCO is optional. Maybe it would be better to submit fewer candidates, but focus on choosing the most valuable ones and conduct their effective promotion and lobbying?

Active promotion and perseverance is not just a matter of high politics. The lack of consistent efforts to promote monuments and the effects the short-lived enthusiasm can also be seen at the local level. Only on the basis of the observations from our last year's expedition, we can mention a lot of such failed projects. Let's look at Izmir, a city that has just been listed on the Tentative List. Wandering around the city, we found the Altınpark - Archaeological Site, located at the foot of the Kadifekale hill. Unfortunately, it cannot be visited as it is fenced off and closed to the public. Peeking over the fence from the area of ​​the local cafe, we noticed that whatever was unearthed there has long been thoroughly overgrown with ferns and forgotten by the authorities. The visualizations from 2012 presented an ambitiously planned archaeological park, with roofed areas protecting excavated buildings and glass terraces for visitors. From old photos available on the Internet, it can be seen that a lot was found here, including the traces of buildings, streets, and colonnades. Unfortunately, the initiative has failed. Meanwhile, after returning from the trip, we discovered that the municipal authorities are planning another "archaeological park" again but in a completely different location.

Abandoned archaeological park Altınpark in Izmir
Abandoned archaeological park Altınpark in Izmir

Another example of a neglected project that we saw last summer was the so-called Sacred Road from Miletus to Didyma. Until recently, its route was a hiking trail, with signposts and a clearly marked path. Regrettably, we had to wander through thick bushes and freshly ploughed fields, because the route was nonexistent and only 1.5 of the signposts were still in place, including the one with all the information lost. In contrast, the well-preserved section of the Sacred Road, right next to the Temple of Apollo in Didyma, with carefully prepared information boards and partly preserved building of the Roman baths, is permanently locked and almost nobody of the visitors to the temple knows about it. The reasons for this closure also remain unexplained, while not that far away vibrant beach life continues and thousands of vacationers crowd beaches and bars. We could cite many more such examples, for instance in the case of Erdek, the local archaeological park - also locked, and dilapidated ancient sarcophagi displayed in the city centre, or the unmaintained hiking trail of the ancient city of Cyzicus.

Well-preserved section of the Sacred Road from Miletus to Didyma, near the Temple of Apollo at Didyma
Well-preserved section of the Sacred Road from Miletus to Didyma, near the Temple of Apollo at Didyma

Sometimes, especially in the Internet discussions, the theory is brought up, claiming that the Turks are unable or unwilling to care for ancient monuments located in their country because they do not perceive them as their cultural heritage. It's hard to say how much truth there is to this claim, but the authorities can certainly turn a few of such sites into real cash cows, as is the case of Ephesus, Pamukkale-Hierapolis, or Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. In the case of the latter building, please be calm, the threats of transforming it back into a mosque are unrealistic, because it is like a hen laying golden eggs with its pricey tickets and crowds of tourists.

The Pamukkale-Hierapolis complex and the region of Cappadocia are also excellent examples of the Turkish approach to exhibiting the country and its monuments to foreign visitors. Instead of showing them the local beauty of nature and history, the unfortunate vacationers are transported for hundreds of kilometres to see these treasures from the UNESCO List, if only for a few hours. In the case of these two locations, their entry onto the WHL was more of a curse than a blessing, because they are literally trampled on by visitors who, for example, are brought there from Alanya. How could they know that they can visit other splendid sites, located much closer to their hotels, instead? Think about the magnificent ancient city of Perge, almost always empty, lingering on the Tentative List for 11 years now, prehistoric Karain Cave, which has been waiting for the entry to the WHL since 1994, or ancient Termessos, dramatically situated among the mountain peaks, sitting in the waiting room of UNESCO for 20 years.

Ancient theatre of Termessos
Ancient theatre of Termessos

Let us also consider the issue of international lobbying in order to obtain support for the monuments from Turkey and promote them in order to join the UNESCO List. Unfortunately, as in other aspects of international politics, Turkey has a relatively weak position, as it managed to alienate almost all countries of the region in a rather elaborate way. Particularly, great damage is caused by the country's tense relations with Greece and almost nonexistent relations with Armenia. It is the historical and cultural heritage of these countries that needs special care, conservation, and promotional activities. If it were only possible to put the protection of these monuments over the particular interests and national pride, everyone would surely benefit.

This is just a handful of suggestions, and we leave it to our readers to draw their conclusions. It is a great pity that the treasures from the past of Asia Minor suffer from all these unfortunate circumstances. Finally - an appeal from the editorial team of Turkish Archaeological News: when the conditions allow us all to set out on long trips again, try to visit not only the most famous sites, the ones present on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but also the unpromoted and somewhat forgotten treasures of Turkey. Our website will help you find them, as we have already described many of such hidden gems. Following the trail of places from the Tentative List may also be of help. If any of them makes it onto the World Heritage List, then you will be able to boast that "We had been to Eflatun Pınar before it became fashionable".