7 Monuments Around the World to Visit Before They Vanish
It’s easy to imagine that the great and beautiful monuments of the world will be there forever.
Even if you don’t make that assumption, you might think of beautiful things to see that are in the middle of war zones – you might think about the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, its sights partly destroyed by Isis, or Nineveh in Iraq, which has faced similar treatment. Or you might realise the danger that some places of historic value are in simply because they are located in parts of the world where the money cannot be spared for conservation work, such as some of the historic temples of India.
But unfortunately, these aren’t the only threats to historic monuments across the world today. There are historic monuments in serious danger even in wealthy countries; places that are safe to visit but that still might not be there in twenty or even ten years’ time. In this article, we look at monuments that are safe for tourists to go and see, but that are nonetheless in danger of vanishing if we don’t act to save them soon.
1. Brussels – Palace of Justice
The Brussels Palais de Justice is one of the city’s most notable monuments, and from a distance, all looks well. The building covers a staggering ground surface of 26,000 m² – making it larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is possibly the largest building to constructed in the 19th century, making it larger than the White House, the British Houses of Parliament and Cologne Cathedral. Its eclectic architecture – primarily neo-baroque – is still breathtaking.
But if you get closer, you’ll see that the building is dotted with countless sections of rusting scaffolding. It was built on an iron frame, but this has now rusted, causing its stone masonry to buckle, and necessitating the scaffolding, but even this emergency measure, put in place thirty years ago, is now suffering from the building’s neglect. Renovations have been underway since 2003, but progress is very slow. The World Monuments Fund notes that “as separatist ideas have gained popularity in the country, the Palace of Justice – a symbol of unified Belgium – is left without many vocal champions.” Perhaps this is why progress on saving this awe-inspiring construction has been so slow.
The Belgian government has now committed to a €100 million, ten-year plan to rescue the Palace of Justice, but this is scheduled to begin only in 2018 and could still be sent awry by political developments in a country that, though very safe and stable, still went without a government for 589 days a few years ago. The Palace of Justice’s long-term survival looks more assured than it did a few years ago, but it’s still far from certain.
2. Rome – Arch of Janus
If you have ever been to Rome, you’ll know that it’s a city where it’s hardly possible to turn the corner without coming across an incredibly ancient and remarkable monument. There are structures that in other cities would be at the centre of the tourist industry and have museums dedicated to them, that in Rome sit between restaurants or in the middle of roundabouts, largely ignored, in some cases without even a plaque or marker to explain what they are and their history. It’s not that the people of Rome don’t care about the incredible cultural and historical heritage on their doorstep; it’s just that they have so much of it, that the expense of maintain it all is vast.
One monument that would be the star of the show if it was nearly anywhere else is the 4th century Arch of Janus, a four-way marble arch (or quadrifrons triumphal arch, although it was probably built as a boundary marker), and the only one of its kind still preserved in Rome. It’s the only unrestored monument of the Forum Boarium, and it has suffered a great deal over the centuries of its existence. In the Middle Ages, it was turned into a fortress; in 1830, its top, including fortifications, were torn down in the mistaken belief that they weren’t part of the original building. In 1993, a car bomb exploded in front of a nearby church, after which it was fenced off from public access (although you can still get quite close). It has been neglected ever since. Although the arch has survived many centuries, it’s now increasingly losing the battle against time and encroaching plant life. It’s worth seeing while it’s still standing.
3. Jordan – Petra
The British government advises against “all but essential travel to within 3km of the entire Syrian border. This is due to the risk of small arms fire, stray mortars, or other attacks in the area”. Petra is more than 250km from the Syrian border, but the advice from the British government nonetheless advises checking “with your travel company and local media for updates” and contains the none-too-reassuring line that “most visits are trouble-free”. This makes the Petra archaeological site probably the most dangerous place to visit on this list.
All the same, it’s possibly the most significant monument on this list. The city was established around 300 BC, and was abandoned following earthquakes, conquest by Arabs and changes in trade routes in the 7th century. What remains of the city is accessible through a narrow passage, the Siq, and consists of stunning buildings cut into the rose-coloured rock. In 1985, it was designated a World Heritage Site.
But the city is in serious danger. It isn’t just that Jordan is bordered on two sides by countries in the grip of war, and that it has been overwhelmed by 1.4 million refugees in a country of 6.4 million that was already struggling with water shortages and in receipt of international aid – though these factors mean that preservation work, even of the country’s most famous historical site, cannot be a priority. Erosion from flooding, weathering and other such environmental factors have posed a danger to Petra’s survival, but the greatest danger is unsustainable levels of badly controlled tourists, who have caused considerable damage to the site already – in many cases simply out of ignorance of how fragile it is. If you choose to visit, be sure to respect the historical nature of the site and don’t contribute to its demise.
4. Greece – Pavlopetri
Pavlopetri is a city that will make you believe in stories of Atlantis. The city contains the ruins of Minoan and Mycenaean buildings, including a nearly complete town plans of streets, buildings and tombs. It was first settled around 2,800 BC and survived until 1000 BC. The catch? It’s completely underwater. Around 1000 BC, it was submerged by an earthquake and it hasn’t been above water since. The water is relatively shallow – 3-4 metres in some places – but that was enough to prevent it from being built on or otherwise disrupted. The result is an archaeological site that provides an incredible insight into life as it was lived five thousand years ago; it’s hard to think of anywhere else that has managed to be so undisturbed by time.
The location that once protected Pavlopetri now places it in danger. Being underwater in the Mediterranean makes it hard to restrict access to the site, so looters have had free reign to help themselves – both in the form of people looking for something to sell and tourists wanting a free souvenir. Ships that are small enough to travel over the top of the remains have caused damage by shifting sediments around the site or even casting anchor into the remains. Larger ships can’t pass over the shallow area in which the city sits, but when anchoring in nearby Vatika Bay, they discharge a cocktail of pollutants that are eating away at Pavlopetri’s vulnerable masonry. Visit it before it’s gone altogether – just don’t take any souvenirs with you.
5. Romania – Bucharest
It’s stretching the definition of “monument” to include an entire, functional city of nearly two million people, but the World Monument Fund has highlighted Bucharest on their 2016 watchlist of monuments in danger.
Bucharest became the capital of Romania in 1862, and in the interwar period was so known for the elegance of its fashion and architecture that it was nicknamed ‘Little Paris’. Much of the of the architecture of that period survived Communist redevelopment, which saw most of the medieval buildings in the city and many of the more recent but still noteworthy developments destroyed in favour of socialist tower blocks. Eight square kilometres in the centre of Bucharest were demolished to make way for the Civic Centre and the vast building that is now the Palace of Parliament.
In modern times, what remains of Bucharest’s historical centre has become a victim of the city’s success; as it becomes a steadily more desirable place to live, the pressure increases to demolish older buildings that may be in a poor state of repair, and replace them with modern building that house more people and require more maintenance. The city administration has been criticised as inadequate to respond to these problems, as there are areas of designated historical significance where the buildings have not yet been assessed individually, and where permission for demolition is therefore still being granted. Growing tourism to Bucharest should hopefully help in encouraging city authorities to place more value on its historical heritage; your visit there could help speed the process along.
6. Italy – Venice
Another whole city in danger – and famously so – is Venice. Venice covers a network of 117 small islands in the shallow Venetian lagoon, which are separated by canals and connected by bridges. It’s listed as a World Heritage Site, and understandably so: it’s a place that is soaked in history and culture, as evidenced by the remarkable beauty of its architecture. As a medieval city-state, it was a crucial centre for trade, and it became the printing capital of the world shortly after the printing press reached it. Though the city’s power waned from the sixteenth century onwards, it remained a centre for art and culture, and is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
But it may not remain so for much longer; Venice is set to go the way of Pavlopetri. It’s already the case that at peak tide over the winter months, much of the city is submerged by ‘acqua alta’ flooding, including its most famous sights, such as the Piazza San Marco, and this is only going to get worse. Venice is struggling against the waters in two directions. First, the city is slowly sinking, having subsided by about 12cm over the course of the 20th century, and showing no signs of slowing or stopping. Second, sea levels rose by nearly the same amount over the past hundred years, and that is a process that climate change will only cause to accelerate. A one metre rise in sea levels would see the end of Venice, and that’s predicted to happen within the next century. Better flood defences are planned, but the costs will be astronomical – possibly more than Italy can afford.
7. Greece – Olympia
The sanctuary – or religious site – of Olympia is best known as the place where the first ever Olympic Games were held in 776 BC, from which they take their name. The Olympics were held at or near Olympia for over a thousand years until 393 AD. The Olympic Flame is still lit on the ruins that remain there, using sunlight reflected in a parabolic mirror. Beyond the Olympics, it was a place of worship from at least the 10th century BC, and was also home to the vast statue of Zeus in ivory and gold that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Extensive ruins of several temples can still be seen on the site today.
But like Venice, Olympia is also in danger from climate change. In 2007, massive forest fires broke out across Greece, the worst recorded in 50 years. Heatwaves, severe drought, arson and neglect contributed to a disaster that killed 84 people and destroyed 670,000 acres of olive groves, farmland and forest. These fires came frighteningly close to the ancient site, leaving ruins intact but scorching the museum buildings. Such severe forest fires haven’t been seen in Greece since, but smaller fires are an annual occurrence and there’s no reason to believe that with the country’s climate becoming more extreme that the kinds of fires seen in 2007 won’t be repeated. Next time, Olympia might not be so lucky to escape.
Image credits: venice; petra; palais de justice; arch of janus; petra detail; pavlopetri; bucharest; palace of the parliament; venice; olympia