MEET THE THREE NEWEST AFRICAN UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES

It is the cradle of human civilisation and one of the most extraordinarily diverse continents on earth. So it is something of a scandal that Africa is not more widely represented in the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites – in fact, out of just over 1,000 destinations, fewer than 10% are on the African continent, a noticeably paltry amount by comparison to Europe or Asia.

However, in an attempt to redress the balance, at the 41st annual World Heritage Committee session in Krakow, Poland, earlier this year, Unesco voted to add three more African sites. Some of the most fascinating locations on the continent, they represent not only Africa’s diverse cultural history and the rapid change it has experienced, but also the extraordinary array of options open to tourists who are willing to look further afield than simply beach and bush.


ASMARA, ERITREA

The vintage Fiat taxis of Asmara, leftover from the early 20th-century Italian occupation.

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Known as Little Rome, the Eritrean capital is arguably more like Florence – a city preserved in time, and noticeable for one particular period in history. The former centre of Italy’s African empire, Asmara feels Italian whist remaining distinctly African. On art deco buildings around the country, restaurant and cinema names are spelled out in both Italian and Amharic and wide boulevards give way to central squares filled with cafés and outdoor restaurants.

This is because Mussolini actively encouraged emigration to Eritrea in the first part of the last century, and by 1939 over half of Asmara’s population was Italian. Handed over as a blank canvas to Italy’s most exciting and imaginative young architects, the city became a surprising playground where they could create the modernist city they had long dreamed of, free from the constraints of Italy’s ancient architectural rules. The result is a city full of cinemas, cafés, cycle paths and palm-tree lined avenues that sparkles under the African sun.

 

And while 20th century Eritrean history was undoubtedly brutal to its people, it was strangely gentle with its buildings – and today these art deco bowling alleys, cafés and social clubs provide us with a glimpse into the urban utopia European architects from the 1930s were trying to create before their own continent fell into disarray.


KHOMANI CULTURAL LANDSCAPE, SOUTH AFRICA

The blazing southern African sun burns into the red earth of this unforgiving landscape, creating a region that is not exactly welcoming to human habitation. But surprisingly, this small desert region on the spot where South Africa, Namibia and Botswana intersect puts ancient civilisation sites in Europe and Asia to shame. Continuously inhabited since the Stone Age, the Khomani Cultural Landscape has provided a wealth of information to archaeologists and anthropologists studying early man and the way of life that prevailed in the region – and how it has shaped the site over thousands of years.

“They developed a specific ethnobotanical knowledge, cultural practices and a worldview related to the geographical features of their environment,” says Unesco of the San people who have populated this part of South Africa for centuries.

Dramatically beautiful and utterly untamed, the landscape of the Northern Cape, where the Khomani Cultural Landscape is found, feels largely untouched. However, the traditionally nomadic lifestyle of the San people has been severely disrupted over the last century and they are in urgent need of help from the government. With the attention foisted on this spectacular region by Unesco, there are hopes that their plight will be highlighted and that people will begin to understand the importance of preserving their way of life.


MBANZA KONGO, ANGOLA

Buried deep in the emerald green highlands of northern Angola is the town of Mbanza Kongo, which has been a spiritual and political capital since the 14th century and which neatly tells so much of the tale of Africa’s brutal colonisation.

By the the 14th century, the Kingdom of Kongo was a major player in African diplomacy. One of the largest constitutional states in the region, its capital city was based around a vast royal residence, a holy tree, and the court, where royal births, marriages and funerals took place.

However, when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century and invaded and colonised what is now Angola, they rebuilt much of this unique site, adding stone buildings to the existing construction and tearing down part of the holy tree. While the blend of African and European architecture within one royal residence is historically important, it also poignantly illustrates the destructively profound changes wrought by the introduction of Christianity and white settlers.

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Melissa Twigg
Melissa Twigg is a freelance journalist writing about art, fashion, people, travel and the environment, specialising in Africa and Asia. She previously worked for Hong Kong Tatler as features editor and then as managing editor for regional titles, and currently freelances for publications such as The South China Morning Post, The Sunday Times and The Business of Fashion.