How Many UNESCO Heritage Sites Are in Afghanistan? Calls to Protect Historic Landmarks

Amid the ongoing unrest in Afghanistan following the Taliban's latest takeover of the country, UNESCO has called for the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage, including its two UNESCO World Heritage sites.

UNESCO explains: "World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity."

Sites inscribed on the UNESCO's World Heritage List are "to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy," the global body says.

UNESCO's latest call comes 20 years after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, two fifth century statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

In a statement on August 19, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay called for "the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting."

The statement said: "Any damage or loss of cultural heritage will only have adverse consequences on the prospects for lasting peace and humanitarian relief for the people of Afghanistan.

"UNESCO further underlines the need for a safe environment for the ongoing work of the country's cultural heritage professionals and artists, who play a central role for Afghanistan's national cohesion and social fabric," the statement said.

In addition to its UNESCO World Heritage sites, Afghanistan is home to other historic landmarks such as the Old City of Herat and museums, including the National Museum in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Afghanistan's Koh-E Baba mountains.
The Koh-E Baba mountains surrounding the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, pictured in November 2003. Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

Afghanistan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The UNESCO World Heritage sites in Afghanistan include the "Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley" as well as the "Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam," as listed on the UNESCO website.

Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of Bamiyan Valley represent the "artistic and religious developments" that characterized ancient Bakhtria from the first to the 13th centuries, according to the UNESCO website.

The area contains Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries and fortified edifices from the Islamic period. It houses the empty niches of the Buddha statues that once stood before they were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001.

Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam

The Minaret of Jam is a "graceful, soaring structure" standing around 213 feet tall that dates back to the 12th century.

Noted for its architecture and decoration, which features elaborate brickwork with a blue tile inscription at the top, the tower represents "the culmination of an architectural and artistic tradition in this region," UNESCO says.

The imposing structure is set in a dramatic deep river valley between towering mountains in the Afghan province of Ghur.

Tourists traveling to Afghanistan's Minaret of Jam.
Foreign tourists traveling to the Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Afghanistan's Ghor province in 2008. AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan and Preserving Afghan Sites

The destruction of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan marked an "important turning point for the international community," Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, said in a statement in March.

Ottone Ramírez stated: "A deliberate act of destruction, motivated by an extremist ideology that aimed to destroy culture, identity and history, the loss of the Buddhas revealed how the destruction of heritage could be used as a weapon against local populations.

"It highlighted the close links between heritage safeguarding and the well-being of people and communities. It reminded us that defending cultural diversity is not a luxury, but rather fundamental to building more peaceful societies," the assistant director-general said.

Following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghan authorities as well as UNESCO and others in the global community have worked hard to "safeguard the rich cultural and natural heritage of Afghanistan," Ottone Ramírez said in March.

In 2003, "in light of the extreme fragility of the niches, the lack of a management framework, and concerns over safety and security," the Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley was inscribed simultaneously on UNESCO's World Heritage List as well as its List of World Heritage in Danger, Ottone Ramírez highlighted in March.

After more than 15 years, thanks to funding from Japan, the consolidation of the eastern Buddha niche was completed, while work is still ongoing to protect the western niche, according to Ottone Ramírez.

"This cooperation has also been extended to seven other component sites in the Bamiyan Valley, including caves covered with murals, remarkable expressions of Indian and Chinese influences along the Silk Roads, and Shahr-e Gholghola Fortress, which marks the origin of the settlement of Bamiyan," the assistant director-general said.

Remains of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
An image captured in March 2021 showing charred remains on a cave at the site of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Afghan Sites Under Consideration for World Heritage Status

In addition to Afghanistan's two World Heritage sites, there are also four sites on the "Tentative List," which is a list of properties a country "intends to consider for nomination" to the World Heritage List, according to UNESCO.

UNESCO explains: "States Parties are encouraged to submit their Tentative Lists, properties which they consider to be cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List.

"Nominations to the World Heritage List will not be considered unless the nominated property has already been included on the State Party's Tentative List," UNESCO says.

The following sites in Afghanistan are currently on the Tentative List, as outlined by UNESCO:

  • City of Herat
  • City of Balkh (antique Bactria)
  • Band-E-Amir
  • Bagh-e Babur
The Musalla Complex in Herat, Afghanistan.
An overview of the Musalla Complex in the old city of Herat in April 2012. AREF KARIMI/AFP via Getty Images