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Three new World Heritage sites in Africa
September 17, 2017, 4:41 pm

The United Nations cultural agency (UNESCO) has recently certified three new sites in Africa on its list of World Heritage Sites.

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea; Mbanza Kongo, a historic site in Angola; and the Khomani Cultural Landscape in South Africa, were added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in July. The listing of sites in Eritrea and Angola were a first for both countries, while in the case of South Africa, it was the ninth World Heritage Site listing.

Asmara with a population of over 800,000 has been the capital of Eritrea since the country’s independence in 1991. But long before the country’s independence, Asmara was a major military outpost for the Italians during their colonial rule of Ethiopia that began around1889. Located 2325 meters above sea level on an escarpment in Eritrea’s central Maekel Region, the city is known for its colonial-era modernist architecture. In the 1930s the city was often referred to as Piccola Roma (Little Rome), both for its Italian architecture and the large Italian community that lived in the city.

It has important sites including 20th-century buildings like the Art Deco Cinema Impero (opened in 1937), Cubist Africa Pension, eclectic Orthodox Cathedral and former Opera House, the futurist Fiat Tagliero Building, the neo-Romanesque Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Asmara, the neoclassical Governor’s Palace and the Eritrean National Museum.

UNESCO describes Asmara as “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20thcentury and its application in an African context”.

Mbanza Kongo, the capital of Angola’s Zaire Province, is located on a plateau at an altitude of 570 meters, close to the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even before the city was founded in the 15th century by colonial Portuguese settlers, Mbanza Kongo was a large town that served as the capital of the ruling Kilukeni dynasty and was home to the ruler of the Kingdom of Kongo.

The Portuguese named the city Sao Salvador and during their reign added many new stone buildings, roads, a palace and several churches. Ruins of important religious and cultural sites in Mbanza Kongo include a cathedral built in 1549; the memorial to the mother of Portuguese King Afonso I, near the airport; the Manikongo’s judgement tree, a rectangular ground level structure where local tradition says the king’s body was washed before burial; and a royal museum among others.

UNESCO says Mbanza Kongo “illustrates, more than anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the profound changes caused by the introduction of Christianity and the arrival of the Portuguese into Central Africa”.

Khomani Cultural Landscape, located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, covers the entire Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and is part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park bordering Botswana and Namibia.

Eight other sites in South Africa have already been designated World Heritage sites. They include the Fossil Hominid, Maloti-Drakensberg Park, Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Vredefort Dome, Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape, Robben Island Museum, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas.

As the ninth World Heritage site in South Africa, Khomani Cultural Landscape is associated with a unique culture that goes back to the Stone Age and the Khomani San people, who are considered among the first human settlers. The San people developed a specific ethnobotanical knowledge, cultural practices and a worldview related to the geographical features of their environment. The landscape has remained relatively unchanged and is managed by the South African National Parks.

UNESCO says “the landscape bears testimony to the way of life that prevailed in the region and shaped the site over thousands of years”.


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