Top 10 Endangered Heritage Sites - Urbanization

10 Sites at High Risk from the threat of rapidly increasing worldwide Urbanization

by John Mink
March 8, 2009
Urbanization, the last entry in this CyArk series, is of special concern to those of us who understand the great value of cultural heritage sites. In a sense, urbanization is the reason for and the culmination of many of the ills discussed in the previous four blogs; as cities grow and develop, more and more people around the globe move from simpler, rural ways of life into modern industrialized urban ones. This places heavy (city-based) industries into a position to buy newly-vacated rural lands, enabling the exploitation of their resources for production of goods and services to be consumed by newly urbanized populations. This development process often degrades rural environments and communities, which in turn sends more people to live in the cities, creating a feedback loop of over-exploitation of resources to feed unsustainable consumption patterns. Many of these rural areas are home to some of the world's greatest treasures, in the form of natural wonders and human cultural heritage sites, and these are often placed under severe threat from fundamental changes in human activity in their surrounding environments.

Meanwhile, many cities themselves are important cultural landscapes. As their populations expand beyond their historical boundaries and population capacity, redevelopment and sprawl threaten countless sites of great cultural, aesthetic, and historic significance. Development in and of itself is not necessarily destructive, but poor city planning, the unchecked intrusion of industrial and (sub)urban sprawl into formerly rural areas, indifference by officials to important sites, and exponential population growth combine to create a host of problems that threaten both sites of human cultural heritage and the natural environment itself. With that in mind, this blog includes an expanded, worldwide list of ten (rather than five) important heritage sites, all of which are under some form of threat from the often-unsustainable industrial urbanization that has heavily defined our modern globalized economy.


Known as Historic Cairo, this district of Egypt's most populous city dates to the 10th-century CE and has a great number of historically important mosques, fountains, madrasas, and hammams, all towered over by the Cairo Citadel constructed by Saladin in the 12th Century. The district includes the first mosque in Africa (Amr Ibn El Ass), the biggest mosque in Egypt (Ibn Tulun), and Al Azhar – The oldest functioning University in the world. During the 14th century, this area was the unquestioned center of the Islamic World during the period considered to be Islam's Golden Age.

Cairo has experienced unprecedented, and rapidly accelerating, urban expansion and population growth in recent decades. This unbridled development threatens many important sites from the city’s early Islamic period, and as Egyptian authorities have focused tourist development around ancient Egypt (Dynastic period pyramids and temples), the historically vital and aesthetically magnificent early Islamic Period sites do not receive as much preservationist attention. Cyark has documented part of Saladin’s Ayyubid Wall, though it had to be uncovered from under a mountain of garbage first; much of Historic Cairo remains in similar (or worse) disrepair and neglect, swept out of public view in a dynamic, rapidly growing city.

Mexico City’s fabled center was built during the 16th century by the conquering Spanish, perched prominently atop the ruins of the defeated Aztec city of Tenochitlan. Foundations of Aztec monumental structures still lie beneath the equally monumental colonial constructions, which include the largest cathedral in North America. Xochimilco, 30km south of Mexico City and representing over a thousand years of land reclamation and urban development, is sometimes called “The Venice of the Americas”; the city has retained its indigenous network of artificial islands and canals (“Floating Gardens”), while colonial and modern structures now dominate architecture on its banks. Both are world-renowned for the magnificence of their historic architecture and vibrancy of life.

The historical structures, canals, and pre-Columbian vestiges that remain in both these locales are constantly under threat from increasing population and urban pressures. More and more of the scenic Aztec canals in Xochimilco have been filled in for urban and industrial development. Meanwhile, Mexico City’s 18 million residents have been draining the aquifers under the city dry, causing historic structures around the city center to be at risk of collapse. Most prominent is the Cathedral, built in 1536, which has been sinking since shortly after it was built but recently has begun to collapse at an alarming rate. If the Cathedral goes, so do the archaeological remains of the Aztec Pyramid of the Sun, the foundations and lower section of which make up the foundations of the Cathedral itself; much of this important monument has not been archaeologically excavated.

3. OLD DAMASCUS (Syria, Mesopotamian to Islam)
With evidence of human settlement dating perhaps as early as 10,000 B.C.E. and officially founded in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., this ancient city and capital of Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The city has approximately 125 monuments that span its 5000-year history and reflect its numerous occupiers. As the city was rebuilt with each successive conquest, however, it is virtually impossible to excavate all the ruins as they may lie up to eight feet below the modern level. One example of a highly notable building is the spectacular 8th century Great Mosque of the Umayyads, which rises above ancient streets never designed for cars but now at risk of being clogged with them.

Damascus is seeing this remarkable historic center abandoned and demolished to make way for modern construction. Modernization and redevelopment projects in the works will raze areas of Old Damascus with historically vital buildings dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries, all in order to build modern shopping mall complexes, condominiums, hotels, and more car-friendly streets. One particularly important monument at risk is Syria’s second oldest mosque, Jami’ Al-Tawba, a beautiful and historically-important building that will be destroyed to make way for modern development. The tomb of Ruqayyah, a major pilgrimage site, is surrounded by historically-important neighborhoods and plazas that are scheduled for destruction to allow parking and vehicular access to the tomb for visiting pilgrims from Iran.

4. FORBIDDEN CITY (China, Imperial China)
The Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties are central, magnificent examples of Imperial palace architecture in China. Dating primarily to the 17th and 18th centuries, the palaces are located in the cities of Beijing (the legendary Forbidden City) and Shenyang, which was the imperial capital before Beijing. The Qing Dynasty was the last imperial Dynasty of China, and ended in 1912 when the nationalist general Sun Yat-Sen came to power and deposed the child-emperor.

The Forbidden City, Beijing, shrouded in smog and surrounded on three of four sides by encroaching modern development. Photo by Jesse Varner

As with many sites in rapidly-industrializing China, rising air pollution levels in Beijing threaten many of the facades of the Forbidden City. Acid rain stemming from industry and an enormous leap in the number of cars on the roads is eroding relief carvings and statuary all around the palaces, while soot from coal-fired industrial plants blacken many surfaces. Modern structures built nearby, as well as the demolition of old buildings in the area, represent a grave threat to the integrity of the site.

5. ZABID (Yemen, Islam)
Zabid is one of the oldest towns in Yemen, and was a vital center for learning during the Islamic Golden Age during the 12th through 15th centuries. It was home to the world-renowned University of Zabid, which was located here and is currently in a state of ruin. Zabid was also the capital of the Ziyadid dynasty from 819-1018 CE and the Najahid dynasty from 1022-1158 CE. The modern town is centered around the Great Mosque and is still inhabited by over 20,000 people.

Crumbling Islamic Golden Age-period building in Zabid, Yemen. Photo from 2006, by Ahron de Leeuw

Unfortunately, Zabid has been reduced to the margins of Yemen’s intellectual and political worlds, and grinding poverty has a grip on much of the population, who live surrounded by the crumbling remains of their ancestors’ glorious past. Expert surveys have found that the city’s heritage is in grave danger of being wiped away; over 40% of the city’s ancient houses have been replaced by poorly-constructed concrete housing, while the remaining houses and ruins of the University and palaces are in a state of advanced deterioration.


Perimeter Wall of Shalamar Gardens, 2006. In 1999, the road seen here was widened, destroying nearly 400 year-old tanks that supplied water to the garden's fountains. Photo by Scott Christian

Located in Pakistan's Punjab province, these architectural works date from different periods but both are considered masterpieces of the Mughal style. These are sites of great importance to Pakistani national and religious culture. The Shalamar Gardens, which were built in the 17th century CE, are currently threatened by urban expansion and deterioration of their perimeter walls. Water tanks, built 375 years ago to supply water to the Garden's fountains, were destroyed in1999 to widen the road bordering the gardens on their south side. Lahore Fort (not securely dated but definitely built before the 11th century CE) also faces some deterioration from uncontrolled tourist use and encroachment of new buildings just outside its walls.

7. CTESIPHON (Iraq, Mesopotamian/Persian/Islamic)
One of the great cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Ctesiphon lies alongside the Tigris River about 35km south of the city of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. As an imperial capital of the Persian Arsacids, Parthians, and the later Sassanids, Ctesiphon was the largest city in the world during the 6th century CE. Its only standing remains is of the great parabolic arch Taq-i Kisra, which was part of the imperial palace complex. As world’s largest single-span built arch, this landmark in architectural history is 43.50 m deep and 25.50 m wide with a façade made up of six levels of brickwork forming columns, entablatures, and arched niches, roofed by an enormous vault. Ctesiphon was the political and economic center of Iraq during the significant historical period when the region was segueing into Islamic belief systems from older ones, and was one of the earliest power centers of Islam in the middle east.

The Arch of Ctesiphon, three views from 1864, 1932, and 2007. While little obvious damage has occurred to this architectural wonder in the decades since its partial collapse in 1909 following Tigris River floods, fluctuating water levels (a result of intensified agriculture and development nearby) have continued to wear away at its foundations. As a result, the structural integrity of the arch is now at high risk. First two photos in the public domain, third photo by James Dale

Today, Ctesiphon is in grave danger of total collapse from neglect and the actions of war in recent decades. The critically endangered arch, the largest standing arch in the world, is confronted with major structural issues; it has suffered years of neglect as Ctesiphon was seen as a ‘Persian’ site during decades of Mesopotamia-centric state policies. This has been complicated by urban encroachment, which is occurring at a growing pace on the Arch’s associated mounds; while agricultural expansion covers most of the land in the immediate vicinity. These factors are a serious threat to the preservation of the archaeological remains of Ctesiphon, and complicate restoration efforts for the Arch itself.

Baroque, neoclassical, and Russian influences predominate in the city center of St. Petersburg, one of Russia's greatest cities. Lined by canals with over 400 bridges to cross them, the urban core of St. Petersburg was designed in 1703 under the rule of Peter the Great; it stands today as a monumental area that epitomizes the architectural and aesthetic excellence that much pre-Soviet Russian urban architecture is known for.

One of the proposed architectural models for a Gazprom headquarters skyscraper, 300 meters in height and located in the heart of Historic St. Petersburg. Note that the model image makes no visual reference to the historic buildings and bridges that surround the tower. Image by Terinea

This center of architectural achievement in Russia has now become the proposed location for an enormous Gazprom skyscraper, immediately abutting several important buildings. This tremendous shift in character for the skyline will forever change the integrity of the area.

9. BAKU (Azerbaijan, Persian, Armenian)
Located along Azerbaijan's Apsheron peninsula on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a large collection of medieval remains rise dramatically in the midst of the modern city of Baku. Built atop a cultural landscape that has seen continuous occupation since the paleolithic, these structures were extremely important in the economy and history of the region during the middle ages. Buildings such as the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshahs serve as important historical touchstones in this vital port city of the Near East and Caucasus.

Maiden Tower, Baku, closely bordered by major roads built through its archaeological zone. Image by Derek Jones

While most of the structures still stand in this UNESCO World Heritage site (listed since 2000), a relative lack of local public interest and consciousness combine with poor restoration efforts dating to Soviet times to endanger the integrity of these buildings. The site sustained significant damage during the earthquake of November 2000 and is increasingly affected by the pressure of urban development, the absence of conservation policies and by ongoing dubious restoration efforts.

10. HILL OF TARA (Ireland, Neolithic, Celtic, Irish History)
Located near the city of Dublin in Ireland and often considered to be the country's historical and spiritual heart, the Hill Of Tara has a rich archaeological and historical heritage stretching back deep into the Neolithic period (at least 4000 BCE). It served as a central ceremonial gathering place since not long after that, with extensive standing stones, tunneled mound complexes, and tombs. The Hill of Tara was the seat of Irish High Kingship up until the 6th century, a power and ceremonial center through the Celtic Period, and gathering place in modern times when Daniel O'Connell held his 750,000-strong 1843 demonstration for Irish independence there.

Protestors speak to a foreman on the slopes of the Fort of Rath Lugh, a structure designed to defend the Hill of Tara that is currently being partially destroyed to make way for the M3 commuter highway. Image copyright by Gearoid Lynch

In recent decades, Ireland's explosive economic growth has led to a great deal of new development, particularly in and around its major cities. In 2000, the Irish government made a plan to build a major four-lane toll highway, the M3, between Dublin and its newly-built suburbs. This road, which will serve tens of thousands of commuters, cuts directly through the Tara archaeological zone and comes within a kilometer of the hill itself; construction has resulted in the destruction of at least 38 newly-discovered archaeological features that have been identified since the project began. Any construction in a landscape this densely populated with archaeological sites is bound to incur some damage to them, and the Irish government has hired archaeologists to do CRM (Cultural Resources Management) salvage work on the areas that face destruction so that they may do proper documentation. However, despite these efforts, certain areas (particularly the fort of Rath Lugh) have sustained considerable damage with minimal documentation. In the face of large-scale protests from many archaeologists and the lay public, the Irish government is going ahead with the project as planned. The M3 is scheduled for completion in 2010.

In the Fatimid district of Cairo, ancient minarets and important historic monuments are directly abutted by crumbling buildings and poorly-constructed concrete apartment buildings. Photo from 2004, by <a href=''> Jerome de Meudon </a>
Workers constructing a Wal-Mart just outside Mexico City (2004), with Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun looming nearby in the background. Photo by <a href=''> Sadekytee </a>
The great Ummayad Mosque, Damascus. Though this mosque is under no direct threat, the historical character of its surrounding neighborhoods has been irrevocably altered by the destruction of old buildings to make way for apartments, condos, and high-rise construction. Photo from 2007, by <a href=''> D.G. </a>