Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.I.)

Much of the practice of Roman pagan religion seems at first sight deceptively familiar to us: the conceptions were much the same – there were deities, prayers, vows, sacrifices, festivals, sacred persons and sacred spaces. There was a constant need to consult the deities about what should happen or be done and much the same acceptance that prayers might be answered or not answered, but that the pious must maintain their devotion even when the situation was at a low ebb. There was also a distinction between proper devotion to the gods and excessive concern about them, for which the Roman term was superstition. A good deal of the vocabulary is the same too: superstitio, religio, sacrificium. But such parallels can be deeply deceptive. It is all too easy to think, without thinking too much, that the Romans had a religion just like modern ones, that we can coin a word ‘pagan-ism‘ and it will mean the same as religio does for the Romans. But modern religions are systems of belief and systems of morality, while religio seems only to concern the institutions and practices of religious life. Not of course that the Romans lacked beliefs or morality, but their religious system did not explicitly connect a set of rituals with particular ideas and beliefs.

The gods and goddesses of the Roman people were literally without number. There were some high gods and goddesses, with complex different functions and rituals – Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Mars, Diana – who were consistently important in all periods. They were, however, not formed into a pantheon, but they certainly did have areas in which they specialized. Mostly they were shared with other Italian communities, especially Mars who was important throughout Italy, not just where Latin was spoken as by the Romans, but also in the areas of southern Italy where the language was Oscan, as for example by the Samnites. It is clear that these deities were very early on identified with corresponding Greek ones, and these identifications remain constant over time. So far as we can tell, there were few local myths that belonged to the Roman gods and no tradition that they had family relationships like Greek gods. They borrowed Greek stories and it is often these that we meet in later poets.

There were then innumerable grades of lesser gods. Some were specific to one particular place or one natural process, for example the growing of crops. Some were identified with what might be seen as human products, such as Terminus who was the boundary marker of the farm. Specific deities were the patrons of the household and the farm, especially the Lares and Penates, and were worshipped in individual families. Other gods were associated with a specific moment in the calendar of festivals and never occur except in that single annual ritual moment. Some gods seem not to receive worship in the city, but belong to the countryside or the wilds. Some are revealed and defined by a single spot and a single moment in history.

New gods were discovered or introduced at most periods of Roman history. Romans had a strong sense of the Roman-ness of the gods of Rome, but no sense that they should constitute a closed list or that newcomers would not be welcome. Gods are sometimes introduced from abroad, as the healing god Aesculapius from Greece in 296 BC or Magna Mater (Cybele) from Asia Minor in 207 BC; or tempted out from enemy cities and offered cult by the Romans; or identified with the many personifications recognized by the Romans in the course of the third-second centuries BC. This preparedness to experiment and innovate continued in the imperial period, not least in the inscribed records, preserved in large quantities, of a priestly group called the Arval Brethren, where we still find a constant process of adaptation and development.

This all raises some problems for the understanding of the whole situation. In many ways the Roman religious tradition was and had to be deeply conservative: it placed huge emphasis on the accurate repetition of religious rituals – even the smallest aberration led to a repeat performance (instauratio) of the whole; the rituals were supposed to have been handed by the religious founder Numa Pompilius, the second Roman king (traditional dates 715-673 BC), to the first of the Roman priests; so the Roman religious order depended fundamentally on the retention of this revealed ritual practice. In many cases, we do not know how the apparent opposition between conservatism and innovation was reconciled in practice; but part of the answer must lie in the Romans’ tendency to see as the revival of some ancient practice or forgotten deity what we might prefer to call an innovation. Thus, for instance, the Magna Mater, apparently a strange and foreign goddess, turns out in Roman poets to be the goddess of Troy, and so an ancestral power re-accepted. In any case, the reality for the historian must be innovation, even when contemporaries could not or did not accept it as such.

The Romans from a very early date had a rich variety of priestly groups (collegia or sodalitates) with defined and specialized functions. These seem always to have been responsible for choosing their own members and for keeping their own records and lists of members, though their numbers seem to have been fixed and changes were made by state legislation not by the colleges themselves. The duties of the groups varied widely, from officiating or performing at a single occasion in the calendar (as the Luperci on 15 February – the Lupercalia) to taking general responsibility for a whole area of religious activity (as the fetiales take responsibility for the rituals of declaring war and making treaties). Four groups (pontifices, augures, quindecimviri, septemviri) were regarded as the major colleges and their affairs were controlled by law in the late Republic, while others remained under their own control.

All the priests had some ritual duties to perform and it might be assumed that originally they were primarily ritual officers. By the late Republic and later, when we have reliable information, they presided over the rituals and carried out symbolic actions, but had many assistants who carried out the killing of victims and the watching of birds on their behalf. The priests themselves, at least in the most important colleges, were almost all leading men of the political oligarchy; in many cases we know the priesthoods they held – Cicero and Mark Antony were augures, Caesar the pontifex maximus. Members of the top families of the ruling elite often took these priesthoods at an early age, before they had become senators and started on their political careers.

The role in which we know them best and can see them at work through the surviving sources is not as religious agents, but as religious advisors. The state’s main religious agents were in fact the high magistrates (consuls and praetors), who held the sacrifices, formally consulted the gods/goddesses and took vows to them binding the state to future actions. The priests appear as helpers and advisors, dictating the formulas to the magistrate; or else as experts on the religious law (the ius divinum). They kept books which contained (or were supposed to contain) the rituals and the precedents from earlier rulings on points of religious law. It was in this capacity that the senate when faced with religious decisions consulted the priests. Even here, however, the final decision lay not with the priests, who only gave a statement as to the rules of the sacred law, but with the senate itself; only they could produce action, even though they followed the priests’ advice.

The origins of this complex system of priesthood must go back to very early times, but in the form we actually meet it in the second/third centuries BC it is clear that it expresses in religious terms the dominant theory of the republican era. Power over religious matters in the state was distributed as widely as it could be: the priesthoods themselves had rules that prevented more than one member of any family from joining any particular college and any individual from joining more than one college; meanwhile the religious issues concerning the state were divided between the colleges so that none had a monopoly of advice. It is true that the pontifex maximus had great authority, but in no sense was he or anyone else the head of the system. The significance of this system became dramatically apparent as soon as the Republic broke down and the new emperor almost at once appropriated all the priesthoods of any significance and also became permanently the pontifex maximus.

The ritual of sacrifice is a key to the whole religious order of the Romans. Sacrifices were involved in all the main festivals and occurred before any military action or in any celebration of victory. Images of sacrifice are to be found not just when sacrificial events are recorded as on bas-reliefs, but also when sacrificial instruments are depicted regularly as artistic motifs. The imagery of a monument such as the Ara Pacis – whose primary references are to victory, peace and the glory of the ruling dynasty – is in fact full of sacrificial elements. Meanwhile, under the Empire, the image of the sacrificer, presented as a magistrate with his toga pulled over his head pouring incense from a saucer onto an altar, became virtually the monopoly of the reigning emperor, a familiar expression of his power.

The ritual was quite elaborate and governed by rules that had to be respected and an order of events to be followed. The victim had to be selected in relation to the god or goddess to whom the sacrifice was to be addressed, in terms of its sex, age and colour; it had to be brought willingly to the altar of the appropriate deity, and sanctified by placing wine and meal on its head (this element was called the immolation (immolatio)); a prayer had to be spoken, naming the deity for whom the victim was intended. The killing had to be instantaneous and the monuments show us how in the case of a large victim the animal was stunned by a blow from a mallet, while a knife was simultaneously slipped into its neck. Any struggle or escape by the victim was very unpropitious. The next stage was the extispicy, the inspection of the entrails by a diviner; at its simplest this confirmed that the sacrifice was acceptable, but more explicit interpretations could be sought and given. Then, when the sacrifice had been confirmed, the carcass was elaborately butchered and the entrails returned to the gods, together with their particular share of the meat. The rest was cooked on the spot and eaten at a feast by the participants; alternatively at least some of the meat found its way on to the meat market.

The Romans are remarkably silent on the significance of this ritual to them. We have no interpretation at all from a believing Roman, only one from a Greek observer and one from a third-century AD Christian convert (Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Arnobius, Against the Gentiles Book VII). Some aspects can be clearly established: the victims were almost invariably farm animals, and were normally eaten – and it may be that a sacrifice gave much of the population their only opportunity to eat meat at all. The effect of the sacrifice must have been to identify the separation, but also the interaction, of men and gods – sharing in the ritual and even sharing in the food, but in food carefully divided between them. It is relevant here that the Romans regularly brought out their gods and goddesses from inside their temple-homes and offered them meals. The second clear point is that there were communications between humans and deities implicit in the ritual programme: the behaviour of the victim and the state of its entrails indicated the acceptance or otherwise of the gods; humans communicated verbally by prayer, but also symbolically by the choice of victim, by the conduct of the ritual, by the offering of the deity’s share. Finally, the whole procedure was informed by the skills and knowledge of the participants on which success of the transaction depended. [To be continued…]

Books of interest

Emperor worship and Roman religion

An introduction to Roman religion

Archaic Roman religion

A companion to Roman religion

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“A poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.”

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Humans appear to have been exposed to arsenic for more than 5000 years and we know this because hair from the Iceman, who was preserved in a glacier in the mountains of the Italian Alps for this length of time, contained high levels of the element. His exposure to arsenic is thought to indicate that he was a coppersmith by trade since the smelting of this metal is often from ores that are rich in arsenic. The arsenic is volatilized as arsenic trioxide and it deposits in the flue of the furnace or on nearby surfaces.

Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil and successor and who lived around 300 BC, recognized two forms of what he referred to as ‘arsenic’ although these were not the pure element, but the arsenic sulphide minerals orpiment (As2S3) and realgar (As4S4). The ancient Chinese also knew of them and the encyclopaedic work of Pen Ts’ao Kan-Mu mentions them, noting their toxicity and use as pesticides in rice fields. The mineral realgar was recommended as a treatment for many diseases as well as for banishing grey hair.

Arsenic compounds are also referred to in Democritus’s Physica et Mystica, and the Roman writer Pliny wrote that the Emperor Caligula (12-41 AD) financed a project for making gold from orpiment and while some was produced it was so little that the project was abandoned.

The link between arsenic and gold was not forgotten and arsenic really came into its own in the Middle Ages. Realgar was found to yield so-called white arsenic by fusing it with natron (natural sodium carbonate). Petrus Oponus (1250-1303) showed that both orpiment and realgar could be converted to white arsenic, which we now know as the dangerously toxic arsenic trioxide, and which in the hands of the unscrupulous was to wreak such havoc down the ages. If white arsenic was mixed with vegetable oil and heated it yielded another sublimate, arsenic metal itself, and this may be how the discoverer of the element, Albertus Magnus (1206-80), first made it, although it was not identified as an element until several centuries later. What was also noted in the Middle Ages was that when arsenic was applied to copper metal it turned it silver, and this too appeared to be a kind of transmutation.

Arsenic has a long historical and disreputable pedigree; its very name seems to condemn it as something unspeakable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of the English word arsenic was in 1310, and certainly it must have been widely known by the end of that century because it was mentioned by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, written in 1386. The canon yeoman’s tale has the words:

No need to reckon up the lot,

Rubeficated water, bull’s gall,

Arsenic, sal ammoniac, and brimstone:

And if I wanted to waste your time I could recite any number of herbs.

Rubeficated means red, sal ammoniac is ammonium chloride, and brimstone is sulphur. Later in the tale he mentions orpiment (arsenic sulphide, As2S3) as one of the four spirits of alchemy.

The Romans knew of arsenic materials, as did the contemporary civilizations of China and India. The Chinese used them to kill flies and rodents, and the Indians used them to preserve paper from attack by insects. The Roman writer Dioscorides (40-90) wrote De Materia Medica [Medical Matters] in which he listed scores of remedies, mainly of the herbal kind, but also of the mineral variety and among these he mentioned orpiment and realgar, both of which are natural arsenic sulphides.

Although arsenic rarely threatens our health today, in the past it has affected the lives of many, but that was at a time when it was generally perceived as beneficial, to the extent of being taken regularly as a tonic. Yet while doctors often prescribed it for many ailments, they began to question its widespread use. In 1880 the Medical Society of London published a list of all the products then on sale which were coloured with arsenic pigments, and there were indeed many of them. For example if you were having an evening playing cards, then not only were the cards themselves likely to contain arsenic, but the green baize of the card table certainly did, and the wallpaper of the room would be printed with its pigments, as would the blinds and curtains at the window. The linoleum on the floor might well be coloured with it as would the toys with which the children played, and even the artificial flowers in the vase on the sideboard would have leaves of arsenic green. Arsenic indeed was everywhere.

SOME NOTES ON ARSENIC IN WARFARE

The forces of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire, had at their disposal a wonder-weapon: Greek fire. According to one account it appeared in the reign of Constantine IV Pogonatus (641-68) and its invention was credited to a refugee from Syria who fled to Constantinople after his native land was conquered by the Arabs. Others say that it was really a development of an existing weapon that the Byzantines had used in the 500s but, however it was discovered, it certainly had a profound effect.

Greek fire was invaluable in fighting off the Arab fleets that attacked Constantinople in 673 and 717, and was even used against a Russian fleet in the 900s. In these attacks Greek fire was ejected under pressure from tubes mounted on the prows of the Byzantine ships, rather in the manner of a modern flame-thrower, and it was reputed to catch fire spontaneously and to be impossible to extinguish. Such was the power of this new weapon, and the fear it engendered, that it is thought to have been a significant factor in enabling the Byzantine Empire to flourish for almost a thousand years. The secret of Greek fire was carefully guarded and with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 all knowledge of how it was made was lost.

Arsenic as an agent in warfare languished for many centuries until it was revived in World War I. In that war various chemical agents were used in an effort to break through the lines of trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles along the Western Front. The Germans tried chlorine gas on 22 April 1915 and this had a devastating effect on the unprotected British soldiers as it rolled over no-man’s-land and into their trenches. Five thousand men died and more than 15 000 were permanently lung-damaged. In September of that year the British retaliated with mustard gas, a sulphur compound, but the attack was totally ineffective. The disadvantage of these types of chemical agents was that they made the target area unsafe to occupy and it hindered rather than helped the attacking forces. The search was on for ‘better’ weapons.

Several arsenic-based chemicals were found such as Lewisite, Sneeze Gas, and Adamsite, their chemical names being 2-chlorovinyldichlorarsine, phenyldichlorarsine, and diphenylaminechlorarsine. Of these the only one used on a large scale in World War I was Sneeze Gas which was capable of penetrating gas masks and producing unbearable irritation of the respiratory tract. Lewisite was much more potent and this was developed for use as a chemical weapon, but the War was over before it could be deployed. Lewisite is an oily liquid with the odour of geraniums and it boils at the relatively high temperature of 190°C; this means that it is not very volatile and so cannot be used as a gas as such, but it could be spread as a vapour – the ‘dew of death’ – and while it could kill it was more likely to incapacitate because breathing the vapour would cause the lungs to fill up with fluid. The reason for using Lewisite was to disable troops by penetrating their clothing, including protective rubber suiting, causing a violent reaction on the skin forming large painful blisters. On unprotected individuals the chemical would attack eyes, lungs, and skin and eventually lead to liver damage and perhaps death.

MALEVOLENT ARSENIC

The ancient Assyrians of the eighth and ninth centuries BC were familiar with yellow orpiment, and the Greeks and Romans knew that it formed a white compound when roasted, which would be mainly arsenic trioxide. It was also known from an early date that heating orpiment with natron (natural sodium carbonate) produced a product that was deadly and that when it was dissolved in water it gave a clear solution. This reaction would form the soluble salt sodium arsenite, which would indeed have been very poisonous. Thus from the very earliest days there were those who knew the deadly nature of arsenic trioxide and its salts and how to make them. Such knowledge was both dangerous and politically useful, and there were some unexpected deaths that seem likely to have been caused by it. Laws of ancient Rome, dating from around 100 BC were specifically designed to cover cases of death by poisoning.

One of the more notorious poisoners of ancient Rome was Agrippina. She disposed of those who stood in her way, and almost certainly used arsenic trioxide because it was so effective and it enabled her to escape detection. Agrippina undoubtedly murdered her husband in order to be free to marry her uncle, the Emperor Claudius, and thereby gain political power and promote her son Nero into becoming Claudius’s successor. To bring that about Agrippina first eliminated her opponents among the palace advisors, and then poisoned Claudius’s wife Valeria. Once she and Claudius were married she persuaded the Emperor to allow his daughter Octavia to marry Nero. All that remained was to poison the Emperor’s son Britannicus, who would undoubtedly have succeeded him, and persuade the Emperor to name his stepson Nero as his successor. When he did that he sealed his own fate. She poisoned Claudius in 54 and Nero became Emperor at the tender age of 16. Sadly poor Agrippina soon fell out of favour with her son and he had her murdered in 59, although not with poison. Or so the story goes.

The use of poison in the furtherance of political ends is supposed to have reached a fine art in Italy in the 1500s and 1600s. The most notorious practitioners were Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) and his sister Lucrezia (1480-1519) whose names are still synonymous with such depravity. The pair employed a white powder they referred to as La Cantarella and which was almost certainly arsenic trioxide. It was said they got the recipe for making it from the Spanish Moors, and indeed their father was a Spanish cardinal called Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He died in 1503 after attending a banquet with his son Cesare and it was even rumoured that his death was caused by his eating poisoned food and wine that was destined for someone else. This seems unlikely because Cesare was also taken ill, although he recovered. Lucrezia died in 1519 at the age of 39, apparently in a state of grace, having given up her scandalous life for one of religious devotion. Her brother died in a skirmish in 1507 aged 31.

Book of interest

Ancient city of Nessebar – Bulgaria

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Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1983

The Nesebur Peninsula – the ancient Mesambria, which was called Mesemvria in the Early Middle Ages and later – Nesebur, was populated more than three millenniums ago, at the end of the Bronze Age. The ancient Thracians named it Melsambria, what in their language means “the town of Melsa” – the legendary founder of the settlement.

About the end of the VI century BC, the first Greek colonizers arrived in the settlement – they were Dorians by origin. The settlement was gradually fortified; temples, gymnasium and theater were built. The settlement transformed itself in a classical polis – a town with the respective structure, functions and administration.

Ships were built in the town and a number of handicrafts were developed – mainly processing metal. Mesambria began making its own coins around 440 B.C.
The town has reached its boom during the III – II centuries BC when gold coins were also emitted. It maintained busy trade relations with the towns along the Black and Aegean Seas, as well as those on the Mediterranean coast.

In year 72 BC the town was conquered by the Roman army. After a short period of occupation, around the beginning of the first century AD, it was permanently included in the Roman Empire. Mesembria, as it was called at this time, has preserved its fortress walls and the big public buildings. It kept making own bronze coins and remained an important commercial and cultural center on the Black Sea coast of the Roman Thrace.

After the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople and Christianity was adopted as an official religion, favorable conditions for the revival of the Black Sea towns were created. In Mesembria new Christian temples – basilicas were built as well as new water – supply system and town’s thermae. All construction work was performed under the supervision of leading empire’s architects and builders, following the pattern of the capital’s prototypes… [Read more]

The Ancient Nessebar

NesebarWiki

Nessebar on UNESCO’S WHC site
See also:

Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari
Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1985

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak
Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 1979

ZVARTNOTS – Armenia

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Cathedral and Churches of Echmiatsin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots

Date of Inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: 2000

Justification for Inscription

Criterion (ii): The developments in ecclesiastical architecture represented in an outstanding manner by the churches at Echmiatsin and the archaeological site of Zvartnots had a profound influence on church design over a wide region.

Criterion (iii): The churches at Echmiatsin and the archaeological site of Zvartnots vividly depict both the spirituality and the innovatory artistic achievement of the Armenian Church from its foundation.

The construction of Cathedral of Zvartnots or the Echmiadzin Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator began in 643, by the orders of Catholicos Nerses III Ishkhantsi [one of the most learned scholars of the era, versed in the sacred teachings of the still surviving currents of the ancestral k‛rmapetakan Wisdom Schools], and was completed in 652.

This unique edifice, composed of a three-tiered circular structure was the crowning glory of the central-domed motif in church construction. The design of Zvartnots is based upon a square cruciform plan containing four apses surrounded by the ring-like hall.

The Cathedral had been magnificently decorated with sculptured floral and geometric patterns and decorative pillars and arches. Historians and architects have praised the unique and beautiful design of the Zvartnots Cathedral. The triple-decker design of Zvartnots Cathedral was emulated in Armenia and neighboring countries and has had a significant influence on Armenian architectural design in general throughout the succeeding centuries. Zvartnots is considered a manifestation of masterpiece architecture and represents the synthesis and culmination of centuries of Armenian experience in the art of stone building.

The exterior as well as the interior of the Cathedral was covered by beautiful frescos and Armenian geometric symbols. One section in the interior of the Zvartnots Cathedral housed the Catholicosal seat, monks’ quarters and the chapel. The Grand Hall served the function for holding mass and other processions. The Cathedral complex also included a library and number of adjoining buildings that served various functions.

Armenian Highland

Zvartnots Cathedral

Zvartnost on UNESCO’s WHC site

BUTRINT – Albania

gr. Βουθρωτόν              lat. Buthrotum

Butrint occupies the small Ksamili peninsula between the straits of Corfu and Lake Butrint. Due to such a strategic position on the Mediterranean Sea, there were many military operations for the control of the area from the first Peloponese war (V century BC) until the Napoleonic wars (XIX century).

Butrint was controlled by the tribe which was part of the Greek Epirot Federation. Colonists from Corcyra settled in Butrint around the IV century BC. Within a century of the Greeks arriving, Butrint had become one of the ancient world’s major fortified maritime trade centres with its own acropolis

Butrint then came under the control of the Illyrians anxious to control the maritime trade and during the 3rd Macedonian war in 167 BC, the city was conquered by the Romans. The Romans used the port as a supply base for military campaigns in Epirus and Macedonia in the II century BC and area was afterwards “romanised”. With the creation of the Byzantine Empire in the East, Butrint was therein enveloped and remained part of the Empire until the latter’s fall at the hands of the Turks in 1453.

Barbarians, Vandals, Slavs, Goths invaded the city, the Slavs settling there from the VII century until the Byzantines expelled them in the IX century…[read more]

1990

Butrint was nominated as a World Heritage Site

1991

Butrint’s nomination was deferred

1992

Butrint designated as a World Heritage Site

1997

Butrint was put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger

1998

Office for the protection of the World Heritage Site of Butrint created

1999

Extension of the Butrint protected zone

2000

Butrint National Park established

2003

Inscribed on the Ramsar

2005

Butrint removed from World Heritage Site in Danger list

In 1972 UNESCO adopted the Convention ‘Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ and under its auspices introduced the World Heritage List. Butrint was nominated as a World Heritage Site in 1990 but in May 1991 ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) recommended that its inclusion be deferred to await verification of various definitions and plans relating to its protection. By 1992 ICOMOS was satisfied that all the protective requirements were in place and they recommended that Butrint – the intramural area covering 16 hectares – be included on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion iii .

In 1997 civil unrest prompted ICOMOS to recommend that further action regarding the protection of the site was essential and Butrint was put on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. As a result a workshop for the definition of the past, present and future of the site was held in 1998 which led to the Albanian Government creating an office for the protection of the Butrint Site. In 1999 ICOMOS asked to extend the buffer zone of the site for fear of uncontrolled tourist development in a small area on the coast. The protected zone was therefore extended under the existing criterion (iii) on condition that the State Party withdrew plans for this development. The establishment of the Butrint National Park in 2000 gave the site new legal status and protected an area of 29 km², managed by the appointment of a director.

Official Butrint Website

Butrint on WHC site

The Butrint Foundation

Butrint rediscovered

World Heritage

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America make up our world’s heritage.

What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

UNESCO’s World Heritage mission is to:

  • encourage countries to sign the World Heritage Convention and to ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage
  • encourage States Parties to the Convention to nominate sites within their national territory for inclusion on the World Heritage List
  • encourage States Parties to establish management plans and set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of their World Heritage sites
  • help States Parties safeguard World Heritage properties by providing technical assistance and professional training;
  • provide emergency assistance for World Heritage sites in immediate danger
  • support States Parties’ public awareness-building activities for World Heritage conservation
  • encourage participation of the local population in the preservation of their cultural and natural heritage
  • encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world’s cultural and natural heritage
  • original text link http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/