Before reading further, try to guess which countries have the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’ll mention that Greece has 17, and finding that out is what prompted me to look into this.
[O.K., think for thirty seconds.]
What did you come up with? My first three guesses were Italy, China, and Iran. India and Egypt surely should have some as well.
As it turns out, Italy tops the list with 47 sites. This makes sense, as Ancient Rome is basically the legal and cultural foundation of modern Europe and its offshoots. China comes in third with 41 sites. Iran, the country formerly known as Persia, the crossroads of the ancient world, is in 17th place with 13 sites. Egypt has only seven (!), and is way down on the list.
The second-place country surprised me a little. Spain has 43 sites. [“Site” is a fairly broad term, and even includes the godawful and culturally atrocious “Works of Antoni Gaudí” in Barcelona.] I know that there are still impressive Roman structures there, and that there are Moorish and prehistoric sites as well that deserve to be on the list if anything does. But second most in the world? I like Spain as much as the next guy, but I’m skeptical.
I don’t really know the process by which something can become a WHS. It’s outlined here, but the details not given are probably important as well. I’m fairly certain that in this, as in all things done by national governments and the United Nations, politics has a great deal to do with it. A quick look at this makes it seem as though the Spanish government and UN representation are particularly good at emphasizing the significant sites it has—maybe too good. (Españoles, tengan la libertad de corregirme.)
Every country’s list I looked at has some questionable choices on it, but with “national pride” at stake I’m sure the governments sometimes gave them the extra push. There might be moderating tendencies. The most common is probably being a poorer country—how else would Europe and North America have 73 natural sites and Africa only 35? Low budgets dictate having other priorities. Islamic countries with important pre-Islamic sites might not push for them so hard. (Rather like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, not merely ignored but actually destroyed in 2001 by the cultural terrorist regime in Afghanistan. It was the U.S. client regime that got them onto the list posthumously in 2003.)
There are some countries whose governments we would expect not to care so much about having a high WHS count. For example I’m surprised Uruguay has even one, although it’s a fantastic country that could easily have a few more listed. Malaysia is another one I’d not expect to push so hard. Likewise, there are some we’d expect to care very much, and Spain definitely comes to mind.