UNESCO sounds alarm stating Odesa a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ site

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The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO said on Wednesday that it had designated the historic centre of Odesa, a strategic port city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, a World Heritage in Danger site.

The status, awarded by a UNESCO panel meeting in Paris, is designed to help protect Odesa’s cultural heritage, which has been under threat since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and enable access to financial and technical international aid.

Odesa has been bombed several times by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

In July 2022, part of the large glass roof and windows of Odesa’s Museum of Fine Arts, inaugurated in 1899, were destroyed.

In a statement UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay said that Odesa, “free city, world city, legendary port” had made its mark on cinema, literature and the arts and was thus “placed under the strengthened protection of the international community.” The city has frequestly been described as the ‘pearl of the Black Sea” 

“As the war continues, this inscription reflects our collective determination to protect this city from greater destruction,” Azoulay said in a statement.

The First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska has been campaigning hard for this decision, saying back in September, “I also hope that our friends in the EU will contribute to an important step: adding the historic center of Odessa to the UNESCO World Heritage List …. Our cities and our people deserve worldwide recognition.” 

>> ‘Cultural cleansing’: New Russian attacks on Ukraine spur cultural preservation efforts

Earlier on Wednesday, UNESCO inscribed the Landmarks of the Ancient Kingdom of Saba, Marib in Yemen and Rachid Karami International Fair-Tripoli in Lebanon to its list of World Heritage in Danger sites.

Since the beginning of the war, UNESCO has been deploying emergency measures for Ukraine under its mandate for education, culture, science, information and communication.

Russia attempted to block the move

The debate over Odesa, however, took hours as Russia unsuccessfully tried to have the vote postponed.

Founded in the final years of the 18th century, near the site of a captured Ottoman fortress, Odesa’s location on the shores of the Black Sea allowed it to become one of the most important ports in the Russian empire.

Its status as a trading hub brought significant wealth and made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe.

The city’s most famous historic sites include the Odesa Opera House, which became a symbol of resilience when it reopened in June 2022, and the giant stairway to the harbour, immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

Although the city suffered significant damage in World War Two, its famed central grid square of low-rise 19th century buildings survived mostly intact.

Odesa was one of Ukraine’s main tourist hubs before Russia’s invasion. War changed all that, as the Black Sea became a battlezone. Sea mines still occasionally wash up near the city’s shoreline.

Ukraine is home to seven World Heritage sites, including the St. Sophia Cathedral and related monastic buildings in the capital Kyiv. 

Under the 1972 UNESCO convention, ratified by both Ukraine and Russia, signatories undertake to “assist in the protection of the listed sites” and are “obliged to refrain from taking any deliberate measures” which might damage World Heritage sites.

To this date, none of the six cultural sites have been damaged by the war — the seventh site being ancient and primeval beech forests, the UNESCO said. Some damage has been noted to more than 230 cultural buildings in the country, it added.

On its website, UNESCO describes Odessa as the only city in Ukraine that has entirely preserved the urban structure of a multinational southern port town typical of the late 18th-19th centuries.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AP, Reuters)

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