Sources of Inspiration – Natural & Built Heritage

Pyramid-shaped temple situated on the plains of Bagan, Myanmar.

Heritage can be described as anything that has been left to us, whether intentionally or not, by our predecessors or by the past. It can be quite local and might only seem relevant to particular groups, cultures, or communities. However, as it all represents some aspect of humanity or the planet we share, we are all the receivers of this legacy. We may even think of it as a global inheritance that encompasses a broad range of items and concepts—archaeological remains, works of art, landscapes, habitats, traditions, customs, value systems, and much more.

Differentiations are often made between types of heritage, like the ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ varieties. Other examples include ‘natural’ vs ‘cultural’ and ‘movable’ vs ‘immovable’ heritage. Regardless of its classification, the protection and conservation of all of it is of the utmost importance and vital if we are to successfully act as the torchbearers that pass on the legacy to future generations. Having stated that, for the purpose of this article we will focus on what is perhaps best termed our ‘immovable natural and built heritage’, in particular spectacular places of natural beauty and outstanding monumental remains.

Scenic lake surrounded by verdant green mountains with bright red flowers in the foreground.

Although movable heritage items like the exhibits and artwork found in museums can be beautiful, enrapturing, fascinating, and educational, they generally don’t affect the same level of awe that a breathtaking landscape or an atmospheric group of ancient ruins can. This is not just because of their smaller size, but also because in many cases we view them in an environment that is far removed from their original locations. For some would-be adventurers, simply stumbling upon a glossy magazine photograph of an amazing natural panorama or a mysterious archaeological structure is enough to motivate them to travel to the place depicted. Sometimes it takes months or even years to complete such a journey, but the following through of plans from inception to conclusion can result in the incredibly satisfying realisation of a long-held dream.

Atmospheric ruined Mayan pyramid at Palenque, Mexico set against a background of misty jungle.

In addition to the sense of accomplishment, there are other personal benefits to be reaped from making the effort to get to such inspirational places. If they are not crowded, the scenic views they offer can provide us with moments of peaceful solitude, quiet contemplation, and uplifting wonderment. Their sheer grandness of scale can humble us, making us feel insignificant in comparison, which helps to shift our perspective of the relationship we have with our planet. Indigenous flora and fauna may renew our appreciation for the vast amount of biological diversity we share our home with, and monumental ruins, having withstood the ravages of time, hint at the knowledge and skills of our ancestors, in addition to serving as powerful and thought-provoking reminders of our collective human history.

Panorama of Machu Picchu archaeological site and Huayna Picchu mountain peak.

The value of our natural and built heritage should be championed; it is constantly under threat and deserves more attention, appreciation, and protection. Since 2020 the prevalence of COVID-19 has drastically reduced tourism—and in turn—the amount of money on hand for the conservation and upkeep of heritage sites. Economies of countries that rely on the financial stimulus provided by visitors have suffered, as has the employment security of local communities. Despite the many negative consequences the pandemic has caused, there are one or two positives. The disruption to travel has also given a reprieve to some over-trampled cultural heritage sites and a chance for natural environments to temporarily recover from the usual assault of human activity. As we wait for vaccination drives to be completed, the unusual hiatus we now find ourselves in presents an opportunity to take stock of the current state of heritage conservation and consider how we can make efforts to improve it once the world returns to normality.

A single bright orange flower and stem growing from Incan stone ruins.

The issue of environmental destruction is well known and is now firmly in the public eye. The damage caused to our planet by a large array of human activities, ranging from overfishing and deforestation to the production of harmful emissions and irresponsible discarding of waste, has become a prominent and recurring theme in our daily lives. Together with the general acceptance of the fact that our whole planet is under threat comes the growing realisation that our natural heritage sites are in danger. Various governments and organisations have been trying to address the situation for a long time and both public and private initiatives have increased. The recent rise in popularity of eco-friendly tourism demonstrates the burgeoning sense of responsibility people feel to do what they can to help on an individual level.

An empty discarded plastic bottle littering a pristine natural beach environment.

The road is long and progress is decried as being far too slow, but the attention, support, and funding given to combating damage to the environment and our natural heritage is leaps and bounds ahead of that reserved for preventing the destruction and loss of our built cultural heritage sites. The latter face an extensive range of human threats, some of which have existed for thousands of years. Take looting for example; sites of archaeological interest and cultural significance have been targets of opportunistic grave robbers and thieves since as far back as we know. Nation-states carried off the antiquities of other countries and civilizations to display in their museums, a practice that some assert amounts to stealing. The wounds caused by such actions are in some cases still not fully healed—consider the ongoing debate surrounding the Elgin Marbles. The sad fact is that sites are still being stripped of their assets today, not for reasons of rescue and conservation but for financial gain.

A row of stone statues with sombre facial expressions at Angkor, Cambodia.

Another threat that can be traced back throughout the historical record is the damage caused to sites and monuments by people trying to deliberately erase the past. One high-profile case was the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. The blowing up of the two religious icons that had stood in situ for approximately 1,400 years led to an international outcry, but it is only one example of the iconoclasm that has existed for thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt it wasn’t uncommon for statuary and other art to be defaced after large-scale political power changes or shifts in religious belief. Elsewhere, during the conquest of the Inca Empire, Cuzco’s sacred Coricancha temple was systematically destroyed by the Spanish before having its foundations used as the base of the Convent of Santo Domingo.

Four headless Ancient Egyptian statues set against a vivid blue sky at The Ramesseum, Theban Necropolis, Egypt.

Fervour-filled attempts at the eradication of what was regarded by the perpetrators as another group’s cultural heritage equate to a siege on our collective human legacy. Such tribal-minded destruction is an easily identifiable travesty but perhaps a less obvious crime is how cultural heritage is sometimes misused to justify the nefarious objectives of those in power. A pertinent example is its weaponization and use as propaganda in Nazi Germany. In the 1930s Heinrich Himmler formed the Deutsches Ahnenerbe, giving the organisation the remit of searching for evidence to bolster land grab attempts and claims of racial superiority. Experts from a number of fields were dispatched around the world and purposefully misinterpreted the archaeological record to lend credence to Hitler’s ideals. The spurious results of their flawed research were used as justification for the invasions of sovereign nations and the murder of millions of people the Nazis considered undesirable.

Three rows of human skulls and bones representing murder and death.

That historical sites were used for such evil purposes may come as a surprise to some readers but one only need look at the uncontrolled development that rages on throughout the world today to notice the ease with which the past can be abused or discarded for the sake of present agendas. Laws and levels of heritage protection vary by country but in a lot of places much more importance is placed on modern economic development than is healthy for fragile heritage sites. Where there is money to be made from constant new construction and a lack of statutory protection for heritage, citizens can kiss goodbye to their nation’s visible past and everything positive it offers.

A large orange mechanical digger excavating a construction site for urban development.

The problem of runaway tourism can be linked to this too. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the numbers of visitors to heritage sites was at unprecedented levels. As pointed out earlier in this article, tourism brings in money, which is crucial to many people’s quality of life. Unfortunately, it also often leads to overdevelopment and overcommercialization, which can defile natural and cultural heritage sites. Several UNESCO World Heritage sites have become victims of this, their vaunted status attracting so many visitors and so much business that they feel like noisy theme parks, having lost whatever special or unique atmosphere they once possessed. The irony is that a lot of visitors feel disappointed and even appalled at this upon arrival, despite being part of the cause. There is very little inspiration to be gained from traipsing en masse around popular heritage sites that seem to have had the very life sucked out of them.

A crowd of tourists spoiling the peaceful atmosphere of an ancient Greek columned ruin.

Unfortunately many of the problems that pose risks to our natural and built heritage can only be solved at governmental or international level. If we look at organisations that aim to protect sites through conservation efforts and educational activities, perhaps the most well known is UNESCO, with its World Heritage List and World Heritage Education Programme. Other entities have their own specializations. Blue Shield International works to protect heritage at the mercy of armed conflict and disasters, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is concerned with advising on and promoting the conservation and protection of areas of cultural heritage, and the Global Heritage Fund focusses on the preservation of endangered sites in developing countries, while trying to increase awareness of what they describe as a crisis of vanishing heritage.

Close-up of sand-coloured ruins at Chan Chan Archaeological Zone, Peru.

Some bodies, such as the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, try to make sure that those who visit and are involved with heritage sites act responsibly by setting sustainable tourism development and travel standards. This is particularly important due to the fact that tourism damages with one hand while bestowing with the other. Trying to protect our planet’s natural and cultural heritage while safeguarding the continuation of economic and social advantages tourism revenue provides is a difficult balancing act indeed. By striving to lessen negative impacts and boost sustainability, it is hoped that the environment, natural and built heritage sites, habitats, biodiversity, poverty reduction, local pride, and economic growth will all benefit in the long term.

A flock of pink flamingos feeding in a lake on the Bolivian Altiplano representing environmental biodiversity and natural habitats.

As global citizens and travellers, we too should lend assistance with the protection and conservation of our natural and cultural legacy. One recent initiative allows us to do that in a very practical manner; launched in 2017 the GlobalXplorer° project gives the general public the tools to search for and identify possible places of archaeological interest using satellite imagery and digital mapping technology. It also creates opportunities for threat detection such as looting. In the first ‘expedition’ the collective surveying of sites in Peru amounted to about a fifth of the country and revealed more than 19,000 ‘features of archaeological interest.’ Following this highly successful outing GlobalXplorer° will next shift its focus to India, with activity slated to resume soon.

The tops of three Mayan pyramids rising out of the green jungle canopy in Tikal, Guatemala.

In the jungles of Central America laser imaging, detection, and ranging technology (LiDAR) has led to the discovery of thousands of human-built structures likely to be of Maya origin. Such phenomenal large-scale finds prove that the monumental ruins we have researched and documented represent just a fraction of what still exists buried under tropical vegetation or desert sands. There is a treasure trove of potential new heritage sites, which with the proper protection will increase the value of (and accessibility to) our cultural legacy. As travellers we should realise that we don’t have to only visit famous World Heritage sites in affluent countries. They already get enough attention. There are and will be other places that offer more enriching experiences; many overlooked sites in developing countries would benefit much more from our responsible tourism.

The autumn / fall colours of the bushes and trees of a pristine mountain environment, representing conservation and protection of the natural environment, and sustainable tourism.

Perhaps even more important than where we visit is how we visit. We can exert some influence by respecting sustainable tourism practices and using local companies that support their communities when we have the option. At big developed heritage places companies frequently come in from outside and spirit away money from local businesses and sites without reinvesting any of it in conservation. We don’t have to use them. Ensuring that we choose only ethical companies that respect the environment, values, and cultural traditions of the areas from which they generate their revenue is better. Entities that are eco-aware and pay attention to waste reduction, natural resource management, and energy conservation should be supported. We should also apply stricter standards to ourselves by using available eco-friendly transport options, recycling, and avoiding excess waste. Not using plastic bottles and being more conscious of our electrical, gas, or water consumption would help. Travelling responsibly also means not damaging, defacing, or littering sites, monuments, and natural environments.

Woman holding a lightbulb in the palms of her hands, representing, natural resource protection, energy saving, sustainability, and responsible tourism.

Many of the problems faced by our natural and built heritage are complex and not easily solved. Too much tourism can be detrimental to cultural sites and the environment, too little might mean a reduction in the funds available to fight local poverty. Sustainability is necessary. As individuals it is difficult for us to control the policies of governments, but we can try to do everything in our power to have a positive effect. At the very least, raising awareness of the issue is better than doing nothing. Heritage might be of national worth to the state but to humanity it has global value as evidence of our collective history. Even damaged sites can serve us by acting as poignant warnings for us not to repeat past mistakes.

The roots of a large tree growing on and over the roof of an ancient moss-covered ruined temple in Angkor, Cambodia, representing the partnership between nature and humanity.

Natural sites and built sites may be two separate classifications but they can both be aesthetically spectacular and provide many benefits. When viewed in tandem they represent some of the best examples of what nature and humanity can produce together—a partnership that needs to be nurtured and protected for the future of our planet and its inhabitants. Like extinct species, we can’t get our heritage sites back once they have gone. They are the gatekeepers of our legacy. They are places that beckon with the promise of adventure and possibilities yet unrealised. They imbue us with energy. They are sources of inspiration.

Post Preview: Sources of Inspiration – Adventure Stories

As with certain places and settings, stories are also conducive to carrying the imagination away on amazing adventures and inspiring us to make our own journeys. The need for escapism has been a constant throughout all ages of recorded human history. Adventure stories cater to this by serving as vehicles that allow us to make enjoyable mental forays into the mysterious and exciting unknown.

Disclaimer – A Note on Ownership and Copyright:

The photographs featured in this post were either taken by the creator of Escape & Adventure during his continuing wanderings (watermarked) or are images used under a royalty-free or CC0 license. Consent is required from the creator and founder of Escape & Adventure before any of the images for which he owns copyright can be reproduced in any form. All the literary work contained in this post is the intellectual property of the creator of Escape & Adventure. Consent is required before any of the literary work can be reproduced in any form.

Additional Disclaimer – COVID-19 Pandemic:

While the world continues to be impacted by the highly contagious COVID-19 virus travel is not advised. Despite our love of escapism and adventure, health and safety must come first. None of the content in this post is intended to contradict the rules and advice put in place by the relevant authorities to protect citizens from contracting and/or spreading COVID-19 or other diseases. Escape & Adventure accepts no liability for sickness, injury, or death resulting from anyone failing to take necessary precautions to protect themselves and others.

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