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World Heritage Sites: Exploring the World’s Greatest Places

Encounter some of the most astounding treasures of our world, both man-made and natural, in this tour of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

World Heritage Sites: Exploring the World’s Greatest Places is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 71.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent excellent topics and lecturer. as other commenters said, i would have preferred to have more visuals of the sites in some of the lectures. however dr jacobs is very easy to listen to and likeable. as we start to travel again, i will watch some of the lectures before we go.
Date published: 2023-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking Really enjoyed this course. Dr. Jacobs presented each location in a manner that was so captivating, I tended to forget it was even a lecture.
Date published: 2023-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Selection of Sites I selected this topic because of the sites that had been chosen. I would have liked more illustrations of the site or portion of the site being discussed and less "talking head." I've also found that I like to have the presenter introduce himself/herself at the start of each lecture.
Date published: 2023-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Inspiring Introduction to several outstanding site Professor Jacobs is an enthusiastic and entertaining guide to the World Heritage Sites he describes in this course. I have visited many of the sites reviewed and was amazed by the additional information and insights he shared. He as an expert at bringing these excursions to life. I hope there is a second volume of this course in the works.
Date published: 2023-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from World Heritage Sites Visiting these special places around the world with a very knowledgeable guide is truly inspirational.
Date published: 2023-03-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wonderful selection of sites to visit He is an excellent lecturer, providing wonderful information about the sites he has selected to introduce us to. My only suggestions would be: 1. I would prefer to see more of the site Dr. Jacobs is discussing and less of him 2. The background behind him is distracting. It would be far better if you were speaking in front of either a blank wall, or a single photograph.
Date published: 2023-03-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from For World Travelers and Armchair Tourists Of the 24 World Heritage sites featured in this series, I’ve had the good fortune to have visited 15. And I really wish I had been able to watch the relevant lecture before I went. Of the 1,157 heritage sites listed in January 2023 (Italy has 58, China has 56), I applaud most of the selections chosen by Professor Jacobs. It is varied and covers six continents and includes cultural sites (prehistoric cave art), monumental works (Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat) and natural habitats (Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and a gorilla sanctuary in Congo.) Of special note, are the lectures on the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan and Palmyra in Syria. The remote site of Bamiyan was enrolled on the World Heritage list in 2003, only after the Buddhas had been destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. However, beautiful Buddhist cave paintings remain intact, and the lecture includes photos of the Buddhas taken before the demolition. Palmyra was an ancient city whose vast ruins were listed as a World Heritage Site in 1980. Over several months in 2015, ISIS blew up the Lion of Al-lāt, the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, and three of the best preserved tower tombs. Some restoration has been possible. Most lectures begin with a relevant history and then focus on the site itself, pointing out features to look for. This is where I really wish I had seen the lecture before I had visited the site. (That being said, I have to admit that I visited many of the sites without the benefit of a good local guide or so long ago I don’t remember all the intricacies. So this is a great refresher course.) Many negative reviews cite the lack of visual content. While I will admit I was sometimes frustrated with watching the lecturer describe a work of art rather than see its image, I found that almost all lectures had good supporting visuals. One lecture that could have really used an illustrative video clip was Easter Island. As Professor Jacobs tried to describe the massive stone figures “walking” to their destination, I recalled a PBS documentary that showed a modern re-enactment that proved this was possible. And yes, I am among the many who would have welcomed even more visual content as this series deserved to be heavily visual and the content is generally available. That being said, given the plethora of WH sites, I’m not sure the Potala Palace in Tibet was a good choice. Photography is not allowed in the palace, and it was distressingly evident in this lecture. There were no images of the interior, and only a few images from Jokhang Temple. This left Professor Jacobs waving his arms trying to describe the great stupas in which several centuries of Dalai Lamas are buried in the Red Palace (and some images are available on the internet.) And no mention was made of the 3-dimensional mandalas that completely entranced me when I visited. Instead, he was again waving his arms trying to explain a very obscure board game that monks play. Nevertheless, as a whole, this series is very enjoyable when looking forward (or backward) to a visit to one of these sites, or just as an armchair traveler who enjoys learning about new places and cultures. Professor Jacobs’ delivery is well organized and clear.
Date published: 2023-03-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from To much professor. There is way too much footage of the professor talking and not enough visuals of the actual places or artistic renderings. Great concept, just not well executed.
Date published: 2023-02-02
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Since 1972, UNESCO has designated World Heritage Sites across the globe, marking locations of outstanding value to humanity. This course tours 24 of the foremost UNESCO sites, highlighting marvels of human culture, such as India’s Taj Mahal, Egypt’s Thebes, and Uzbekistan’s Samarkand, plus natural wonders of our planet, such as the Great Barrier Reef, Japan’s Mount Fuji, and Africa’s Virunga National Park.


Justin M. Jacobs

I've spent my life studying places that help tell us what it is to be human, where we have come from, and where we're going.


American University

Justin M. Jacobs is an Associate Professor of History at American University. He studied English and Chinese at the University of Washington before earning his PhD in History at the University of California San Diego. Between degrees, he traveled widely throughout the world, including extended stays in China and Taiwan for research. At American University, he teaches courses on Chinese and Japanese history, the history of archaeology, the Silk Road, voyages of exploration, and global history.

Justin has published articles on the history of the Silk Road and served as editor of The Silk Road, a journal sponsored by the Silk Road House. He is the author of three books on history and archaeology: The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures; Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon; and Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State. His work on the history of archaeological expeditions in China has also been translated into Chinese.

Justin is regularly interviewed by prominent media outlets and has written articles for major newspapers such as The Washington Post. More than 60 of his lectures on East Asian history have been recorded for the podcast Beyond Huaxia: A College History of China and Japan. He also gives frequent public lectures for lifelong education programs such as Smithsonian Associates, Profs and Pints, and Live & Learn Bethesda.

By This Professor

World Heritage Sites: Exploring the World’s Greatest Places
World Heritage Sites: Exploring the World’s Greatest Places


Paleolithic Cave Art of Spain and France

01: Paleolithic Cave Art of Spain and France

In this first lecture, discover the oldest paintings in the world, in the extraordinary cave art of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet. Explore details of the imagery, principally depicting large animals, taking in the richness and sophistication of the artwork. Contemplate the mysteries of what the paintings mean and how they show us the cognitive tools on which human civilization was built.

30 min
The Taj Mahal of Agra

02: The Taj Mahal of Agra

The Taj Mahal is widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful buildings and an enduring symbol of love. Learn about the builder of Taj, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom it was built. Study the stunning features of this incredible funerary monument, as it serves as an architectural expression of the culture and politics of Shah Jahan’s empire.

29 min
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

03: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders, drawing travelers to its shimmering, multicolored coral reefs, teeming with fascinating marine life. Relive the dramatic discovery of the Reef in 1768, and learn about its complex, layered ecosystem, the largest structure ever built by living organisms. Witness the huge diversity of its wildlife and assess man-made dangers to the Reef.

29 min
The Mogao Grottoes and Manuscripts

04: The Mogao Grottoes and Manuscripts

The Mogao Grottoes are a series of nearly 500 caves, dug out of cliffs in the desert of northwestern China, containing one of the most dazzling collections of Buddhist art anywhere in the world. Learn how the caves were created and see the sublime statues and lush paintings within them. Also take account of the legendary depository of Buddhist literature and historical texts within Cave 17.

28 min
Persepolis, the Great Persian Capital

05: Persepolis, the Great Persian Capital

The citadel of Persepolis was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire for nearly 200 years. Take the measure of the vast empire of the builders of the complex, the kings Darius I and Xerxes. Explore the palace, taking in its Gate of All Nations, monumental stairways, and superb friezes. Sample some of the many inscriptions and texts found at the site, which reveal fascinating glimpses of those who lived there.

31 min
Easter Island and the Moai

06: Easter Island and the Moai

The extraordinary moai, the colossal statues of Easter Island, are a testament to human innovation and resilience. Begin with the amazing story of how this exceedingly remote island was colonized by Polynesian seafarers and how they subsisted there. Study the building techniques of the great statues, how they were transported across the island, and what they mean within the island’s culture.

29 min
Canada’s Rocky Mountains

07: Canada’s Rocky Mountains

The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks contain an astonishing spectrum of mountain ranges, ice fields, glaciers, pristine lakes, archaeological sites, and a superabundance of plant and animal life. Learn the natural history of the region and its settlement. Explore highlights such as the Burgess Shale; the Columbia Icefield; and other phenomenal features of Jasper, Banff, and Yoho national parks.

30 min
Teotihuacán, Largest City of Mesoamerica

08: Teotihuacán, Largest City of Mesoamerica

Teotihuacán, one of the most sophisticated cities of the ancient world, sits northeast of Mexico City. With no written records, assess what archaeologists have deduced about the city’s people and their cosmology. Visit the imposing Sun and Moon Pyramids, Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and other monuments. Also, study the remarkable art objects and colossal statues found at the site.

29 min
Samarkand, Crossroads of Central Asia

09: Samarkand, Crossroads of Central Asia

Samarkand, among the oldest and greatest cities of Central Asia, contains a wealth of historical and cultural treasures. Trace the history of this fascinating icon of the Silk Road, and the Islamic transformation of the region. Take in the splendor of Samarkand’s monuments, highlighting the glorious Bibi Khanum mosque, the Gur-i Emir tomb, and the spectacular madrassahs of the Registan.

30 min
Ancient Egyptian Thebes

10: Ancient Egyptian Thebes

Thebes, modern-day Luxor, is an archeological treasure trove, representing the height of ancient Egyptian wealth and power. Begin at the extraordinary temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor, which held huge religious and political significance. Then visit the memorial temples that glorified individual monarchs and, finally, see the Valley of the Kings, the site of more than 60 royal tombs.

30 min
The Forbidden City of Beijing

11: The Forbidden City of Beijing

The majestic palace complex called The Forbidden City was the primary residence for 24 Chinese emperors over a period of 500 years. Track its history during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and study its elaborate mix of residential palaces, religious shrines, pavilions, gardens, and administrative buildings. Visualize a day in the life of the Qianlong Emperor within the palace precincts.

29 min
Mount Fuji, the Symbol of Japan

12: Mount Fuji, the Symbol of Japan

Mount Fuji was granted World Heritage Site status in recognition of its deep association with Japanese history and culture. Take the measure of this iconic picturesque mountain and learn about its presence in Japanese religion, poetry, and folklore, as well as its tradition as a pilgrimage site. Take note of its depiction in art and its role in the definition of the modern Japanese nation.

30 min
Timbuktu, Islam’s Center by the Sahara

13: Timbuktu, Islam’s Center by the Sahara

Beginning in the 16th century, the Malian trading city of Timbuktu became a center of learning, literature, and Islamic knowledge, famous throughout the Muslim world. Follow the great flourishing of intellectual culture there, as seen in hundreds of thousands of ancient Arabic manuscripts that remain from the era, now preserved in libraries and attracting international attention from scholars.

31 min
The Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum

14: The Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Pompeii and Herculaneum were famously buried in 79 AD by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, leaving two ancient Roman cities frozen in time. At Herculaneum, assess the treasures discovered at the Villa di Papyri. Then see how the mansions, streets, and bathhouses of Pompeii bring daily Roman life viscerally alive, through preserved artifacts and vestiges that rarely survive in the historical record.

28 min
Virunga National Park, Gorilla Sanctuary

15: Virunga National Park, Gorilla Sanctuary

Virunga is one of Africa’s great national parks, home to a vast spectrum of wildlife. Learn about the most extraordinary of large primates, the mountain gorilla, which is only found here. Take in the stunning beauty of Virunga’s forests, string of dormant volcanoes, and biodiversity. And take account of the poignant political situation in the region, as it affects the park’s future.

30 min
Angkor Wat, the Great Khmer Temple

16: Angkor Wat, the Great Khmer Temple

The jungles of Cambodia are home to the largest religious monument in the world: the massive temple complex of Angkor Wat. Grasp how the culture of Hinduism and Sanskrit influenced the Khmer people and the building of the temple. Tour the temple’s courtyards, galleries, towers, and the exquisite decoration of friezes evoking Hindu gods and legends, unmatched in Southeast Asia.

30 min
Earliest China: Yinxu and the Oracle Bones

17: Earliest China: Yinxu and the Oracle Bones

The site of Yinxu contains the remains of the earliest Chinese dynasty: the Shang. Among Yinxu’s astonishing features, learn about the mysterious “oracle bones,” inscribed ox bones used in divination to obtain information from the netherworld. Then visit the vast royal necropolis, with sumptuous tombs containing bronze and jade treasures, and which bear evidence of substantial human sacrifice.

30 min
The Inca Estate of Machu Picchu

18: The Inca Estate of Machu Picchu

Delve into the culture of the Inca, within which the sky palace of Machu Picchu functioned as a royal retreat. Take in the topography of the site and how the Inca integrated the estate with the landscape. View the royal residences and religious structures, and note the masterful stonework, hydraulic engineering, and the breathtaking setting that mark this beloved symbol of Peru.

28 min
Iceland’s Great Assembly at Thingvellir

19: Iceland’s Great Assembly at Thingvellir

Thingvellir marks the site of the Althing, an Icelandic open-air parliament that met for more than 300 years. Relive the story of the settling of Iceland, and the phenomenon of the Althing, which allowed the islanders to resolve local grievances and disputes. Study the procedures and methodology of this unique medium of conflict resolution, an intangible yet deeply significant cultural tradition.

30 min
Afghanistan’s Lost Bamiyan Buddhas

20: Afghanistan’s Lost Bamiyan Buddhas

The Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, bore witness to a remarkable Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 6th and 9th centuries. Study the features of these mammoth statues, the unusual techniques of their construction, and their extraordinary adornments. Visualize the culture, rituals, and splendor that characterized this little-known trading crossroads.

30 min
The Acropolis of Athens

21: The Acropolis of Athens

The glorious Acropolis, beloved symbol of ancient Greece, has a complex and unusual history. Trace how the site came into being and evolved. Study the iconic structures of the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the Parthenon, and their decoration. Then follow the Parthenon’s Roman conversion into a Christian church, and the Acropolis’s later fortunes under other empires and civilizations.

30 min
Tibet’s Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

22: Tibet’s Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

These beloved monuments are the most sacred sites of Tibetan Buddhism. Learn how Buddhism came to Tibet as you explore the Jokhang Temple complex, its Great Courtyard, Central Inner Sanctum, and traditional rituals. Continue with the vast Potala Palace, the highest palace in the world, and grasp its political and religious significance as the seat of the Dalai Lamas.

29 min
Palmyra, Oasis in the Syrian Desert

23: Palmyra, Oasis in the Syrian Desert

The desert site of Palmyra flourished as a caravan crossroads for 250 years, giving rise to a diverse and fascinating culture and economy. View the extraordinary architecture of the city, from its Roman monuments, Great Colonnade and Tetrapylon to its Babylonian-inspired temples of Bel and Baalshamin. And trace its colorful history, ending with the site’s tragic destruction by ISIS in 2015.

30 min
The Redwood Forests of California

24: The Redwood Forests of California

Known throughout the world as marvels of nature, the California redwoods are the world’s tallest trees, able to reach the age of 2,000 and beyond. Learn about the features of these amazing giants, the conditions for their growth, and the surprising ecosystems that exist in their upper canopies. Finish with the remarkable story of their contact with humanity, and how they came to be protected.

35 min