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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 4.5 out of 5 by 57.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Gem, Though Slightly Unpolished I enjoyed studying this course and found it packed with thought-provoking information. Despite prior knowledge about most of the heritage sites discussed, there were plenty of details provided here that were new to me. Two of the 24 lectures highlighted sites about which I’d known almost nothing, so those presentations were notably eye-opening. The United Nations, through UNESCO, has proclaimed over 1000 World Heritage Sites, yet the selection Dr. Justin M. Jacobs chose to focus upon seemed satisfyingly representative of the variety in that huge category. The professor’s choices spanned the globe; and he shared a sense, too, of what criteria were important for World Heritage designation. Especially poignant was the point made that fame and recognition for many of these sites has amounted to both “a blessing and a curse,” as more of the world’s citizens now know about and care about the sites, but increased tourism and attention can lead to increased damage. Though Dr. Jacobs adopted the style of a tour guide, he also taught as much history as one might have expected from a university lecturer. He made good use of anecdotal stories in his teaching, some of them related to his own personal experiences. His manner was lively and his speech was ever stirring, though I would personally have preferred a bit-more-somber tone when he needed to mention tragic or violent events. Unusual pronunciations and the misuse of some words (e.g., “spherical” for “circular”) caused occasional confusion. Visual accompaniments to these lectures tended to be excellent, clear, and often breathtakingly beautiful, though a few got repeated too often, and others didn’t seem precisely to illustrate what the speaker was saying while those were on display. We did not get to see the professor moving naturally in a classroom or studio; instead, which seemed less engaging, he appeared rooted to one spot against a rather vague backdrop, much like a speaker in a Zoom meeting. Thus, I’d rate the production values for staging and videography of the lecturer as below the usual Great Courses standards—could that have been because the course was produced during the covid-19 pandemic? Also, oddly, the closed captioning available when I viewed my DVDs of this course was accurate and helpful, while different closed captioning with the streamed version in my account’s digital library was flawed. Take note, prospective purchasers who may have hearing difficulties. Overall, I consider this course a gem, but a slightly unpolished one. Its strengths and beauty are certainly real. The abundant content covered is more significant than the caveats I have mentioned. It does deserve to be a recommended course.
Date published: 2022-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Compelling world tour This is a terrific course. It is a both tour of places around the world and a thoughtful, compelling story about the history, culture, or environment that makes each place special. Professor Jacobs does a great job presenting these stories and bringing the places to life. I learned a lot and have a new appreciation for places I thought I knew about as well as places I had never heard of before. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2022-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific course! This course is exactly what its title forecasts -- an eye-opening, visually stunning survey of 24 World Heritage Sites from all over the world. Prof. Jacobs' enthusiasm is infectious, his knowledge prodigious, and his lecture style is engaging. A really great course! Highly recommended!
Date published: 2022-09-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable lecturer I am almost finished with this series. I've learned quite a bit about some places I knew little or nothing about. I will the issue however with Dr. Jacobs' characterization of U.S. entry in to Afghanistan as an "invasion". An invasion is accompanied by an intent to occupy. We had no such intent.
Date published: 2022-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Sites - Helpful Commentary Course does a great job with pictures of each World Heritage site. The presenter provides very helpful information about each site.
Date published: 2022-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Impressed! Beautifully compiled and presented. Wonderfully detailed history on these sites. Very well presented. Fantastic pictures! Very high quality. Very impressed!
Date published: 2022-09-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Much Good information I am only half way through this course but have learned a lot. There are sites I have never heard of before that are amazing.
Date published: 2022-08-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting information, but Interesting subjects and interesting information about them. However, for much too much of the time the camera was on the lecturer and much too little on the interesting and often beautiful subjects of the lectures.
Date published: 2022-08-29
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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