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For the first time, UNESCO has recognized over 100 World Heritage Sites in sub-Saharan Africa. Scroll through the gallery to see 20 must-visit heritage sites across the whole continent.

Meroe Pyramids, Sudan -- Situated between the Nile and Atbara rivers in Sudan, the Island of Meroe archaeological site offers a glimpse into what was the crown jewel of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. Part of the site consists of several pyramids which have withstood millennia. These ancient structures sit along what was a major trade route between Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Le Morne Cultural Landscape, Mauritius -- Designated a World Heritage Site in 2008, Le Morne Cultural Landscape shows off both natural and historical beauty. Situated in the southwest of the island of Mauritius, and including the Le Morne Barbant mountain, this heritage site was home to a fortress used to shelter escaped slaves slaves who originated from mainland Africa and south Asia.
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Leptis Magna, Libya -- The North African coast is littered with ancient Roman ruins, one of which is the archaeological site of Leptis Magna, Libya. The centerpiece of these ruins is the amphitheater constructed around 56 CE. The city, originally founded by Phoenicians in the 7th century BC, was largely preserved by sand until the early 1900s.
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Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania -- Mount Kilimanjaro and its surrounding landscape make up the national park which became a UNESCO site in 1987. The area is home to an abundance of wildlife, from leopards to flamingos, which have come under threat due to climate change.
Ancient Thebes, Egypt -- The Temple of Amun-Re, named after the ancient Egyptian god of sun and air, is part of the Ancient Thebes Necropolis site in Luxor. This temple is part of the wider Karnak complex and shows of classical Egyptian architecture. It remains as one of the largest religious complexes in the world.
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Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe -- At Mosi-oa-Tunya, or Victoria Falls, every minute 500 million liters (132 million gallons) of water plummet 108 meters (354 feet) down a series of gorges. Located on the Zambezi River, mist from these falls can be seen more than 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfall's name in Sotho, translates as "The smoke that thunders."
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Old Towns of Djenné, Mali -- Within one of the oldest towns in sub-Saharan Africa is the Great Mosque of Djenné. Part of the Old Towns of Djenné UNESCO site, the mosque was first built in the 13th century by King Mansa Musa. It was then restored in 1907 and is replastered annually during local festival "Crepissage de la Grand Mosquee" (Plastering of the Great Mosque).
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Namib Sand Sea, Namibia -- Natural beauty is in abundance in Namibia, but not much comes close to the Namib Sand Sea. The Namib Desert stretches along Africa's southwestern coast with red-sand dunes that reach up to 80 meters tall in some places. The Sand Sea has now been a World Heritage site for 10 years.
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Cape Coast Castle, Ghana -- Cape Coast Castle in Ghana forms part of the Forts and Castles of Ghana UNESCO site that lines the country's coastline. This fortification was named so in 1664 by the British and served as the seat of British administration in present-day Ghana. The castle serves as a reminder of the dark history of the transatlantic slave trade, in which it played a critical role.
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Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela, Ethiopia -- Amongst the rugged mountains of central Ethiopia lies the Rock-Hewn Churches, an important site of pilgrimage for Christians. The complex sits within the town of Lalibela, consisting of almost 200 churches, all constructed between the 7th to 13th centuries. This World Heritage Site was one of the first to be designated as such in Africa.
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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda -- Home to over 160 species of trees, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park certainly lives up to its name. The park in south-western Uganda is an area of dense, mountainous forest that is home to over 450 mountain gorillas, roughly half of the global population.
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Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, Nigeria -- Founded roughly 400 years ago in southwest Nigeria, the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is testament to numerous other groves that once populated the region. Most others have been abandoned and have degraded. Osun-Osogbo is home to 20th-century sculptures and hosts a festival every August in tribute of the Osun goddess.
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Lamu Old Town, Kenya -- Lamu Old Town is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa. A popular tourist spot in Kenya, Lamu showcases a combination of cultures with Swahili, Arabic, Persian and European influences. The seafront is particularly striking with wide arcades and open verandas.
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The Cradle of Humankind (Fossil Hominid Sites), South Africa -- The Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa, also known as the Cradle of Humankind, show traces of human occupation dating back up to 3.3 million years. Consisting mostly of caves and rocky outcrops (pictured: a view from inside the Rising Star caves system), this site is home to the largest concentration of human ancestral remains on the planet.
Timgad, Algeria -- In the Aures Mountains of Algeria, the ruins of Timgad provide a legacy to Roman urban planning. The site comprises a military camp, as well as various public baths, temples and a library.
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Okavango Delta, Botswana -- A river delta that does not flow into a sea or ocean is a rarity. The Okavango Delta is exactly that, creating permanent marshlands and seasonal flood plains in Botswana. The Delta, which was designated a heritage site in 2014, acts as an oasis in the middle of the dry Kalahari Desert.
Chris Howes/Wild Places Photography/Alamy Stock Photo
Great Zimbabwe National Monument, Zimbabwe -- Located in southeast Zimbabwe, a group of ancient ruins make up the Great Zimbabwe National Monument. Built between 1100-1450 AD, these sites made up the capital of the Shona civilization. This conical tower is thought to have functioned as part of a granary.
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Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles -- One of the largest atolls in the world, the Aldabra Atoll has remained largely untouched by human activity. This has kept the local giant tortoise population in good health, with over 150,000 living on the island. Pristine clear waters add even more to the atoll's natural beauty.
Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/AFP/Getty Images
Asmara, Eritrea -- Although originally established as an Italian colonial outpost, Asmara has since developed to become the capital of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. The city, famed for its Futurist architecture, was designated a World Heritage Site recently in 2017, the first in the country's history.
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Saloum Delta, Senegal -- Senegal's Saloum Delta has played an integral part in the fabric of local culture over the last 2,000 years. Rich with shellfish, the delta has 200 islands, man-made shellfish mounds and burial sites, all surrounded by an intricate web of rivers. This ecosystem stands out for its resilience and preservation.
CNN  — 

Supporters of Africa’s cultural and natural heritage recently had cause to celebrate. At the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in September, UNESCO announced five new locations had joined the list of World Heritage Sites, taking sub-Saharan Africa’s total over 100 for the first time.

Rwanda’s first two World Heritage Sites were named among 42 new entries worldwide. One, Nyungwe National Park, has a diverse topography including forests and peat bogs, and is home to the Eastern Chimpanzee, Golden Monkey and other endemic species. The other is a collection of sites in Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero, memorializing the 1994 genocide that targeted Rwanda’s Tutsi population.

Ethiopia’s 215,000-hectare (531,000-acre) Bale Mountains National Park, which includes the continent’s largest afro-alpine habitat, and Gedeo Cultural Landscape, home to 250,000 indigenous Gedeo people in the Eastern Highlands, were also inscribed on the World Heritage list, along with the Forest Massif of Odzala-Kokoua in the Republic of Congo, a vital habitat for the region’s forest elephants.

But that good news was tempered by the understanding that the continent still has a long way to go when it comes to recognition of its heritage. Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 1.2 billion people, contains less than 10% of sites inscribed on the list. Moreover, Africa has a higher percentage of World Heritages sites in danger than any other continent, and 11 countries (Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan) do not have a single entry on the list.

G.R. Vande weghe/Courtesy UNESCO
Vegetation in Rwasenkoko, Nyungwe National Park, one or Rwanda's two new UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A remembrance site to the 1994 genocide in Gisozi, Rwanda.

There are currently 1,199 World Heritage sites, benefitting from the conservation agreements and tourism that come with that status. UNESCO lists 103 of those sites in its Africa region, which does not feature Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – countries that have a total of 42 World Heritage Sites – which UNESCO includes in its Arab States region.

To qualify, a site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria, such as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius,” containing “superlative natural phenomena,” or bearing “exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.” Africa is not lacking these. So why the historic underrepresentation?

Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of World Heritage, says multiple factors have contributed. One is that some nations were slow to ratify the 1972 World Heritage convention, allowing them to submit applications for World Heritage status. (Somalia, for example, only ratified the convention in 2020.) Another factor is a historic lack of expertise and capacity in some countries to identify and nominate prospective sites, he says.

There’s also no escaping the fact the nomination process can be long and expensive. It takes at least two years for a site to go from nomination to inscription on the World Heritage list, says UNESCO, and can demand resources that some nations simply might not have at their disposal.

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An African forest elephant in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Republic of the Congo. The park, a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a stronghold for the animal.

To tackle these challenges, UNESCO has announced “Priority Africa,” a plan to boost identification and preservation across the continent between now and 2029.

“This new strategy is bringing a new momentum,” says Eloundou Assomo, pointing to previous global initiatives to bring balance to the World Heritage list, dating back to 1994.

“By 2025, we will make sure that most of the African countries that do not have a World Heritage Site have at least started preparing a nomination dossier,” he says, adding he hopes that every African nation currently without a site on the list will have one by the end of the decade.

The World Heritage director – from Cameroon, and the first African to hold the position – says there are more local resources and expertise than ever before to help maintain heritage sites. UNESCO has also partnered with the African World Heritage Fund on a mentorship program to train professionals from a “younger generation, so that they can be the experts and caretakers of tomorrow,” says Eloundou Assomo.

Another goal of the strategy is to work to reduce the number of African sites listed as “World Heritage in Danger.” Human conflict and natural disaster, urban development, poaching, pollution and unchecked tourism can all pose a threat, says UNESCO.

Fifteen sites in UNESCO’s Africa tally are listed as in danger and UNESCO wants to work with its partners to halve that number by 2029.

In positive news, one site in Uganda, the 19th century Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, in Kampala, was recently removed from the in-danger list after a 13-year effort to restore their indigenous architecture after a fire ripped through the tombs in 2010.

Yonas Beyene/Courtesy UNESCO
Gedeo Cultural Landscape in Ethiopia. The new UNESCO World Heritage Site features thousands of stelae, stone monuments with religious significance that archaeologists say are around 2,000 years old.

Eloundou Assomo says that even in the most challenging circumstances, “it is paramount to support African countries in their effort (to preserve their heritage).”

“World heritage is considered part of the soul of nations and soul of communities,” Eloundou Assomo says. “Their destruction is the disappearance of some identity.”

“If people protect (heritage sites), it helps people rebuild themselves … They have what defines them; because they know their past, they can build for the future,” he adds.

The six-year mission from UNESCO is but the blink of an eye for some of the continent’s oldest and most venerated locations. While it is down to individual nations to submit applications for inclusion on the list, the director did let slip one place he’d like to see inscribed in the future: the Bissagos Islands. The archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau is not only a biodiversity hotspot, it is also populated by a matriarchal society, and would become the nation’s first World Heritage Site.

Eloundou Assomo stresses that countries should look broadly at what they might want to submit to UNESCO for consideration.

“You don’t (need to) have an Eiffel Tower (to) propose a World Heritage Site,” he says. “It’s not only the monumental – there are a variety of sites everywhere in the world that have the potential to join the list.”