Amsterdam: World Heritage

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As I enjoyed my cup of coffee this morning and skimmed the paper, I read that the historic center of Amsterdam is going to be added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July.

 This spiked my interest for two reasons:  

(1) For a class, I once wrote a paper on UNESCO World Heritage Sites and I always get a  rush of excitement when – in “real life” –  I encounter something I learned in school.

(2) I did not know that Amsterdam’s city center qualified for the prestigious UNESCO seal of approval. 

I remember UNESCO’s selection criteria sounding relatively simple (be of outstanding universal value and meet 1 out of 10 criteria) but being incredibly difficult to meet. I mean, what, exactly, defines a “masterpiece of human creative genius” or “exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”?

And Holland is a great country, but are masterpieces of human creative genius really just scattered about? And is the flat green land really an exceptional natural beauty? I don’t know – there are prettier places, right? 

my idea of exceptional natural beauty

So, imagine my surprise when I clicked on to UNESCO’s website and found that the Netherlands has 8 World Heritage Sites! Honestly, it seems like a massive amount for such a small country.

Impressed, I scroll through the list, but none of it looks familiar. I half-expected to see Anne Frank’s House, the Afsluitdijk, or maybe even Keukenhof. Instead I got Wouda Steam Pumping Station, Schokland, and the Beemster Polder, among others.

Now that I’ve read up on these locations, I’m convinced that they are indeed worthy of their World Heritage status (reclaiming land from the sea? Hello, creative genius!)  but I can’t help feel a little underwhelmed.

Most of the sites relate to how the Dutch are masters in protecting their people and land against the natural forces of water, but there is more to Dutch heritage and having the historic city center of Amsterdam on the list will provide a more complete view, I think.

According to UNESCO, the historic city center is a work of creative genus, shows developments in town-planning and is an example of a landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.

Looking at the city center, you might not realize Amsterdam’s impressive, soap-opera worthy history but it’s there. Basically, things got really good between 1585-1672, the Golden Age of Amsterdam’s commercial success. People were moving into the city faster than it could accommodate the growth, meaning that the city made constant improvements between 1600 and about 1670. The semi-circular ring of canals is the most telling example. In early times, these canals facilitated the expansion of the city, played a key role in transport and helped keep unwanted visitors at bay.

Things got bad as the Dutch economy came to a standstill (British and French economies grew stronger) and things really took a turn for the worst in 1795 as the French occupied the country.

Nevertheless, most of the developments made during the Golden Age still remain intact. Today, 1500 monument buildings line the 3 major canals and although some of the canals have been re-filled as boats made way for cars, the innovative vision those 17th century planners had, has been preserved.

As a history geek, I say that’s cool and should be acknowledged and tourism wise, officials are excited. Perhaps this is the boost Amsterdam needs to finally lose its rock-and-roll image?

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