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Astronomy and World Heritage Thematic Initiative

Created in 2003 within the framework of the Global Strategy for the balanced, representative and credible World Heritage List, as a pilot activity for the identification of the sites connected with astronomy, the Thematic Initiative on Astronomy and World Heritage, aims to establish a link between Science and Culture towards recognition of the monuments and sites connected with astronomical observations dispersed throughout all the geographical regions, not only scientific but also the testimonies of traditional community knowledge.

This Initiative offers to the States Parties a possibility to evaluate and recognize the importance of this specific heritage, in terms of enrichment of the history of humanity, the promotion of cultural diversity and the development of international exchanges. It provides an opportunity not only to identify the sites connected with astronomy but also of keeping their memory alive and preserving them from progressive deterioration, through the through inscription on the World Heritage List of the most representative properties.

Why "Astronomy" and "World Heritage"

The sky, our common and universal heritage, forms an integral part of the total environment that is perceived by mankind. Including the interpretation of the sky as a theme in World Heritage is a logical step towards taking into consideration the relationship between mankind and its environment. This step is necessary for the recognition and safeguarding of cultural properties and of cultural or natural landscapes that transcribe the relationship between mankind and the sky.

Properties relating to astronomy stand as a tribute to the complexity and diversity of ways in which people rationalised the cosmos and framed their actions in accordance with that understanding. This includes, but is by no means restricted to, the development of modern scientific astronomy. This close and perpetual interaction between astronomical knowledge and its role within human culture is a vital element of the outstanding universal value of these properties. These material testimonies of astronomy, found in all geographical regions, span all periods from prehistory to today.

Implementation activities

The first international experts meeting on scientific and astronomical heritage organized by the World Heritage Centre in collaboration with the UNESCO Venice Office and the support of the Government of the United Kingdom, was held in Venice, Italy (17-19 March 2004). The main goal of the meeting was to define the strategy of the thematic initiative and a methodology which will aid States Parties in identification of the sites connected with astronomy. The results of this activity, including the thematic project “Astronomy and World Heritage” was presented during the 28th session of the World Heritage Committee.

In 2004, the World Heritage Committee at its 28th session (Decisions 28 COM 9, para. 6 , Suzhou, China) requested the World Heritage Centre to submit, for its consideration at its 29th session, the Thematic Initiative of the World Heritage Centre on “Astronomy and World Heritage”.

In 2005, the World Heritage Committee at its 29th session (Decision 29 COM 5B , Durban, South Africa) requested the Director of the World Heritage Centre to further explore the Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage” as a means to promote, in particular, nominations which recognize and celebrate achievements in science. This Thematic Initiative including UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Timeframe were presented at the International Symposium organised by the Institute of Astronomy of Russian Academy of Sciences, held in June 2005 in Moscow (Russian Federation).

In 2007, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik organized by ESA/CNES , the World Heritage Centre launched a new research proposal « Odyssey of human creative genius: towards protection of space technological heritage connected with space exploration ».

In 2008, the World Heritage Committee at its 32nd session (Quebec City, 2008) examined the Integrated Implementation Strategy of the Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage” (document WHC-08/32.COM/INF.5C , Decision 32 COM 5). This strategy, prepared in coordination with the National Focal Points in charge of the implementation of the Initiative, Advisory Bodies and the International Astronomical Union (IAU), aims to improve the identification, conservation and management of the specific types of properties connected with astronomical observations and traditional astronomical knowledge.

In October 2008, UNESCO signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as a result of which the IAU has become integrally involved in the process of advancing the initiative. One of the first actions of the IAU was to set up a Working Group on Astronomy and World Heritage, which has since become its Commission C4 on World Heritage and Astronomy. For more information on its activities visit the Commission's website at www.astronomicalheritage.org.

In order to facilitate the identification and nomination process of astronomical sites, a cycle of activities Astronomy and World Heritage: across time and continents  was launched by the Director-General of UNESCO in 2009 during the opening ceremony of the International Year of Astronomy The Universe, Yours to Discover ”.

In order to raise the credibility of the World Heritage Convention, numerous events were organized by the States Parties, in coordination with the World Heritage Centre and Advisory Bodies, in 2009 and early 2010. The main activities were the following: an International Youth Summer Camp on Astronomy and World Heritage , organized by the WHITR-AP Suzhou Centre (Suzhou, China, July 2009), an International Conference on "Astronomy and World Heritage: across time and continents" organised and hosted by the Russian Federation (Kazan, Republic of Tatarstan, August 2009), and an International Seminar on Astronomical Heritage organized by the Egyptian National Commission for UNESCO, with support of the World Heritage Funds (Cairo, Egypt, February 2010).

In 2010, the Committee at its 34th session (Decision 34 COM 5F.1 , Brasilia, 2010) requested the World Heritage Centre to disseminate among the States Parties the first Thematic Study on Astronomical Heritage jointly prepared by ICOMOS and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group, in line with Decision 32 COM 10A (Quebec City, 2008) and within the framework of the Integrated Implementation Strategy of this Initiative. A second Statement of Working Methods and Formal Processes for the Implementation of Activities was established within the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding between UNESCO and IAU extended in October 2010.

At its 34th session (Brazil, July 2010), the World Heritage Committee inscribed on the World Heritage List two properties connected with astronomy:

  • the Jantar Mantar, Jaipur (India) , an astronomical observation site built in the early 18th century comprising 19 large instruments for naked-eye observation. This represents one of the most complete and impressive collections in the world of telescopic masonry instruments in functioning condition;
  • the 13th-century Dengfeng Observatory in China, inscribed as one of the components of the Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in “The Centre of Heaven and Earth” (China). This extraordinary horizontal gnomon and 31m-long measuring scale was used for accurately measuring the length of the sun's noontime shadow, and hence for determining the length of the tropical year and the curvature of the earth.

In 2011, the World Heritage Committee at its 35th session (Decision 35 COM 9C , UNESCO, Paris) encouraged States Parties to take into account the recommendations provided by the Science and Technology Expert Working Group in the context of World Heritage Nominations (London, 2008), as well as recommendations developed within the framework of the Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage” while preparing nominations to the World Heritage List.

In 2011-2012, the network of partners was reinforced, international efforts to recognize astronomical heritage were coordinated, a new transnational project “Route of European Observatories” was initiated by the French authorities, a new project proposal on Space Technological Heritage was launched by the Russian authorities and the “Paris Declaration on astronomical heritage” was adopted by the participants during the International Seminar ”Protection of Heritage of Astronomy” (Paris, September 2011) .

At its 36th Session (St. Petersburg, 2012), the World Heritage Committee welcomed financial and technical support provided by States Parties and the International Astronomical Union for the Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage”, since 2003 and also encouraged cooperation between the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, specialized agencies and relevant interdisciplinary scientific initiatives towards the elaboration of a Global Thematic Study on Heritage of Science and Technology, including studies and research on technological heritage connected with space exploration. The Committee further encouraged States Parties, international organizations and other donors to contribute to the thematic programmes and initiative and also requested an updated report on Thematic Programmes to the World Heritage Committee at its 38th session in 2014.

The WHC informed the States Parties by a circular letter  CL/WHC-12/14/AWH/AS  ( restricted access only for the States Parties) on the implementation of the World Heritage Committe decision 36.COM/5D adopted at its 36th Session.

In 2015, the IAU organised a side-event on “The Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative, Achievements and Issues” at the 2015 World Heritage Committee meeting (39 COM) in Bonn, Germany; a Focus Meeting on “Astronomical Heritage: Progressing the UNESCO–IAU Initiative”, held at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, USA; and an international meeting on “Hawaiian, Oceanic and Global Cultural Astronomy: Tangible and Intangible Heritage”, held in Hilo, Hawai‘i, USA.

Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy

The Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy has been developed in partnership with the World Heritage Centre to support UNESCO's Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage”. It exists to raise awareness of the importance of astronomical heritage worldwide and to facilitate efforts to identify, protect and preserve such heritage for the benefit of humankind, both now and in the future. The public launch of this portal took place at the 28th IAU General Assembly in Beijing, China, on 24 August 2012.

Visit Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy

Thematic Studies

Two Thematic Studies jointly prepared by ICOMOS and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Commission C4  constitute the background for a comparative analysis that could be carried out to assess the Outstanding Universal Value of a specific site of the same type proposed for World Heritage listing.

The first Thematic Study (2010):

  • identifies the main characteristics and astronomical values of the generic type of heritage site from a World Heritage perspective;
  • examines a select number of representative examples included or not included in the World Heritage List;
  • determines possible gaps in the latter and, with reference to the Operational Guidelines; and
  • indicates the criteria under which such sites might be nominated for inscription on the World Heritage List.

The second Thematic Study (2017):

  • explores in more detail some of the unresolved issues raised in the first, using case studies structured in the form of segments of draft dossiers;
  • provides help and guidance relating to properties that might have a strong claim for inclusion on national tentative lists;
  • provides guidance for State Parties and stakeholders where it is considered that the property might have the capacity to demonstrate OUV; and
  • considers dark sky qualities in detail, concluding that, while dark sky places cannot, in themselves, be recognized as specific types or categories of World Heritage property, either cultural or natural, dark sky values can nonetheless enhance either the natural or cultural value of a place (or both), and in this sense contribute to potential OUV.

Read more about the first Thematic Study (2010)

Read more about the second Thematic Study (2017)

Download and Read the Thematic Studies

Statement concerning dark skies and celestial objects

Taking into account the growing number of requests to UNESCO concerning the recognition of the value of the dark night sky and celestial objects, the World Heritage Centre made its first statement in 2007 underlining that the sky or the dark night sky or celestial objects or starlight as such cannot be nominated to the World Heritage List within the framework of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

The World Heritage Centre wishes to underline that the « Starlight » Initiative developed by a group of international experts is not part of the UNESCO Thematic Initiative "Astronomy and World Heritage ».

The World Heritage Centre has been informed that during the « Starlight » Initiative's meeting in 2009 that the Working Group "Starlight Reserves and World Heritage" developed a concept "Starlight Reserve". The ICOMOS-International Astronomical Union Global Thematic Study on Astronomical Heritage includes a study on "Starlight Reserve" proposal.

However, neither Starlight Reserves, nor Dark Sky Parks can be recognized by the World Heritage Committee as specific types or categories of World Heritage cultural and natural properties since no criteria exist for considering them under the World Heritage Convention.




  • International Seminar ”Protection of Heritage of Astronomy” 
  • Paris, France, September 2011


  • International Seminar on Astronomical Heritage, 
  • Cairo, Egypt, February 2010



  • Science and Technology Expert Working Group in the context of World Heritage Nominations , London, 2008
  • International ICOMOS Symposium Cultural Heritage of Astronomical Observatories : From Classical Astronomy to Modern Astrophysics , Hamburg, Germany, October 14–17, 2008


  • Celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik organized by ESA/CNES, Paris, 2007
  • Starlight Conference u nder the Honorary Presidency of H.R.H. Felipe de Borbón Prince of Asturias , Teatro Chico, Santa Cruz de La Palma, Spain , April 2007


  • International Symposium,  Institute of Astronomy of Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russian Federation, June 2005


  • First international experts meeting on scientific and astronomical heritage , Venice, March 2004


Books and Proceedings


  • “World Heritage and the protection of working observatory sites”, in Piero Benvenuti (ed.), Astronomy in Focus: As presented at the IAU XXIX General Assembly, 2015 (Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union XXIXA), Cambridge University Press (2016), pp. 463–472.
  • “A iniciativa UNESCO–IAU “Astronomia e Patrimônio Mundial”: sucessos, temas e prospecções”, in Priscila Faulhaber and Luiz C. Borges (eds), Perspectivas etnográficas e históricas sobre as astronomias, Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins—MAST, Rio de Janeiro (2016), pp. 7–17.
  • “Astronomy and world heritage activities”, in Thierry Montmerle (ed.), IAU Information Bulletin no. 111, International Astronomical Union, Paris (2013), pp. 28–30.
  • “Astronomy and World Heritage”, in Ian F. Corbett (ed), Highlights of the XXVII IAU General Assembly, August 2009, Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, 6 (Transactions T27B), IAU (2010), pp. 12–17.
  • “From Stone Age to Space Age: Astronomy & World Heritage Thematic Studyreleased”, IAU Press Release 1006, 6 August 2010
  • World Heritage Review n°54dedicated to the Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage”.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Centre
    First international experts’ meeting on scientific and astronomical heritage 
    World Heritage Newsletter N° 44, April - May 2004, p. 4.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Centre
    Archaeo-Astronomical Sites and Observatories 
    World Heritage Newsletter N° 42, November – December 2003 / January 2004, p. 3.

Top photo: The Jantar Mantar, Jaipur (India) © Rebecca Louis

Decisions (6)
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