Damaged frescoes in the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents tell a story of neglect in the medieval city of Ani, now part of Turkey.
Sitting in a militarized zone near the current Turkish-Armenian border, the city is one of 12 cultural sites on the verge of collapse, according to a report released this week by the San Francisco, California-based Global Heritage Fund.
Settled by Armenians in the 10th and 11th centuries, Ani holds churches and other buildings that helped inspire the Gothic style across Europe. The city was abandoned in the 14th century, when all Armenians were forced to leave under Turkish rule. Today the unprotected ruins are prone to looting and vandalism.
Similar sites around the world also hold significant archaeological and cultural value but are at risk due to looting, development pressures, unsustainable tourism, insufficient management, and wars or other conflicts, the report says.
"I don't think they'll vanish completely. They'll just be ruins that are far less than they could be," said Jeff Morgan, the Global Heritage Fund's executive director. Modest investments could help restore and develop these sites for generations of sustainable tourism, according to the preservation group.
The site has "enormous potential for both archaeological discovery and the study of hundreds of generations of human history," the Global Heritage Fund says in its report. But Chersonesos is now being "loved to death" due to unmanaged tourism and the pressures of urban development.
Photograph by Wojtek Buss, Photolibrary
Sifted From Sand
A Palestinian man cleans a Tree of Life floor mosaic shortly before U.S. First Lady Laura Bush's 2005 visit to Hisham's Palace, an ancient site north of the West Bank town of Jericho (map).
The eighth-century Umayyad palace was still under construction when it was damaged and covered by sand during an earthquake around A.D. 747. The ruins lay forgotten until archaeologists rediscovered them in 1934. (See a picture of Umayyad ruins in Lebanon.)
Today experts have a basic understanding of the historic site, but they fear much of the palace's surviving remains may disappear as Jericho continues to expand its urban and agricultural developments.
Photograph by David Silverman, Getty Images
A mosaic of tightly clustered rooftops decorates an aerial view of Lamu, Kenya, one of the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the old town of Lamu dates back to the 12th century and still boasts many traditional architectural styles of Swahili culture.
Major threats to the site include a proposed port project and infrastructure for the oil industry. The development "would result in unprecedented new levels of population growth and put strong pressures on both the cultural and natural values of the region," according to the Global Heritage Fund report.
Photograph by Bobby Haas, National Geographic
History Washing Away
Dating back to the third century B.C., Mahasthangarh in Bangladesh is one of the earliest urban archaeological sites in South Asia. Parts of the ancient capital were in use until the 18th century A.D., and the site is still sacred to Hindus.
But years of neglect, looting, vandalism, and lack of funding have damaged Mahasthangarh. For example, heavy rainfall and highly saline soil have been eating away at the site's poorly maintained terra-cotta artwork, according to the Global Heritage Fund.
Photograph by Susan Liebold, Alamy
Chronicles of Nineveh
The rebuilt gates and mud-brick walls around the ancient city of Nineveh, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq, are popular tourist attractions.
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire from 705 to 612 B.C., but the city was reduced to rubble by attacks from Medes, Babylonians, and Susianians. Archaeologists found the "lost" city in the mid-19th century and began excavations and reconstructions.
Still—like many of the sites on the Global Heritage Fund list—Nineveh suffers from the pressures of modern society. "At site after site after site, you are losing half the site to new development, encroachment, [and] you're getting looting of the site," the group's Morgan said. "We are not even talking about natural disasters."
Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic
King's Hiding Place
Sometimes called the Versailles of the Caribbean, Haiti's Palace of Sans-Souci was constructed in the early 19th century by freed slaves to be the royal residence of King Henri Christophe I. But the king's subjects revolted in 1820, forcing him into hiding in the palace, where he eventually committed suicide.
Once elaborately furnished, the palace crumbled in an 1842 earthquake, and today the ruined structure is rapidly deteriorating due to poor drainage and neglect, according to the Global Heritage Fund.
A modest investment of a few million U.S. dollars to shore up the palace would lead to a much needed boost to the local economy in terms of tourism, according to Morgan. "But if you don't take care of it, it loses value. People stop coming," he said.
Photograph by James P. Blair, National Geographic
Basin of Maya Mysteries
The Mirador Basin in Guatemala, considered the cradle of Maya civilization, sits adjacent to the well-known Classical Maya ruins in Tikal National Park, including the Great Plaza of Tikal, seen above in an aerial picture.
The four cities in the Mirador Basin predate Tikal by as much as 1,200 years, but the Mirador ruins continue to lie abandoned under 2,000 years' worth of jungle growth. Threats to the approximately million-acre (405,000-hectare) site include looting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and illegal logging. (Explore an interactive map of the Maya Empire.)
Archaeologist Richard Hansen leads a project exploring the ancient site and is a proponent of responsible tourism as a means to protect the region.
Photograph by George P. Mobley, National Geographic
A complex of caves, monasteries, and mosques, the city of Taxila in Pakistan was a crossroads of industry in the ancient Middle East. Four distinct settlement sites—each belonging to different time periods—show the evolution of urban development over the course of five centuries, beginning in the sixth century B.C., according to the Global Heritage Fund.
Today the ruins and nearby Taxila Museum suffer from insufficient management—some areas of the site serve as garbage dumps, for example. Other threats include looting, the toll of regional war, and uncontrolled mine blasts that shake excavated artifacts from museum shelves.
Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic
East Meets West
Above, the ruins of an ancient gymnasium stand in Famagusta, Cyprus, once considered among the richest cities in the world. Founded as early as the third century B.C., Famagusta served as a key trading port and a center for political relationships between the Middle East and Europe, according to the Global Heritage Fund.
Host to the coronations of Crusader kings, the city's European heritage was neglected after it was conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The site now sits in territory occupied by the Turkish army. (Related: "Lost Crusaders' Tunnels Found Near Palace on Malta.")
"Lack of attention, lack of funding, and gradual deterioration of the monuments in Famagusta are threatening the ancient city's potential for survival," the Global Heritage Fund notes in its report.
Photograph from Photolibrary
Chinese President Hu Jintao (second from the left) waves alongside a delegation of tourism officials during a 2005 visit to Intramuros, the oldest district in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Spanish settlers constructed the historic walled fortress of Fort Santiago in the district in the 16th century. Much of Intramuros was heavily damaged by U.S. Air Force bombings during World War II.
Today the greatest threat to the restored site is modernization. International chains—including Starbucks and McDonald's—are found within Fort Santiago's walls, and developers in Manila seem eager for further expansion, according to the Global Heritage Fund.
Photograph by Joel Nito, AFP/Getty Images
Only 72 of the original 108 terra-cotta temples remain intact in the 18th-century village of Maluti, India. The temples were built during the Pala dynasty by devotees of the Hindu goddess Mowlakshi. Other temples at the site were dedicated to Shiva, Durga, Kali, and Vishnu.
Today, neglect, poor drainage, and overgrown vegetation are taking a toll on the complex. But "with proper restoration and maintenance, the temples have the potential to be a major source of economy in the small town of Maluti," the Global Heritage Fund says in its report.
"With no such plan in place, the temples are fast deteriorating beyond repair."