High speed emergency procedure sees Odesa become UNESCO World Heritage site

The Ukrainian city known as 'the Pearl of the Black Sea' was immediatly marked as an endangered site as well

The Opera house in Odesa has been protected with sandbags against bombings. Image: Konstantin Yolshin/Canva

Odesa, a port city located in southern Ukraine, has been listed through an emergency procedure as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO during a meeting in Paris. The status is expected to help preserve the city’s cultural heritage amid the ongoing war and conflict. UNESCO immediately classified the historic centre as “in danger”.

How come UNESCO listed the city? It’s not something that comes out of the blue: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky submitted the Odesa application in October 2022, citing the status as crucial for protecting the nation’s cultural heritage.

However, applications take quite some time to be processed, around two years. This time, the committee now used an emergency procedure, as provided via the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention.

Why the quick decision? In the submission, Zelensky asked UNESCO to fast-track the process for the designation, given the conflict in Ukraine. The mayor of Odesa, Gennady Trukhanov, added that the city already was accepted on a provisional list in 2009, but the procedure kept dragging on. “With the onset of the war, there was a real threat that our architectural monuments would be destroyed”, he explained to UN News.

Nonetheless, Russia’s foreign ministry accused a group of Western countries of pushing through what it called a politically motivated decision in violation of standard procedures.

Ukraine now has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Lviv, Kyiv, and Odesa. Want to learn more about how UNESCO decides which sites are listed? Click here!

But why is Odesa so important? Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s Director-General, motivated the decision in a statement, pointing out that “Odesa, a free city, a world city, a legendary port that has left its mark on cinema, literature, and the arts, is thus placed under the reinforced protection of the international community.”

The modern city, now known as ‘the Pearl of the Black Sea’ was founded in the last years of the 18th century. Its position on the Black Sea shores allowed it to be one of the most important ports of the Russian Empire. Its position as a major trading centre brought it significant wealth, making it one of the most cosmopolitan places in Eastern Europe.

Its Opera House is one of the city’s most iconic historic landmarks. In June 2022 it was reopened and became a symbol of resilience. The giant stairway that leads to the harbour became iconic in Sergei Eisenstein’s silent 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

Protection measures

“We covered all our monuments with sandbags, but it is difficult to ensure complete security”, Trukhanov said about the current situation in the city. While it’s nearly impossible to protect sites from a direct bomb hit, the city tries to ensure that monuments won’t take severe damage from a blast wave or debris fragments.

Trukhanov is also looking towards the international community: “Our colleagues in Italy suggested that we transfer especially valuable paintings from our museums to them for temporary storage. We constantly experience power outages, heat supply, and paintings need a certain temperature regime. We are considering taking advantage of this offer.”

The Zavadovskyi House (“Peterburgskyi” hotel), which housed celebrities such as literary critic V. G. Belinskyi, composer Ferenc Liszt and artist P. Bryullov. Image: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other help is coming from UNESCO, which started repairs on Odesa museums of fine arts and modern art and provided funding for digitizing the Odesa State Archives. These measures are part of UNESCO’s overall action plan in Ukraine, which has already mobilized more than $18 million for education, science, culture and information. Much needed, as the organization reported that at least 236 cultural sites in Ukraine have been damaged since 2022.