Posts Tagged ‘UNESCO World Heritage sites’

The History of Hoi An, Vietnam

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Mark McLeod is currently researching intersections between culture and politics in 19th century Vietnam. He is an expert on Vietnamese history since 1802, so Smithsonian Education Manager Sadie McVicker took the opportunity to get his thoughts on Hội-an, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Q. Hội-an is a World Heritage Site, essentially a living museum of what was one of the most active Southeast Asian seaports of the 15th-19th centuries. Can you tell us something of the long history of its rise to that preeminence? And why it fell out of favor over 200 years ago?


Woman in rowboat, Hoi An, Vietnam.

A. In addition to the advantages presented by the port itself, the Thu-bồn River system, which has its origins in the Annamite Range and drains into the South China Sea (which Vietnamese call the Biển Đông or Eastern Sea, not wanting to concede China’s ownership of it), forms one of Vietnam’s largest river basins, which served to link local, regional, and international trade. Furthermore, the surrounding area, roughly comprising the area of modern Quảng-nam province, in addition to natural products such as cinnamon and ginseng, was an artisanal producer of textiles and ceramics, which attracted foreign traders, Asian as well as European.

Evidence from shipwrecks demonstrates that Việt and other Asian ceramics, shipped from Hội-an, traveled at least as far West as Egypt! It is no wonder that 18th-Century Chinese and Japanese merchants considered Hội-an Asia’s premier trading destination. However, trade declined from the late 1700s with the Tây-sơn Rebellion and the resulting conflicts that were not settled until the founding of the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802. After that, for political as well as practical reasons (the mouth of the Thu-bồn River silted up, blocking access to larger ships), the focus of trade shifted southward to Đà-nẵng. This trend has continued to the present, as Đà-nẵng is now Vietnam’s third largest port, after the ports of Hồ Chí Minh City and Hải-phòng, whereas Hội-an now survives primarily as a tourist attraction, thanks to the well-preserved architectural structures, museums, and crafting traditions, the value and interest of which have earned it the status of United Nations World Heritage Site. Indeed, Hội-an is one of the most successful examples of preservation of an area of cultural and historical value in contemporary Vietnam. One measure of their success in this regard is the fact that modern filmmakers desiring an unspoiled or colonial-era setting often film at Hội-an. For example, many of the urban scenes of the 2007 Vietnamese-American historical epic The Rebel (directed by Charlie Nguyễn) was shot in Hội-an rather than Hà-nội.

All of this makes the city a treat for travelers, who can visit museums and architectural attractions by day and enjoy tea by the river in the evening, watching the sun go down behind these beautiful buildings. Among the sites of interest, I enjoy the Chùa Cầu, literally the “Bridge Pagoda,” but usually called the “Japanese Bridge,” which was founded by 17th-Century Japanese traders. It is a “covered bridge” of lacquered wood, very solidly built and well restored over the years. Although it is called a pagoda, it was not devoted to Buddhist worship, but rather to local animistic spirits, with the two entrances being guarded by statues of monkeys and dogs.

Ready to visit Hội-an? Click here to see our journeys to Vietnam.

Video: The Valley of the Kings

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Imagining Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and seeing it up close are two very different experiences. As archaeologists continue to discover new tombs, the area has proven to be a treasure trove of well-preserved tombs buried for centuries. There have been 63 tombs that have been discovered so far, ranging over 500 years of history from the 16th to 11th century BC. The area has been a focus for archaeological excavation for the past 200 years, and is one of the most well-known UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world as part of the Necropolis at Thebes (today known as Luxor). Most people know it as the home of King Tut’s Tomb.

To get a close up view of what to expect in the Valley of the Kings, check out this video from the Smithsonian Channel’s series Lost Gods of Egypt.

Have you been to the Valley of the Kings? What was your first impression?

Journey to the Valley of the Kings on our Egyptian Odyssey tour, and meet working archaeologists who will update you on their current research!

The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010
Egypt Paintings Valley of the Kings

Tomb paintings from the Valley of the Kings

We’ve all heard the story. The “Curse of the Pharaohs” is a strong belief that anyone who should disturb a mummy or a Pharaoh’s tomb will be cursed. This commonly known belief was  intended to preserve the sanctity of these tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, rather than to deter grave robbers. But in the past century, the curse has turned into a grave warning, particularly in the case of King Tut’s tomb. Some people choose to believe the curse is alive and well, while others feel it can be simply explained by simple science.

Archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter’s team was put under the microscope after opening the tomb of King Tutankhamun, as people wondered if the curse had truly affected the people who witnessed the tomb’s opening in 1922. Here are a few of the people and pets connected to “the curse.”

Who: Howard Carter’s pet canary. Cause of Death: Eaten by a cobra. Explanation:  The cobra is symbolic to the Egyptian Monarchy and it is believed that the Royal Cobra was released in Carter’s home as a symbol of how the King strikes his enemies. This began local rumors that the curse had been released.

Who: Lord Carnarvon, sponsor of the King Tut dig. Cause of Death: Blood Poisoning. Explanation: Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito, and accidentally cut the bite while shaving. It then became infected, and he died of blood poisoning. Some believed the mosquito bite was in the same location as a lesion on King Tut’s cheek, but since Lord Carnarvon was buried with no formal autopsy, no one could confirm this.

Who: Sir Bruce Ingham, Carter’s friend. Material Destruction: House burned down—twice. Explanation: Ingham received paperweight made of mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with, “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” No one has an explanation for this other than bad luck.

Carter himself did not believe in the curse, and out of the 58 people present when the sarcophagus was opened, only eight died within twelve years. Carter passed away at the age of 64 of lymphoma in 1939 and was not one of the eight. Scientists note that the tomb may have been filled with a deadly fungus that had grown over the centuries and was released when the tomb was opened.  Air samples were taken from inside an unopened sarcophagus through a drilled hole to test the air quality- and high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide were all found. However, all of these would have a strong scent and people would have been repelled by the odor.

In the end, it is believed that it wasn’t these particular situations that fed the rumor of the curse, but rather the world’s newspapers, who found they sold more papers saying that a terrible curse was unleashed the moment King Tut’s tomb was opened.  

Do you believe in the Pharaoh’s Curse on King Tut’s tomb?

Journey into the Valley of the Kings and see these tombs and their artwork up close on our Egyptian Odyssey tour!

Ha Long Bay, Dragons, and a Journey Through Vietnam

Monday, August 9th, 2010

One of the many things we pride ourselves on here at Smithsonian Journeys is to highlight the amazing and beautiful World Heritage Sites that can be found on our tours. These special sites go through a lengthy and specific process to finally be named on this list. Today, 890 sites have  made the cut: 689 are listed as culturally significant, 176 are natural sites, and 25 are mixed properties. Ha Long Bay, which we’ll visit on our Journey Through Vietnam, is one of them.

Ha Long Bay literally translates to “Descending Dragon Bay” which makes one wonder where such a name originated. The story originates as a local legend when the Chinese were invading Vietnam. To protect the people of the region, the gods sent a family of dragons. But instead of fire, the dragons spit out jewels, pearls, and jade that began to make up the islands that blocked the invaders, and as a result, the country of Vietnam was created. After the battles were over, the dragons weren’t interested in leaving. Instead, they chose to remain for some sightseeing on Earth and eventually made it their home. Ha Long is where the Mother Dragon chose to settle down, while her children comprise the other islands nearby where they could wiggle their active tails violently and freely.

Today, about 1,600 people call Ha Long Bay their home in four fishing villages. Because of the landscape and the nature of their occupations, this community is unique because it is made up of floating houses and markets.  Unfortunately, there haven’t been any dragon sightings recently.

Which legendary mythical creature is your favorite? Dragons, fairies… maybe Pegasus? We want to know!

Enjoy dragon legends, incredible fresh seafood, and shop at a floating market on our Journey Through Vietnam.

An Egyptian Family Odyssey

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Enjoy riding camels with the whole family!

Enjoy riding camels with the whole family!

There is something exotic and adventurous about Egypt. Every child knows that in a desert somewhere in the North African desert, there are gigantic pyramids, “cursed” tombs, and an abundance of mummies. Exploring Egypt as a child provides an experience that lasts a lifetime, possibly resulting in your child becoming an archaeologist, historian, or diplomat.

You might not expect your mummy-obsessed child to want to  be a SCUBA diver,  particularly in the desert land of Egypt. But in locations like Alexandria and along the Nile River, archaeologists and environmentalists need to go underwater to do their research.

For environmentalists, there is the concern about rising sea levels, which would affect Egypt’s coastal cities and communities along the Nile river. For archaeologists, Egypt’s many shipwrecks and submerged buildings are of great interest, as they provide a record of Egyptian nautical history, as well as many stone and metal artifacts.  These kinds of materials do not deteriorate easily, and while underwater, objects can be preserved from wind, weather and war.

So even if your child wants to be a certified SCUBA diver, you may find yourself visiting her in Egypt someday.

Have you been to Egypt? What was your favorite highlight?

Take the whole family to Egypt! Our Egyptian Family Odyssey has dates available in 2010 and 2011.