The United Nations cultural agency decided To add the historic center of Ukraine’s Black Sea city of Odessa to the list of World Heritage Sites to recognize “the outstanding universal value of the site and the duty of all mankind to protect it” as the city faces destruction.

The 21 member states of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved the resolution by six votes in favor, one against, with 14 abstentions.

Russia which Ukraine invaded in February last year and has Odessa was bombed several timesI tried to delay voting repeatedly.

“As the war continues, this inscription embodies our collective determination to ensure that this city, which has always overcome global upheaval, is spared from further destruction,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said after the decision.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who requested the listing in October, welcomed the listing.

The status aims to help protect the cultural heritage of Odessa, and to enable access to international financial and technical assistance.

“Today Odessa has been protected by UNESCO,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter.

“I am grateful to the partners who helped protect our pearl from the attacks of the Russian invaders.”

“Glorious Historical Past”

Founded in the last years of the 18th century near the site of a captured Ottoman fortress, Odessa’s location on the shores of the Black Sea has turned it into one of the most important ports in the Russian Empire.

People walk in a glass covered shopping square in the historic center of Odessa.  The buildings on each side are ornate and covered with statues.
Odessa, once one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, was attacked during World War II, but its historic center of 19th-century buildings has remained largely intact. [Serhii Smolientsev/Reuters]

Its status as a trading center brought great wealth and made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe.

The city’s most famous historic sites include the Opera House, which became a symbol of resilience when it reopened in June 2022, and the giant staircase leading to the harbor, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin.

Although Odessa was badly damaged in World War II, its famous central grid square of low-rise buildings from the 19th century remained mostly intact.

Since the Russian invasion, the Ukrainians have rushed to it Protecting the monuments and buildings of the city with sandbags and barricades.

In July 2022, parts of the large glass roof and windows of the Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in 1899, were destroyed.

Unesco said it has already helped repair the building, as well as the Odessa Museum of Modern Art, which was also damaged in the conflict.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused a group of Western countries of passing what it called a “politically motivated” decision in violation of standard procedures.

“It was prepared in haste, without respecting the current high standards of UNESCO,” the foreign ministry said, stressing that only six countries voted for it.

Moscow referred to Odessa’s “glorious historical past as part of the Russian state” and insisted that the “only threat” Odessa faced was from the “nationalist regime in Ukraine” which removed a number of monuments in the city.

After a poll of residents, city authorities last year removed a monument to Russia’s Empress Catherine the Great, seen as the city’s foundation, as part of a ‘Russification‘ efforts.

Ukraine has argued that the city, the third largest in the country, flourished long before the arrival of Catherine the Great and that Odessa dates back to the 15th century when it was known as Hadzhybei.

Ukraine is not a member of the UNESCO Committee, which is currently chaired by Saudi Arabia.

Under the 1972 UNESCO Convention, which both Ukraine and Russia have ratified, signatories undertake to “help protect the listed sites” and are “obligated to refrain from taking any deliberate measures” that would harm World Heritage sites.

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