Historic centre of Odesa granted World Heritage in Danger status

A woman walks past Odesa Opera House in Odesa, Ukraine. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

UNESCO has designated the historic centre of Odesa, a strategic port city on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, now a World Heritage in Danger site, the United Nations' cultural agency announced on Wednesday.

Granted by a UNESCO panel meeting in Paris, the status’ purpose intends to help protect Odesa’s cultural heritage, which has been under threat since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and to open avenues for financial and technical international aid.

Russian shelling has hit Odesa several times already since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

In July 2022, part of the large glass roof and windows of Odesa's Museum of Fine Arts, inaugurated in 1899, were shattered.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement that Odesa, a “free city, world city, legendary port” has made its mark on cinema, literature and the arts and was thus “placed under the strengthened protection of the international community.”

“As the war continues, this inscription reflects our collective determination to protect this city from greater destruction,” Azoulay, a daughter of Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s senior advisor Andre Azoulay, said in a statement.

Earlier on Wednesday UNESCO saw its list of World Heritage in Danger sites expanded, with the Landmarks of the Ancient Kingdom of Saba, Marib in Yemen and Rachid Karami International Fair-Tripoli in Lebanon.

Odesa was also added to the list, despite Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to have the vote postponed, which has only managed to prolong the discussion for a couple of hours.

Founded at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Odesa’s location near the site of a captured Ottoman fortress on the shores of the Black Sea allowed for it to develop into one of the most important ports of the Russian empire. As a trading hub, it flourished and became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe. In the 19th century, the city became a destination for bold entrepreneurs, also from Poland, who sought to build a fortune on wheat but also other kinds of trade. The city rose into prominence also as a go-to for relaxation, with its many resorts and spas offering great conditions for expecting mothers to deliver their babies. Thanks to being a port city, Odesa became one of the cities where one could hear ‘virtually any’ tongue and meet representatives of Greek, Russian, Polish, English and many other cultures.

Among the city’s most famous historic sites are the Odesa Opera House, which became a symbol of resilience when it reopened in June 2022, and the giant stairway to the harbour, immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

The city sustained considerable damage during WWII and yet its famed central grid square of low-rise 19th-century buildings survived mostly intact.

Ever since Ukraine regained its independence, Odesa was one of the country’s steamrolling tourist hubs. But Russia’s invasion has brutally cut short the years of plenty. Today, instead of tourists sunbathing on Odesa’s shores, sea mines can occasionally be seen stranded, and dotting the white of sand.