Korean mountain temples, Japan’s Christian sites added to UNESCO list

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa oasis, Oman’s ancient city of Qalhat also find a place in the World Heritage list

June 30, 2018 09:02 pm | Updated 09:19 pm IST - Manama

Treasure trove: The Seonamsa temple in South Jeolla province, South Korea;

Treasure trove: The Seonamsa temple in South Jeolla province, South Korea;

Seven ancient Korean mountain temples and a dozen Christian locations in parts of southern Japan were among those selected for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list on Saturday

The Korean temples — Seonamsa, Daeheungsa, Beopjusa, Magoksa, Tongdosa, Bongjeongsa, Buseoksa — typify the way Buddhism emerged in the country with indigenous beliefs and styles. They were all established during the Three Kingdoms period that lasted until the 7th century AD.

UNESCO made the announcement at a meeting in the Bahraini capital Manama. “These mountain monasteries are sacred places, which have survived as living centres of faith and daily religious practice to the present,” UNESCO said in a press statement.

Treasure trove: The ruins of Qalhat, Oman.

Treasure trove: The ruins of Qalhat, Oman.


Japan’s Christian past

In Christian locations in parts of southern Japan, where members of the faith were once brutally persecuted, also found a place in the World Heritage list on Saturday.

The 12 sites include Oura Cathedral, a Catholic church in Nagasaki that is dedicated to 26 Christians who were executed for their beliefs over four centuries ago.


Christianity in Japan dates back to 1549, when European Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in the country with two companions and the religion began spreading in western Japan.

As more missionaries arrived and the faith spread, Japanese military leaders became increasingly suspicious of its growing influence and a crackdown against Christians began from 1589.

The Christians commemorated at Oura — 20 Japanese and six foreigners — were executed in Nagasaki in 1597 as the persecution intensified.

For Japanese converts, hiding their religion became a matter of life and death for the next 250 years, with Christianity banned and Japan closed to the outside world.

Tongdosa temple in Yangsan, South Korea.

Tongdosa temple in Yangsan, South Korea.


As they practiced their faith but tried to blend in, the Christians created a blended religion that incorporated elements of Buddhism.

It wasn’t until 1865 that these “hidden Christians” or Kakure Kirishtan became known outside of their communities. A group of nervous peasants approached a French priest at Oura Cathedral and one woman whispered “our hearts are the same as yours”, prompting the discovery of what turned out to be tens of thousands of Japanese Christians who had kept their faith a secret.

Gothic-style Oura, which was built in 1864 by French priests and was known by locals as the “French temple,” is the oldest Christian-related building in Japan. It was designated a national treasure by the government in 1933, but was partly damaged by the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

On Friday, the world cultural body added Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa Oasis and Oman’s ancient city of Qalhat to its list.

Treasure trove: Former Nokubi Church in Nagasaki, Japan.

Treasure trove: Former Nokubi Church in Nagasaki, Japan.

Tourism on priority

Authorities in Riyadh, as well as Muscat, have put tourism high on their economic agendas as Gulf states look to diversify their oil-dependent economies.

Saudi Arabia’s lush Al-Ahsa oasis is dotted with yet-to-be-excavated archeological sites, and carries traces of human occupation dating back to Neolithic times. Al-Ahsa “was a commercial centre for the Hajar territory of Bahrain,” reads the Saudi submission to UNESCO.

“Archaeological evidence shows that it exchanged products from southern Arabia and Persia as well as throughout the Arabian Peninsula.” Oman’s Qalhat also dates back to pre-Islamic times.

The port city on Oman’s Indian Ocean coast was once a key hub for trade in goods, including Arabian horses to Chinese porcelain, according to the Omani submission.

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