UNESCO World Heritage sites in Egypt

Last updated on October 12th, 2023

You may be familiar with the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Egypt that include the pyramids, temples, and tombs of the ancient pharaohs. But those account for only three of Egypt’s seven World Heritage sites. There’s so much more to see in Egypt!

photo of Sphinx and pyramid in Egypt

The Great Pyramids and Sphinx are the most famous of Egypt’s World Heritage sites, but there are many more.

Egypt’s UNESCO sites fall into four broad groups that cover a wide range of Egyptian history and culture. They include sites associated with ancient Egypt, Islamic Egypt, Christian Egypt, and one natural site.

Ancient Egyptian World Heritage sites

Most tourists are familiar with the UNESCO World Heritage sites connected to ancient Egypt. Indeed, Egypt’s ancient ruins are what draw most visitors to Egypt in the first place.

photo of a woman with a big hat taking a picture of the pillars of Karnak Temple in Egypt

Ancient ruins like the Karnak are among Egypt’s must-see tourist sights.

UNESCO recognizes three ancient Egyptian world heritage sites:

    • Memphis and its Necropolis – The Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
    • Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis
    • The Nubian monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae.

All of these, like most World Heritage Sites in Egypt, include many individual sites.

Memphis and its Necropolis

The great pyramids, the best known of all ancient Egyptian ruins, are part of the Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dashur World Heritage site.

photo of a camel by the Great Pyramids

The camels know Egypt’s pyramids are at the top of many tourist bucket lists.

But there’s a lot more than a few giant pyramids!

Show more about Memphis and its Necropolis . . .

Located near modern Cairo, Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt from its earliest days. Although the ancient city doesn’t exist anymore, it remained one of Egypt’s most important cities all the way into the Roman period.

As such, it had several important burial grounds besides Giza’s pyramids.

One of these is the necropolis of Saqqara. This is where Djoser built a step pyramid years before the great pyramids went up.

photo of a large step pyramid in the desert

The Egyptians were still perfecting pyramid construction in Djoser’s day, but it’s pretty impressive anyway.

But Saqqara also has many other tombs, with new discoveries made all the time. These tombs were built for kings, advisors, and many others, and they take a variety of forms. Among them is the beautifully decorated tomb of Mereruka, an important official and son-in-law of the Sixth Dynasty Pharaoh Teti.

photo of tomb art depicting a man with cattle

The tomb of Mereruka is beautifully decorated, as befits the second most powerful man in Egypt in 2300 BC.

There’s more too. The Memphis and its Necropolis World Heritage site also includes the Abusir and Dahshur burial grounds. Combined, the various components of this World Heritage listing include a wide variety of pyramids, mortuary temples, and over 9,000 rock-cut tombs created over a period of 3,000 years.

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Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis

Thebes, today’s city of Luxor, was Egypt’s capital when the kingdom was at the peak of its power and wealth during the Middle and New Kingdoms (around 2135-1279 BC).

UNESCO’s Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis World Heritage site includes the ancient temples of Karnak and Luxor, as well as the funerary temples and tombs of the West Bank. These are among the most spectacular remnants of ancient Egypt and should be on every visitor’s itinerary. If you only have a few days in Egypt, skip the pyramids and visit the sites around Luxor instead.

ruins of a large temple with boats in the river below

Luxor’s temple dominates the view from the Nile, but it’s just one of the city’s ancient World Heritage wonders.

Like most of the UNESCO sites in Egypt, this one has several components.

Show more about Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis . . .

Within the modern city of Luxor, the UNESCO designation includes the temples of Luxor and Karnak. These were the two most important religious sites in Egypt during the New Kingdom. Today they are sprawling complexes of ancient temple ruins and statuary.

photo of Karnak Temple ruins with obelisk

Karnak includes many temples and is one of the largest religious buildings in the world.

Across the river, on Luxor’s west bank, the UNESCO site includes the temples of  Ramesses III (Medinet Habu) and Hatshepsut in Deir al-Bahari.

photo of monumental sculptures of an Egyptian pharo

Constructed by Egypt’s powerful female pharaoh, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple was lost to history for a few thousand years after being buried when the cliff behind it collapsed.

But most of Luxor’s west bank highlights are hidden underground in the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and the Village of the Workman (Deir el-Medina).

people iside a colorful tomb

Ramses VI took an existing tomb and turned it into one of the largest and most beautifully decorated in the Valley of the Kings.

Unlike the great pyramids, the interior of many tombs in these burial areas were boldly painted in brilliant colors – and much of that decoration is still visible today.

photo of interior of a small, brightly painted Egyptian tomb

Although smaller in scale, the workers who built tombs for the pharaohs created some pretty fancy tombs for themselves.

For additional information on the Ancient Thebes UNESCO site and tips for planning your visit, check my post on WorldHeritageSites.net.

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The Nubian Monuments

UNESCO’s Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae World Heritage site includes the temples at Abu Simbel, the temple of Isis at Philae, Aswan’s ancient granite quarries, and a number of minor temples. The largest temples included in this designation were actually relocated to their current location under UNESCO’s direction to save them from the rising water created by construction of the Aswan High Dam.

One of these is the temple of Isis at Philae, now located on an island right in the city of Aswan.

photo of entrance into Philae temple

Aswan’s Greco-Roman Philae Temple was moved to its current location to keep it from flooding.

Show more about Egypt's Nubian Monuments . . .

Farther south, the temples of Abu Simbel were originally constructed in the 13th century BC by Rameses II to memorialize himself and his wife Nefertari. Like the temple of Isis once located at Philae Island, the two Abu Simbel temples were moved from their original location to protect them from rising water behind the High Dam.

photo of monumental statues outside an Egyptian temple

Ramses II carved two monumental temples into a hillside, both were cut out of the rock and relocated to preserve them from flooding. 

Unlike the temple of Isis, which consisted of free-standing structures, the Abu Simbel temples were created by cutting them out of solid rock. Dismantling them required cutting them out of that rock and reassembling it all in another hillside. Check the video to discover how this was accomplished.

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Historic Cairo’s Islamic World Heritage site

Within the ever-expanding city of Cairo, one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities lives on. Dating to the 7th century, historic Cairo includes about 800 designated monuments representing 1300 years of history.

It includes historic mosques, madrasas, bazaars, hammams, fountains, and a variety of other structures, as well as several burial grounds.

Photo of Cairo skyline from Al-Azhar Park at sunset

Minarets puncture Cairo’s skyline, mark the city’s historic Islamic areas.

The area is made up of five sites:

    • Al-Fustat, the oldest part of Cairo dates back to the 7th century. It includes the site of the first mosque built in Egypt, the Mosque of Al-As, but earlier Roman ruins and Christian monuments are also located here. (I don’t think the Roman and Christian sites are part of the UNESCO designation, but that’s not very clear.)
    • The heart of the old Fatimid city, from the Citadel and Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun and Bayt al-Kritliyya (the Gayer-Anderson Museum) to the area around the Mosque of Al-Azhar and the Khan Al-Khalili. This was the Fatimid capital and the most important cultural center in the Islamic world by the 14th century.
    • Al-Imam ash-Shaf’i Necropolis
    • As-Sayyidah Nafisah Necropolis
    • Qayitbay Necropolis

This is a hugely complex area, as it is densely populated and filled with mosques, markets, shops, and homes. That makes it a challenging area to preserve and protect. It also makes it a bit of a challenge for visitors to understand how it all fits together. But it’s a fascinating area to explore.

photo of an old mosque viewed through an arch

Constructed in 878, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is one of Cairo’s oldest and largest.

More than just the burial place of Egypt’s Islamic elite cemeteries, the three necropoleis included in the Historic Cairo World Heritage site feature elaborate, architecturally important tombs.

For additional information on the Historic Cairo UNESCO site and tips for planning your visit, see my Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Christian World Heritage sites

Christianity has existed in Egypt almost as long as it has existed anywhere in the world. However, UNESCO’s Christian World Heritage designation applies to only two of Egypt’s many Christian sites.

Abu Mena is the site of an early Christian pilgrimage site and monastery near Alexandria. It was a major Christian center by the year 600 AD. Today the site is identified as endangered and is usually closed to the public.

The Saint Catherine Area includes the 6th century Orthodox Christian monastery of Saint Catherine and Mount Sinai, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

photo of a walled monastery below a mountain

Saint Catherine’s Monastery was built at the foot of Mount Sinai in 550, it remains in use today.

Saint Catherine’s is the world’s oldest Christian monastery still used as a monastery. It’s located on the Sinai Peninsula, which puts it far from Egypt’s tourist areas.

Although they surely fit in this grouping, Christian sites within Cairo itself are located in Fatimid Cairo, which is part of the Historic Cairo World Heritage site. However, it’s unclear whether those Christian sites are actually part of UNESCO designation. And, while the monasteries of Wadi Natrun are on the tentative world heritage list, UNESCO has yet to designate them as such.

Natural World Heritage

The only “Natural” UNESCO World Heritage site is the Wadi Al-Hitan, the Whale Valley, in the northern portion of the Western Desert. The site is significant for its fossils, particularly those of an extinct type of whale that was changing from a land-based animal to the sea-dwelling creatures we know today.

photo of a large whale fossil in a desert at sunrise

Whale Valley fossil by AhmedMosaad, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is an important scientific research site and it is not always open to the public.

The Atlas Obscura podcast has a story on the Valley of the Whales.

Potential World Heritage sites in Egypt

UNESCO regularly adds sites to the World Heritage list. To be considered, the site’s home country must include potential world heritage sites on a tentative world heritage list. This list includes all sites that country’s government wants UNESCO to designate as World Heritage sites.

Egypt has 33 tentative World Heritage sites. They include individual structures (or their remains), large archaeological sites, natural areas, and more.

Specific examples include:

    • The monasteries of the Arab Desert and Wadi Natrun
    • The pharaonic temples of Upper Egypt from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods – The temples of Dendera, Esna, Edfu, and Kom Ombo that are included on many Nile River cruises
    • The ancient remains and new library in Alexandria
    • Egypt’s great desert landscapes, including the Qattara Depression, the Great Sand Sea, and Wadi Sannur Cave
    • A variety of sites in and around El Fayoum

See the entire list on the UNESCO World Heritage page for Egypt.

Because the UNESCO World Heritage selection process considers many factors when making a designation, only a small number of Egypt’s 33 sites are likely to actually become World Heritage sites someday. But the list is very useful for travelers who want to explore more of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

While some people plan entire trips around World Heritage sites, not everyone is familiar with what this designation actually means.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Show more about UNESCO World Heritage Sites . . .

The means for accomplishing this was established in the form of an international treaty adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

This agreement lays out a program and process for protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage, defined as:

    • Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value.
    • Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.

Sites included on the World Heritage list are to be of universal value, meaning they are of more than local interest. All sites are nominated by the national government of the country in which they are located, with the final selection made by an international committee.

Although it didn’t take its current form until 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage program was triggered by construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt in 1959. That’s when UNESCO launched an international campaign to accelerate research in areas that faced flooding due to the dam’s construction. This work included moving the temples of Abu Simbel and Philae to higher locations.

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Further reading

The UNESCO World Heritage website has all of the documentation (scanned PDFs of original typed documents) on Egypt’s World Heritage sites and a lot of poorly labeled photographs. Until recently, it had great descriptions of each site, the site’s history, and the importance of the site’s various components. That “Brief Synthesis” section was removed from the Egyptian pages this spring. Unless that information reappears, the best source of comprehensible information on World Heritage sites in Egypt seems to be the one the African World Heritage Sites website – which doesn’t have a great index.

In-depth information on the UNESCO World Heritage program can be found by following links on UNESCO’s World Heritage page. However, for a more basic description of the program, check the National Park Service’s Quick Guide to the World Heritage Program in the United States. Although explicitly tied to the USA’s process, it includes a good general description of the UNESCO program, criteria, and process as they apply to all countries.

See more Egypt photos at CindyCarlsson.com.

three photos of a pyramid, inside a tomb, and a mosque with text "Egypt's UNESCO World Heritage"decorated interior of a tomb with text "Valley of the Kings"painting with text "Tombs in the Village of the Workers Luxor Egypt"courtyard with text "Gayer-Anderson Museum Cairo"
camel by the pyramids with text "Egypt" woman on a camel at the pyramids with text "Egypt is awesome tour"

6 thoughts on “UNESCO World Heritage sites in Egypt”

  1. Wow, these are all so impressive, Egypt is still in my bucket list of amazing cities to explore and discover these Unesco sites. Thanks for the amazing tour.

  2. We never realized that there were so many World Heritage sites in Egypt. It appears that they have their own unique seven wonders all contained in one country. This list would certainly be paramount to anyone attempting to really get a true understanding of the history of the region.

  3. I’ve been to most of these sites in Egypt, but didn’t even know at the time that they were World Heritage sites! Since I learned about the World Heritage List, I pay much more attention to it: whenever I’m planning a trip I check if there are any World Heritage sites we can visit. Almost every one I’ve ever been to has been fascinating in some way or other.

    1. Yeah, it’s only recently become something I think about. And I don’t plan my trips around it, but I try to check before I go somewhere to see if there are any World Heritage sites since it usually clues me in to sites worth making time for that might not be on the usual must-see Instagram highlights reel or top-10 website post! Usually they are even more interesting than I expected, although I’ve found a few that may be very important in the development of human culture, but don’t really offer much to see. (I suspect Abu Mena is one of those, but I haven’t been there.)

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