After almost 20 years of transnational cooperation, the ruins of the ancient Roman frontier fortifications along the Danube are now recognized by UNESCO as sites of particular cultural value.
After decades of preparation by Hungarian, Slovak, Austrian and German authorities, the Donaulimes (Danube limes), a series of fortifications built by the Roman empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries along the Danube to secure their border, was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites during its extended 44th session, held online and chaired by China from Fuzhou. This happened despite a surprise withdrawal by the Hungarian government from the joint application in June, thereby omitting the 400-kilometer stretch of the frontier – the longest section in any of the participating nations. The application had to be reassessed by UNESCO before eventually gaining approval.
Along with the many benefits of joining the World Heritage List, such as increased visitation, there are special challenges in maintaining World Heritage sites, which must be protected and managed with their authenticity and integrity intact to ensure their preservation for future generations – oftentimes a costly endeavor, and a likely reason why Hungary opted out at the last minute.
The hasn’t been the first delay in recognizing the value of the Donaulimes. Two years ago in 2019, a similarly short-notice maneuver led to a postponement of the decision, when Hungary withdrew their nomination of a part of the preserved Roman city of Aquincum north of Budapest shortly before the meeting, forcing the entire application to be eventually rejected. Zsolt Visy, the Hungarian professor of archeology who originally suggested that the countries concerned should document and reorganize the border of the Roman Empire as a World Heritage Site in 1999, apologized to both partner countries and the World Heritage Committee for delaying the process for years.
The Roman border stretched about 6,000 km from Great Britain through Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East to North Africa, with the Danube section shielding the north-eastern provinces of the empire from barbarian invaders while also creating a buffer zone for cultural exchange and trade. The Donaulimes joins other fortifications within UNESCO’s transnational “Frontiers of the Roman Empire,” like Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, and, as of last week, the Lower Germanic Limes with its forts and legion camps. Among the Austrian sites included are the ancient Roman city of Carnuntum, the Legion camp at Lauriacum (modern day Enns) and several burgi (Roman forts) in Oberanna, Schlögen, Traismauer and Tulln.
At the Carnuntum archeological park, a popular tourist attraction near Vienna, the Roman ruins are still being excavated, with archeologists uncovering artifacts like pottery and coins as well as the remains of a large bathhouse complex, several villas and a gladiatorial arena – all of which are open to visitors. Once a year, Carnuntum also hosts the Römerfestival (Roman festival), a historical fair featuring vendors in period-accurate attire, exhibits, food and drink and re-enactments of legionaries in battle.