In 1972, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) ratified a convention to protect world heritage sites. In the context of this program, guidelines were drawn up to evaluate cultural and natural sites with outstanding universal value. Each country was requested to prepare a list of sites in its territory, to be reviewed annually by UNESCO's World Heritage Center. Those deemed worthy are added to the list of the UN World Heritage Sites.
The government of Israel ratified the convention in 2000. Since then, the following sites in Israel have been added to the world list: Old City of Acre (2001); Masada (2001); Tel-Aviv, "The White City" (2003); Biblical tels: Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba; The Incense Route – desert cities in the Negev: Avdat (Eboda), Mamshit (Mampsis), Halutza (Elusa) and Shivta (Sobata) (2005).
"Tel" is the term for an ancient urban settlement site that was widespread in the Middle East. These cities were surrounded by earthen embankments and walls, giving the tel its distinctive appearance. Three tels were selected as World Heritage Sites from among some 200 existing in Eretz Israel.
Megiddo was an important fortified city astride the main route from Egypt to Syria and Mesopotamia. During King Solomon's reign it was a regional capital. During King Ahab's time it served as a transportation hub with stables for hundreds of horses.
Hazor, a Canaanite city, became prominent in the late 18th century BCE and was the largest and most important city in the region for hundreds of years until it was destroyed in the 12th century BCE. It regained its status as an important city during the period of the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Israel. It was destroyed by the Assyrians in 732 BCE,
Beer Sheba marked the southern boundary of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah when it was first built as a fortified city. It was rebuilt in the 8th century BCE, and reconstructed again at the end of that century, apparently during the reign of the Judean King Hizkiyahu. It was destroyed, apparently by the Assyrians, in 701 BCE.005).
The desert-dwelling Nabateans developed well defined routes for transporting camel caravans laden with incense from southern Arabia to the ports of the Mediterranean. A segment of this route (approximately 65 kilometers long), leading from Moan in the Arava to Avdat at the Negev Mountain, was declared a World Heritage Site.
All along this route the Nabateans built way stations, some of which became cities with the passage of time. Four of these cities were also declared World Heritage Sites; Avdat (Eboda) and Halutza (Elusa), established in the 3rd century BCE; Shivta (Sobata), settled in the late 1st century BCE; and Mamshit (Mampsis), founded in the 1st century CE.
The remains of these cities, which were well preserved in the desolate Negev, attest to the upheavals in the lives of their residents. Late in the 1st century CE, the Nabateans shifted from trade to agriculture and horse breeding, building agricultural facilities, developing distinctive irrigation and water collection systems in the arid Negev and constructing sophisticated, spacious stables. During the 4th century CE, they built large, splendid churches in all the cities.
With the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE these cities began to decline, their populations dwindled, and they were gradually abandoned.