In Box

The World’s Most Controversial Cultural Sites

Where ancient history meets modern politics.


The Temple Mount
One of the holiest sites for both Judaism and Islam, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the spot where the world was first created according to Jewish tradition and the site where Mohammed ascended to Heaven according to the Quran. It’s long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and access to the site, including its famous Al-Aqsa mosque, is tightly controlled by the Israeli government. The site has been the setting of clashes between government security forces and Palestinian worshippers, as well as hard-line Jewish nationalists, who favor rebuilding the temple, destroyed by the Romans around 70 A.D.

The Amarnath Caves
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Hindus make the long pilgrimage to these caves, high in the Kashmir Valley, which contain an ice stalagmite said to resemble the god Shiva. Unfortunately, the site lies smack in the middle of the insurgency-racked state of Jammu and Kashmir. In 2000, 30 pilgrims to the caves were massacred by Kashmiri separatists. More recently, massive protests erupted when the Indian government attempted to allocate land from Jammu and Kashmir to house Hindu pilgrims visiting the shrine. Local Muslim activists, who described the plan as "Israel-like," eventually won their case.

The David Gareja Monastery Complex
This complex includes rare frescoes dating back to the eighth century and is considered one of the most historically important sites in Georgian Orthodox Christianity. Thanks to a Soviet-era cartographical quirk, however, half of it is located in Azerbaijan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia has been pushing to have the border shifted to allow Georgian monks — and the public — full access to the site. But owing to the area’s military significance, Azerbaijan has been reluctant to part with it. Despite several rounds of negotiations, the situation remains unresolved. "There is no room for territorial exchange. There are no negotiations over this issue," Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister has said.

Tawang Monastery
Both the regional center of Tibetan Buddhist life — it’s where the current Dalai Lama sought refuge immediately following his flight from Tibet in 1959 — and the largest monastery in India, Tawang is today located in the Indian-Tibetan border state of Arunachal Pradesh. But Beijing argues that the region’s historical links to Tibet should make it part of China. The Chinese government has for decades placed pressure on the monastery, ranging from outright invasion during the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when Chinese soldiers damaged large portions of it, to more recent diplomatic protests surrounding a 2009 visit by the Dalai Lama.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.