As most history buffs already know, UNESCO has been safeguarding historic monuments and sites since implementing its World Heritage Convention in 1972. You may even have ticked a few of its designated World Heritage Sites off your bucket list. What fewer people realize, however, is that, since 2003, UNESCO has also been safeguarding specific types of intangible cultural heritage inherent to various cultures across the world.
But what is intangible cultural heritage, you might ask? It’s the traditions and living expressions that we’ve inherited from the generations before us and continue to pass down to the next generation. It’s the performing arts, rituals, festive events, oral traditions, knowledge, skills, practices, and crafts that color every community, country, and culture. Think of the tango in Argentina or Capoeira circles in Brazil, and you’re on the right track.
Some of the traditions on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity may seem obvious. Others might be a little unexpected. However, while some of the customs that made the cut may seem surprising, look closer, and you’ll see just how deeply meaningful and symbolic each of them really are.
10 Mowing the Lawn
The annual mowing competition that takes place in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Kupres municipality was inscribed on UNESCO’s list in 2020—officially added as the “Grass Mowing Competition Custom in Kupres.” Held every July, this quirky tradition is actually considered a foundation of the area’s cultural identity. The competition is open to all individuals in Kupres, regardless of ethnic or religious background, so it plays a pretty important role in bringing the entire community together.
The competition is known to locals as Strljanica, inspired by the name of the meadow in which the contest takes place. The whole custom involves the manual mowing of grass using a traditionally forged scythe, with the time, effort, and amount mown being the deciding factors when determining the winner. While the top three mowers are all recognized by the end of the contest, the champion is treated as a leader who ensures the successful mowing of all the fields as part of the community’s agricultural efforts. Amazing how a tedious chore can bring a community together.
9 With a Side of Couscous
The methods of preparation, manufacture, and consumption of couscous in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia are considered deeply symbolic. Full of social and cultural meaning associated with solidarity and togetherness, it’s deemed an important ceremonial process. Little wonder then, that UNESCO inscribed the tradition onto its representative list in 2020 under the title “Knowledge, Know-How, and Practices Pertaining to the Production and Consumption of Couscous.”
From the cultivation of the cereal to the grinding of the seeds and the cooking and consumption of the dish, each stage of the process is ritualistic and involves a specific set of tools and utensils. Even the manufacture of the appropriate utensils is significant, with local potters and family-owned cooperatives and artisanal factories traditionally producing the clay and wooden tools. A plethora of rituals, social practices, and oral expressions are also tied up with the process, making it an incredibly important part of tradition for these cultures. And it’s tasty too!
8 The Mediterranean Diet
The delicious diet of the countries within the Mediterranean basin (Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Portugal) is itself considered an important tradition worthy of UNESCO’s stamp of approval. Inscribed in 2013, the Mediterranean diet includes specific knowledge, skills, rituals, and symbols related to the cultivation, cooking, and consumption of food. Not only that, but the craftsmanship involved in producing the associated tableware is also a crucial element to the entire custom.
Throughout the Mediterranean, communal eating plays a key role in cultural identity and continuity. It provides communities with opportunities for social and familial exchange and plays a huge role in bringing people together within important cultural spaces. The diet underscores some of the paramount Mediterranean values of creativity, hospitality, neighborliness, intercultural discourse, and respect for diversity. So, the next time you tuck into a plate of pasta in Italy, know that its titillation of your taste buds is only half the story!
7 Let’s Have a Pizza…
Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, did you know that the art of making a pizza in Naples, Italy, is also a tradition protected by UNESCO? Since 2017, the organization has recognized this culinary practice—officially the Art of Neapolitan “Pizzaiuolo”—as an art form involving technical know-how passed down by generations. The art is practiced by the “Pizzaiulo,” the pizza chefs who specialize in creating Neapolitan-style pizza. Around 3,000 Pizzaiuoli now live and work in Naples, where the art originated. Like any art form, the people who practice it are grouped into categories according to their particular skills. Namely, the baker, the Pizzaiuolo, and the Master Pizzaiuolo.
The practice entails a process starting with the preparation of the dough and culminating in its baking in a wood-fired oven. It can be taught through a variety of means, including through specific courses and apprenticeships. However, the main method of teaching is through workshops known as “bottega,” where young apprentices can learn each aspect of the craft by observing the masters at work. Sign me up now!
6 …And Some Beer
It’s no secret that Belgium has a reputation for beer. With almost 1,500 brands (and 700+ taste profiles) produced nationwide, the beverage has come to play a major role not only on festive occasions but in the daily life of the Belgians. What’s more, certain regions and communities are even known for the specific varieties that they brew. It’s even enthusiastically used in cooking, with products like beer-washed cheese and traditional carbonade flamande (beef and beer stew) being especially popular.
UNESCO has recognized the part that making and appreciating beer has played in the living heritage of Belgian communities since 2016, inscribed as the “Beer Culture in Belgium.” The origins of the tradition can be traced back to the early Middle Ages when Trappist monasteries produced the beverage to fund their upkeep. In fact, six of those Trappist communities are still producing beer today, although much of the profits now go toward charity. Nowadays, the knowledge and skills of beer production are either taught at home and in social circles or are passed down by master brewers who run classes at breweries, university courses, and public training programs. Why didn’t my university offer that class?
5 A Perfect Timepiece
As the name might suggest, this tradition concerns the skills and craftsmanship used to create watchmaking objects to measure and indicate time, including watches, clocks, and chronometers. It also covers the fascinating realm of art mechanics, which includes art automata and mechanical androids, sculptures, and paintings, as well as music boxes and songbirds. Essentially, these objects contain a mechanical device that can generate movement or produce sound, so think steampunk aesthetics, and you’re on the right track.
The Jura Arc region in Switzerland and France is an area where the craftsmanship and art of watchmaking remains pretty robust. The entire urban and social landscapes have even been shaped by the tradition. Not only that, but the presence of highly qualified craftspeople practicing and promoting this elaborate art helped UNESCO to recognize it as being “at the crossroads of science, art, and technology.” When the tradition was inscribed in 2020 under “Craftsmanship of Mechanical Watchmaking and Art Mechanics,” UNESCO noted that it not only conveys values like punctuality, patience, and perseverance, but that the practice also has a strong philosophical dimension. This is based on the belief that it reflects “the infinite quest for precision, and the intangible aspect of time measurement.”
4 Controlling a Snowy Mountain
Sticking with Switzerland, the measures taken by the Alpine populations here and in Austria have also made it onto UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This practice was inscribed in 2018 as “Avalanche Risk Management.” The Alps are pretty densely populated, and the threat of avalanches hangs heavy over local communities each winter. To deal with this, locals have developed some crucial knowledge, cultural practices, and risk-avoidance and management strategies over the course of centuries. This traditional knowledge continues to evolve and has been complemented today by the addition of modern measurement instruments and risk mapping.
Perhaps one of the most important reasons why UNESCO chose to protect this tradition is because it is so deeply ingrained in the everyday culture of the local communities. It requires a comprehensive understanding of nature and emphasizes the importance of solidarity in crisis situations. This isn’t a custom that only makes a social impact, but its continuation quite literally has the capacity to save lives.
3 Hawker Food
Inscribed by UNESCO in 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture encompasses community dining and culinary practices within a multicultural urban setting. The practice evolved from street food culture and sees hawkers prepare an array of “hawker food” for people who dine and socialize at the city’s beloved hawker centers (think large food court). They take inspiration from the convergence of cultures that color Singapore and provide an opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to gather and dine together. This is all accompanied by the activities that take place alongside the culinary experience, like playing chess, busking, and art jamming. It’s an essential social space that is deservedly recognized for enhancing the social interactions and well-being of the community.
Some of the city’s longest-serving hawkers first started their practice back in the 1960s, with many having refined their skills and knowledge over the years. As well as this know-how being kept within families and passed down to younger generations, training programs, events, and projects are also utilized to keep the traditions alive. Food, family, and fun—nothing could be better!
2 Bon Appétit
By now, it’s probably become quite obvious that a surprising number of culinary traditions are protected by UNESCO. It’ll come as no surprise then that the social custom of the “Gastronomic Meal of the French” has also been added to the list. The tradition is practiced when celebrating important and special occasions. Fundamentally, it’s a festive meal that brings people together to appreciate and revel in the art of eating and drinking. According to UNESCO, its cultural value is recognized because it emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between humans and the products of nature.
Several crucial elements to the gastronomic meal set it apart from your average family dinner. The conscious selection of dishes, the purchase of good quality products, the careful pairing of the food with wine, the table settings, and specific actions during consumption are all part of the process. The meal itself also follows a fixed structure. Starting with an aperitif, at least four successive courses are served—comprising a starter, a fish or meat dish served with vegetables, a selection of cheeses, and, finally, a dessert. This is all topped off by liqueurs served at the end of the meal, which, one would hope, might help in digesting the enormous quantities of food you’ve just consumed!
1 Turn to the Co-Op
At first glance, this tradition may seem a little unusual and, well, just not all that exciting. However, it makes a pretty big impact on the lives of many people and has a genuinely heart-warming back story. Cooperatives are, of course, found across the world, but their practice in Germany, in particular, has been protected by UNESCO since 2016 under the name “Idea and Practice of Organizing Shared Interests in Cooperatives.” They are, in essence, associations of volunteers that provide social, cultural, and economic services to local communities. They aim to improve living standards and create innovative solutions to shared societal challenges, all in the hope of promoting positive change.
Cooperatives date back to the Middle Ages, but some of the crucial foundations for the modern ones in Germany were laid during the mid-nineteenth century. They’re based on the subsidiary principle that puts personal responsibility above state action, reflecting the founding tenet of “helping people to help themselves.” Participation is open to everyone, and the system even makes low-interest loans available to those in need of them. Considering how many individuals, groups, and organizations benefit from these cooperatives, it’s little wonder that around a quarter of Germany’s population are members of one. Plus, with recognition from UNESCO, they’ll hopefully continue to provide help to those who need it for many generations to come.