15 Unique Traditions from UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List

Sixteen years ago, UNESCO, the educational, scientific, and cultural arm of the United Nations, created a new form of protection for the world’s shared cultural heritage. Since the mid-70s, the global organization had already been busily identifying and promoting stunning natural and human-built environments like Mexico’s ancient pyramids, England’s Stonehenge and Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. This new list, though, the Intangible Cultural Heritage List dealt not in physical places, but dynamic traditions, the unique dance, music, art, food, and other customs passed from generation to generation, often for hundreds or even thousands of years. With 2018’s additions, including Egyptian hand puppetry, Georgian chidaoba wrestling, and Jamaican reggae music, the Intangible Cultural Heritage List now has 508 entries from 122 countries.

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Jemaa el-Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh
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One of the few physical locations on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List, Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna is a tangle of sight, sound, and scent. The triangular square in the city’s medina (old quarter) is part market, part outdoor cafe, and part performance space. Vendors in the square’s center sell everything from orange juice to sheep's brains and stewed snails. Around them, storytellers and poets pontificate, snake-charmers charm, musicians play, and Chleuh dancers (boys dressed as women to protect female modesty) wriggle. Dentists lording over tables of teeth and peddlers of traditional medicines also have their place within the fabric of the square. Frequented by locals and tourists alike, Jemaa el-Fna is active nearly 24-hours a day. Still, it’s after the blazing sun disappears behind the horizon that the square froths and boils into a vibrant cultural frenzy almost 1,000 years in the making.

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Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Cambodia

When the brutal violent Khmer Rouge regime unleashed its assault on the nation of Cambodia in the 1970s, it destroyed the fabric of an ancient society with a rich tradition of art and performance. Caught up in a genocide that led to the death of 2 million people, only an estimated 10 percent of the country’s classical artists survived the terror of those years. And just a handful of those were trained in Khmer classical dance, a 1,300-year-old type of dramatic ballet saturated with stylized gestures and poses so intricate they can take a lifetime to master. In an act of resistance against the Khmer Rouge, master dancers began to train new artists in isolated communities and refugee camps packed with Cambodian survivors. There, and later in the capital Phnom Penh, a new generation of dancers and classical musicians playing wooden xylophones, brass keys, gongs were born. Today, the “royal ballet” has become a valued part of Cambodian identity. In the capital, the Khmer Dance Project stages elaborate performances complete with traditional costumes of embroidered silk and elaborate headdresses almost daily at the National Museum of Cambodia.

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Oshi Palav, Tajikistan

Oshi Palav isn’t just a meal in Tajikistan; it’s the “king” of them all. The recipe itself is fluid. As many as 200 varieties exist, each with different combinations of vegetables, rice, meat, and spices such as this one made with lamb or beef, carrots, onions, and cumin. No matter the exact ingredients, Oshi Palav, in its forms, is as essential to social gatherings, celebrations, and rituals as it is to regular mealtimes. The knowledge required to prepare the meal is shared from generation to generation at home and in cooking schools. When an apprentice has mastered the dish, they are gifted a “skimmer,” a tool used in the dish’s preparation. An all-inclusive meal prepared by both men and women, Oshi Palav doesn’t just bring Tajikistanis together across different social and ethnic backgrounds, there’s a common conception that you can’t know a person until the meal has been shared. As the saying goes, “No Osh, no acquaintance.”

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Tango, Argentina and Uruguay

Tango Dance Show at a restaurant
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The sultry movements of the tango emerged from impoverished urban neighborhoods in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the 1880s. A mixture of European dance styles and the African candombe brought to the region by slaves in the 18th century, tango first appeared in brothels and port-side bars. The sexy, intimate dance revolves around the “abrazo,” a close embrace that allows the dancers to move with their hips and thighs always touching as they swirl and dip across the floor. Performed to music often featuring an accordion, tango took the world by storm early on with couples dancing the tango from New York City to Paris by the beginning of the 21st century. But by the 1950s back at home, tango was in decline due to economic depression and the repressive orders of Argentina’s military dictatorship. Today, again, tango has become an essential art form around the Rio de Plata, where the technique remains distinct from the ballroom tango and versions developed in countries like Finland and Angola.

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Smoke Sauna Tradition, Vorõmaa, Estonia

Southeastern Estonia in Northern Europe is home to around 75,000 members of the Vorõ community. In addition to speaking an endangered language, this ethnic enclave is known for a set of traditional bathing customs practiced in both everyday life and before festivals and family celebrations. The ritual revolves around the smoke sauna, a building, or room heated with a wood-burning stove covered in stones. As the smoke circulates within the sauna, bathers scrub themselves using a special bath whisk, and, if they become too hot, they step outside to rinse with water then return to relax on an elevated platform inside the room. Families take to the smoke sauna weekly, usually on Saturdays, to relax the mind and body.

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Garifuna Language, Dance and Music, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua

Gariuna Settlement Day Celebration
Roijoy / Getty Images

In 1675, just as the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas had become standard practice for supplying colonial settlers with plantation workers, a ship off the coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent went down. Those who survived, a mix of Nigerian-born slaves and British sailors, were rescued by and integrated into the local Carib Indian community. Over the following centuries, the mixed-origin society, known as the Garifuna (also called the Garinagu and the Black Caribs), developed their own language and traditions and dispersed throughout the Caribbean islands and the coastal reaches of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The customs of the Garifuna are wholly unique, influenced by both their Native American and African origins. Punta, a hip-shaking courtship-type dance performed to the pulsating rhythms of drums, shakers, rattles, and horns, is central to Garifuna culture. It and a variety of other forms of Garifuna music and dance, including hungu-hungu, wanaragua, and abaimahani, are regularly performed in communities like Dangriga, Belize, Livingston, Guatemala, and the Bay Islands of Honduras.

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Earthenware Pottery-Making, Kgatleng District, Botswana

The women of southeastern Botswana’s Bakgatla ba Kgafela community are the guardians of an ancient pottery-making practice on the verge of extinction. Before making a vessel, a master potter communicates with her ancestors via meditation to locate the best clay for the project. Once collected, she potter mixes clay with weathered sandstone, iron oxide, cow dung, wood, grass, and water to slab-build vessels in round, oval, and cone shapes, smoothing the walls of the pot with a wooden paddle. Traditional designs are added, and, when complete, the containers are fired in deep pits in the earth. Used for storing beer, fermenting sorghum, cooking and fetching water, and ancestral worship and healing rituals, earthenware pottery of the Bakgatla ba Kgafela has traditionally played a central role in the community. But as cheap, mass-produced pots have become increasingly available, the transmission of pot-making knowledge from grandmother to mother to daughter has been interrupted, causing UNESCO to declare the craft intangible heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

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Beer Culture, Belgium

A large variety of Belgium beers
Ed Norton / Getty Images

There’s no shortage of craft beer these days, but in Belgium, beer is not just alcohol, it’s a way of life. The country’s brewers have created almost 1500 different styles of beer, including Saisons, witbiers, and tripels, an enormous number for a nation the size of Maryland. Some regions have even become synonymous with specific types of beer,  like lambic and Pajottenland southwest of Brussels. Belgium’s Trappist monasteries and Benedictine abbeys are also lauded the world-over for their brewing skills. Belgian beer isn’t restricted to the pint glass, either. It’s used in the preparation of other foodstuffs, too, like the beer-washed Chimay cheese, a pungent semi-soft cheese with a nutty aroma, and a hint of hops and malt, made by monks at Scourmont Abbey in Hainaut.

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Jultagi (tightrope walking), Korea

Tightrope walking shows up in circuses and acrobatic acts around the world, but the Korean version is unique. In Jultagi, the tightrope walker is as much a comedian as an acrobat. As the walker crosses the tightrope, they tell jokes and sing songs, bantering with a teasing on-the-ground clown. Musicians on the ground play a soundtrack for the dialogue. As the walker crosses the rope, they perform more than 40 different techniques, including leaps, walking backward, pretending to fall, and sitting or lying down on the line. The performance, which can last several hours, takes place outdoors on public holidays like Chuseok and Daeboreum.

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Whistled Language, Çanakçi District, Turkey

Among the most vulnerable of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage is an unusual language found in the rugged mountains of Turkey’s Çanakçi District. Used to communicate across the peaks and valleys of the mostly rural region, the whistled kuş dili or “bird language” can convey everything from announcements of a birth or death to an invitation to tea without using a single word. A dialect of Turkish, the 20 different sounds the whistlers use to render spoken syllables, can be heard up to a kilometer away. Villagers of Kuşköy, where the language is still used, believe it has existed for around 400 years, but in recent years, cell phones have increasingly replaced kuş dili. Combined with the slow drip of younger generations from the agricultural region to cities with more economic opportunity, the survival of Turkey’s whistled language is at risk.

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Parachicos Festival, Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapa de corzo carnival Mexico
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This colorful festival in the town of Chiapa de Corzo in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas honors three Catholic saints and a woman who once saved the village from ruin. According to legend, around 300 years ago, a wealthy European woman traveled to Chiapa de Corzo to find a healer for her ailing son. As her son lay in recovery, the men of the town donned masks with white skin and European features and danced to entertain the boy without frightening him. They called themselves “Parachicos” or “for the boy.” The woman never forgot their kindness, and when, years later, the town was struck with famine, she returned, bringing with her the food and funds they needed to survive. Since then, the people of Chiapa de Corzo have commemorated the town’s salvation in an annual festival held Jan. 8 through 23 full of flute and drum music, dancing masked men, and women in elaborately embroidered dresses who play the role of the wealthy patron. The knowledge of how to make the wooden masks and fiber headdresses worn throughout the festival is passed down from generation to generation, as is the recipe for “the great food,” a dish of dried beef layered with a sauce made of squash seeds.

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Festival of the Patios, Cordova, Spain

Each year, the ancient Andalusian city of Cordova blossoms in the Fiesta de Los Patios, a century-old competitive event that celebrates community and identity. The 12-day festival held at the beginning of May takes place in the interior courtyards of private homes in Cordova’s historic quarter. Throughout the festival, families open their doors to visitors of all kinds who are welcomed to admire the vibrant, lush patios and share food and drink. Many invite traditional singers and flamenco dancers and musicians to perform, and the most beautifully decorated courtyards and balconies are awarded prizes. A list of participating patios, 50 in 2019, is published annually by the festival committee.

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Shadow Puppetry, China

Chinese shadow play, an ancient folk drama
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A centuries-old form of Chinese entertainment, shadow puppetry is a sort of ancient animation still found today. Puppeteers hold rods attached to colorful silhouettes made of leather, paper, or plastic behind a translucent cloth screen. When the screen is lit, the puppets are illuminated, dancing across the screen to the words and songs of dozens of traditional plays. Some puppeteers include carved puppets among their troupe, and as many as nine puppet-masters perform in each show. Shadow puppetry is mainly active in rural Huanxiang County in northwest Gansu Province, which originated the Daoqing style of shadow play, and where mostly farmers make up the puppeteers of the region’s 90 active puppet troupes.

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Tahteeb (Stick Game), Egypt

Originated as a stick-wielding martial art around 2500 B.C., over the centuries tahteeb has evolved into a festive game or dance in which two adversaries confront one another with a 4-foot long “asa” or stick to a soundtrack of folk music. In the performance, sometimes held as week-long competitions, striking is not allowed. Instead, the game is based on the values of mutual respect, honor, courage, and pride. In upper Egypt, command of the stick as it is flung in figure-eight patterns across the body is even considered a sign of manhood  Women have their versions of tahteeb, too, including one in which they imitate the dress and movements of men and another, the ra’s el assaya (dance of the stick), which is a flirtatious performance with a lightweight cane embellished with sequins and colored foil.

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Art of Neapolitan "Pizzaiolo," Naples, Italy

Pizza chef preparing pizza at the restaurant
FilippoBacci / Getty Images

In a country full of culinary delights, the pizza of Naples stands out. The thin crust, wood-fired pie has been replicated around the world, but not many outside the southern Italian city have mastered its most crucial element, the twirl. After preparing the dough, the pizzaiolo or pizza maker throws it in the air and spins to oxygenate the pie it for perfect baking. As they toss, the pizzaiolo sings songs and tells stories, a ritual that makes Neapolitan pizza making as much a public performance as a type of food preparation. In bottegas (artist’s workshops), master pizzaiolos teach the next generation’s apprentices. And while Neapolitan-trained pizza makers can now be found throughout the world, in 2017, around 2 million people signed the petition asking UNESCO to recognize the contribution of the chefs of Naples to this Italian-born culinary tradition.

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