Human pyramids and throatsingers to be named 'cultural treasures'

Eccentric activities from all over the world to be considered for inclusion in Unesco's Cultural Heritage of Humanity scheme

An invisible golden thread links the gingerbread makers of Croatia, the carpet weavers of Azerbaijan, the young men dressed as women rampaging with prams and brooms through the Flanders town of Aalst, the Peruvian scissors dancers regarded as too diabolical to be allowed into churches, the devout hoppers of Echternach in Luxembourg and the French cooks preparing a four-course banquet bookended by aperitifs and liqueurs: all will solemnly be considered by a Unesco committee meeting in Kenya this week for inclusion among the world's cultural treasures.

The world heritage sites scheme, also administered by Unesco, is very well known, judging places including Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids as among the most precious on Earth.

But the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity scheme, established only in 2003, is far less famous – though the number of signed-up states and nominations for inclusion is growing steadily.

This week when the committee meets for three days in Nairobi, it will consider 47 nominations from 29 countries, as well as four traditional skills now practised by so few people – including throatsinging in Croatia and the construction of traditional Chinese wooden junks with waterproof bulkheads – that they are regarded as in danger of extinction.

Eclectic is too constricting a word for nominations including the Castells, the human towers up to six nervous levels high – with the lightest child the pyramid builders can find on top – of Catalonia; Mexican food; the Turkish oil wrestlers who compete for the Kirkpinar Golden Belt smeared and massaged until they resemble human oil slicks; the Mediterranean diet, jointly proposed by Greece, Spain, Italy and Morocco; Flamenco dancing; and falconry.

Falconry brought together a group of joint nominating states as bizarrely diverse as the list itself: the UAE, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Korea, Mongolia, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Syria.

The music, handcrafts, food, traditional gatherings, dances and tribal customs already formally on the list constitute, Unesco says, "a living heritage, which, when transmitted from generation to generation, gives communities and groups a feeling of identity and continuity that is considered essential for the respect of cultural diversity and human creativity".

It's bad news however for the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss, who gnashes his wooden jaws and prances around the Cornish town every May Day, or the Gloucestershire Cheese Rollers who risk their necks every year pursuing a wooden cheese down a 45-degree slope: they may never be recognised as part of the world's richly woven cultural tapestry, since Britain has still not signed up to the convention, though it does send observers.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said severely: "The UK has a very 'hands off' approach to culture and cultural expressions.

"It is not UK practice to legislate on cultural issues unless absolutely necessary, and it has been successive governments' policy to maintain a healthy distance from cultural operators and artists: we do not believe in state intervention in these areas."

However he added that the UK branch of Unesco was keen to examine "what might constitute the intangible cultural heritage in the UK. The UK government supports this. But this will take time."

Unesco officers have recommended that all the nominations be ratified this week – except for the Sinjska Alka, a knightly tournament said to have been held at Sinj in Croatia since 1715, when Turkish troops besieged the town.

The committee solemnly found: "It does not provide sufficient information that it is compatible with the requirement of mutual respect among communities."

This could possibly be because the festival celebrates the legend that after a miraculous intervention by the Virgin Mary, the Turkish army fled leaving just 39 townspeople dead, but its walls ringed with the bodies of 10,000 dead soldiers.

Five proposed treasures of the world's intangible cultural heritage:

Croatia, gingerbread A regional craft in northern Croatia since the middle ages, each baker using his or her own distinctive decorations including coloured icing, pictures, mirrors, messages, or the names of newlyweds.

France, the gastronomic meal Nomination says the meal must have a fixed structure, "commencing with an aperitif and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert".

Luxembourg, the hopping procession of Echternach 500-year-old traditional Whit procession to the tomb of St Willibrord, joined by thousands of people hopping from foot to foot along the entire route, to the same traditional tune repeated for hours.

Peru, the scissors dance Competitive ritual dance, in which brilliantly dressed teams wielding polished iron rods, representing villages and communities, vie for up to 10 hours – forbidden to enter churches in costume because of the tradition that their skill came from a pact with the devil.

Spain, Castells Human towers up to six levels tall built by amateur groups at Catalonian festivals. Each group has its own costume, of colourful shirts with cummerbunds worn to protect the back and provide hand and foot grips for the climbers.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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