Define and identify intangible cultural heritage

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There are a variety of Arabic translations and terminologies used for the term “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) in the MedLiHer partner States. This requires clarification in order to better comprehend this living heritage.

The review meeting for Phase II of MedLiHer, held in Cairo on 28, 29 and 30 November 2010, was primarily convened to evaluate the national assessments of the MedLiHer partners. It was also an opportunity to initiate a fruitful debate on the question concerning the definition of ICH and the terminologies used at the regional level.

Summary of discussions by Geraldine Chatelard


The meeting in Cairo, November 2010, Egypt

Each of the four partner States* approach ICH on the basis of previous institutional experience and a particular history, making frequent references to popular cultural heritage and folk traditions. The concept of ICH is also new, and participants at the meeting expressed their fears that it is not well understood by the public. There are indeed several possible translations of the concept of intangible in Arabic. For example, the official translation of the Arabic text of the Convention states: “al-Maddi”, while other texts published in the Arab world use the term “ghayr al-malmus”.


One can conclude from these discussions, the following points to guide the MedLiHer partner States in their task of defining and identifying their own ICH :


Terminologies and classifications that exist in the States Parties (such as popular culture and folk traditions) are not problematic as long as they relate to cultural expressions that are alive and have maintained a cultural social and identity value for the communities, groups or individuals who practice them.

The meeting in Cairo, November 2010, Egypt

The five key domains mentioned in the Convention are not exhaustive and one could add, for example, pilgrimages, places of memory, games and traditional sports, cooking traditions, traditional medicines, customs related to home and family practices, practices that have a social, economic and cultural role such as animal rearing, traditional agricultures, traditional systems of conflict resolution, etc.

ICH also encompasses forms of traditional cultural expressions that have an intangible dimension and which are generally not considered popular. For example, these may include traditional classical music or theatrical forms that were originally developed as entertainment reserved for an elite and have since found another audience for which they have historical, social and cultural meaning, and not only aesthetic and commercial. Skills, transmission systems and traditional apprenticeship methods in the field of decorative arts, landscape and architecture (that have an important artistic and cultural value), are also concerned.

In the context of the MedLiHer partner States, we can thus mention several elements as examples of traditional Arab cultural heritage:

Finally, the MedLiHer partner States have among their population, linguistic, ethnic and religious minority groups that enrich the cultural diversity and the regional ICH. A number of their cultural expressions are shared with the majority populations, yet others have their own (oral expressions, music and songs, liturgies, religious festivities, pilgrimages, etc.). The various States concerned must take this diversity into account in their efforts to define, identify and safeguard their ICH.