Just as colors add a unique touch to any artwork, intangible cultural traditions add an extraordinary irreplaceable touch to every country. Heritage is the greatest narrator to impart stories or different types of knowledge to connect the past with the present, helping to shape the vision of future generations of people. Due to globalization, most governments recently realized the importance of preserving heritage. However, preserving heritage is not a goal itself; but rather to be a milestone in emphasizing history and authenticity. Egypt is one of the countries that were the birthplace of one of the first and most resilient great civilizations.
Throughout the history of humans over thousands of years, Egypt got affected by many civilizations built on its land. The cultural diversity in Egypt made every city, every street, every tradition, and celebration tell stories. The intangible cultural heritage includes a group of activities developed by the local or indigenous communities, for instance, folk traditions, clothing, dance, music, proverbs, crafts, and practices. The Egyptian government along with NGOs such as the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organization (ECHO), and the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions (ESFT), succeeded in including six elements on the UNESCO lists of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. The four most popular items of the six EICH listed found only in Egypt are:
- Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah epic
Inscribed in 2008. It is an oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, narrates the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. The Hilali is the only epic still performed with its integral musical form. Moreover, once widespread throughout the Middle East, it has disappeared from everywhere except Egypt. Since the fourteenth century, the Hilali epic performed by poets who sing the verses while playing a percussion instrument or a two-string spike fiddle (rabab) at weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and private gatherings, and may last for days.
Professional poets start their ten years of apprenticeships at the age of five. The Hilali epic requires undergoing special training to develop memory skills and master their instruments. Sayed El Dawy, also known as “The Master of Storytellers” was one of the famous Hilali poets who performed in many Arab and European countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Denmark, and others.
- Tahteeb, stick game
Inscribed in 2016. In ancient Egypt, tahteeb used as a form of martial arts. Its role changed to a festive game, but some of the symbolism and values associated with the practice remain. It is performed in front of an audience and involves a brief, non-violent interchange between two adversaries, each wielding a long stick while folk music plays in the background. Practitioners are male both young and old, mostly from Saeedy populations in upper Egypt, especially in rural areas where the tahteeb stick used by inhabitants as part of their daily lives and is considered a sign of manhood. The rules of the game based on mutual respect, friendship, courage, strength, chivalry, and pride. Today tahteeb became part of the upper Egypt culture performance in weddings and other ceremonies.
- Traditional hand puppetry
Inscribed in 2018. Al-Aragoz is an old form of Egyptian theatre using traditional hand puppetry. Performances are a popular event during which puppeteers remain hidden inside a small portable stage while an assistant interacts with the puppets and the crowd. Each puppet has a distinct sound created by a modulator and sometimes by the performers themselves. Performers must be skilled in manipulating and maintaining the puppet, as well as in improvisation and music. The shows explore a diversity of themes relating to daily life. The performance used to be presented by groups of traveling performers, who moved from one folk celebration to another.
- Handmade weaving in Upper Egypt (Sa’eed)
Inscribed in 2020. The craft tradition of handmade weaving is a complex process that requires time, effort, patience, and practice. The process requires a lot of steps and techniques starting from the loom preparation, threading, and weaving to achieve the final product; it is a work of precision and intricate workmanship. Men and women inherited knowledge and artistic talent to create embroidered textiles both as a family legacy and as a profession. The basic principles remained the same with some adjustments to the materials used in the past, whether linen, cotton, wool, or silk; the weaving of expensive silk threads gradually turned to cotton because it was more financially advantageous. As well, the small narrow looms replaced with wider ones. Handloom weaving is considered a fountain of identity and pride for the communities concerned, and the persistence of handloom terminology attests to its deep-rooted significance for them.
Egypt is a privileged land with all these cultural and documented traditions and many undocumented traditions that need to be safeguarded and preserved. More than a hundred handicrafts are worth opening the markets, not only domestically but also internationally. For instance, Tulle, Khayamiya, handmade rugs, and copper inlay are all Egyptian handcrafts that produce unique masterpieces; that threatened extinction due to the lack of markets and mass production in factories.
Intangible cultural traditions are not related to handicrafts and folk music; but rather more than that. Every traditional ceremony of weddings, birth celebrations, worship, or seasonal celebration, from the smallest detail in the celebration to the largest, lies the heritage. Beginning with the food preparations, clothing dedicated to the decorations and place of celebration and even songs which shape the history of different human peoples which eventually shapes our personalities.
- Intangible Cultural Heritage in Egypt (2022). the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization website[online]. (Last updated 2022) available at: https://ich.unesco.org/en/state/egypt-EG?info=elements-on-the-lists [Accessed 13.Aug.2022].
- Trafford, A., Tassie, G., El Daly, O., and Wetering, J. (2019). A River Runs Through It: Studies in Honour of Professor Fekri A. Hassan. Volume 1.