Egypt’s ‘Stick Game’ UNESCO-listed

This week brought great news regarding Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, namely the inscription of Tahteeb (Stick Game) on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tahteeb is regarded by the UNESCO as performing art and as a social practice / festive event (two out of the five domains of Intangible Cultural Heritage). Tahteeb, which involves a non-violent stick fight that seems more of a dance, traces its roots to Ancient Egypt. It acquired this ‘festive’ character much later in Upper Egypt, where it remains to be practiced during important social events, usually accompanied by traditional popular music. Local communities take pride in this tradition which showcases not only their skill and swift movement, but also embodies the values of fraternity and respect.

Tahteeb is the second element of Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage to be recognized by the UNESCO (the first was al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic back in 2008). To my Egyptian mind, I can think of tens of other unique elements of heritage that could easily find their way into the list: khiyamiyya (craft), tanoura (performing art), traditional Muslim and Coptic mouleds (festive events), the Nubian language (oral tradition), to the end of the long list.

During their meeting in Addis Ababa, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted 15 other new elements from different countries. This includes the Beer Culture in Belgium, the Rumba in Cuba, the Valencia Fallas Festivity in Spain, the çini-making in Turkey, etc. Check it out here.


Palmyra: Terrorists as un-civilizing agents

One photo really is worth a thousand words and, at times, a thousand tears.‎

In an article published today by Spain’s El País (International), the photographer Joseph Eid holds a photo of the ‎great Arch of Triumph of Palmyra taken back in 14 March 2014 against the very same ‎landscape today. Daesh (aka ISIS) has been systematically destroying and looting Syrian and Iraqi sites, ‎and the aforementioned 3rd century Arch of Triumph is no exception: it was destroyed in the ‎‎2015 offensive. ‎

Photos like this bring to mind memories of destroyed heritage sites in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East; an eerie reminder of a human condition that could be described borrowing Kundera’s words: ‘the unbearable ‎lightness of being’. These images leave me feeling an emptiness as profound as the void left by the ‎dynamited Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan; a pain exceeded only by the daily news about ‎refugees and migrants fleeing for their life and risking it all because they have nothing left to lose.‎

You can watch more photos here.


Mediterranean Heritage Course Review

“Heritage distills the past into icons of identity.” – David Lowenthal

Our Mediterranean identity is inconceivable without our sea, and this was the starting point for today’s course on ‘Mediterranean Cultural Heritage’ that I gave at my place in Cairo.

Following an introduction to the Mediterranean from geographical, historical and cultural perspectives, we discussed the concept of cultural heritage and its typology (tangible and intangible, mobile and immobile), and then proceeded to talk about the Mediterranean Cultural Heritage with a focus on six areas, namely:

  1. Thought, Learning and Spirituality;
  2. Artistic and Literary Expression;
  3. Architecture and Urban Models;
  4. Intangible Heritage Domains;
  5. Industrial and Scientific Heritage;
  6. Documentary Heritage.

Epic poems, masterpieces of art and architecture, unique urban models, traditional crafts, extraordinary monuments, exotic elements of the folklore, cultural landscapes and heritage routes, rare books and illuminated manuscripts; the course covered so many aspects and elements of heritage from all 22 Mediterranean counties and their hinterland.

Logically, special emphasis was given to elements of the Egyptian heritage that appear on different UNESCO Heritage Lists (List of World Heritage Sites, List of Intangible Heritage, and Memory of the World Register). We ended the course with an overview of the main challenges, the key trends and the most heated debates related to cultural heritage in our part of the world.

Below are some slides from the PowerPoint presentation, many thanks to all those who joined and looking forward to the next course.


Intangible Heritage DomainsHeritage TypologyHeritage in Dangerffsw

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save artefacts


Following the fall of Syria’s Palmyra to ISIL and the reports ‎about the damage done to parts of the historic city, this ‎article in the BBC is a good reminder on the need to protect ‎heritage in times of conflict. Lessons from Mali, ‎Afghanistan and Bosnia.‎

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save ‎artefacts
By Roland Hughes BBC News
• ‎21 May 2015‎

Islamic State militants took control of Palmyra on Wednesday ‎With Islamic State militants now inside the historic town of Palmyra in Syria, the ‎question, inevitably, is whether they will destroy the ancient ruins. ‎
As IS continues to sweep through parts of Iraq and Syria, damage to centuries-old ‎artefacts – because IS sees statues and shrines as idolatrous – is plentiful.‎
But history has shown that, when culturally important sites are under threat, people will ‎find a way to rally round and save what they can.‎
Artefacts have been saved in the face of war, natural disaster and genocide – often with ‎seemingly insurmountable logistics and threats to overcome. ‎
Similar efforts have taken place in Palmyra, too.‎
But how straightforward is it to save what others are determined to destroy? And what are ‎the crucial factors that can help save artefacts?‎


In 2012, Islamists seized the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. They started to destroy ‎mausoleums, and banned singing, dancing and sport.‎
Valuable manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century were under threat – and they ended ‎up being smuggled out of the city right under the Islamists’ noses.‎
It took a group of determined Timbuktu residents, who raised money to pay for bribes ‎and worked out when the militants slept in order to move the papers, mainly by boat.‎
Staff from two museums provided a safe house for the manuscripts in the capital, Bamako, ‎and helped smuggle them out of Timbuktu in a complex operation.‎
For the Mali manuscripts to survive, it took co-ordination, planning, bravery and more than ‎a little luck – in that the Islamists did not try to destroy them immediately.‎


Years of conflict and Taliban rule saw Afghanistan’s national museum in Kabul bombed and ‎looted to such an extent it was feared that nothing valuable remained.‎
But, to very few people’s knowledge, the museum’s director and four other men stored ‎‎22,000 of the most valuable items in the vault.‎
It was locked by five keys, one of which went to each man – or to his eldest child if he ‎died. Neither of the men said where the objects were stored – even when threatened at ‎gunpoint.‎
Some objects were moved into the presidential palace on the orders of President ‎Mohammad Najibullah, whose government fell in 1992.‎
A curator at the British Museum, where the objects went on show in 2011, said the men ‎were “undoubtedly unsung heroes”.‎


During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the city’s National Library was deliberately hit by ‎shell fire, and at least two million books and documents were destroyed.‎
Many people rushed to the library to save what they could, despite sniper fire from ‎surrounding hills.‎
But the fire also spurred the head of another library to take action. Mustafa Jahic led ‎efforts to smuggle more than 100,000 books out of his building in banana crates, ‎moving them between safe houses.‎
He also smuggled equipment through a tunnel near Sarajevo’s airport that allowed him to ‎microfilm rare documents.‎

What hope for Palmyra – and Syria?‎
The advance of IS towards Palmyra gave authorities plenty of warning – a factor that is ‎crucial when it comes to saving priceless objects.‎
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director general of Syria’s antiquities and museums, said that ‎hundreds of statues and other objects had been moved from Palmyra to safe-houses in ‎Damascus.‎
‎”But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton?” he said. “How do you save temples ‎and cemeteries and, and, and?”‎
Similar work is being done elsewhere in Syria – largely to take objects out of looters’ ‎sights.‎
The 11th Century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo was destroyed in fighting ‎
Cheikmous Ali is an archaeology professor and founder of the Association for the ‎Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa), that monitors damage done to Syrian ‎archaeological sites.‎
‎”In Aleppo, in particular, there are people who have done some amazing work to protect ‎monuments,” he said.‎
‎”There are laws that allow you to move artefacts abroad if they are under threat. You have ‎some areas, like Idlib and its museum, that aren’t under government control.‎
‎”But everything in its museum can’t be moved to, for example, Turkey, as anyone who ‎moves it would be considered a thief there and arrested. So everything is still there in ‎Idlib.”‎
The key to saving future archaeological sites is co-ordination, careful planning and an ‎assessment of the safety of the site and of safe houses, said Zaki Aslan, a director of ‎Iccrom, a UN-backed body that works to conserve cultural heritage.‎
He also urged anyone who wanted to protect rare objects to maintain contact with ‎authorities and to catalogue them thoroughly.‎
‎”One can feel helpless but we should try to do something,” he said.‎
‎”Unesco has called for people to co-operate, for even the people in the conflict to find ‎ways.‎
‎”It will be a great loss if even some of the parts of Palmyra are lost. Not just for Syria, but ‎for the world.”


Published: In the Footsteps of Andalusi Mystics & Intellectuals

Now that al-Andalus has become a ‘trending topic’ in the Arab World, another article of mine was published in Al-RAWI – Egypt’s Heritage Review, this time about the lasting legacy left by Andalusi mystics and intellectuals in Egypt, with a focus on Alexandria, Damietta and Cairo.

While al-Maghreb received a huge wave of Morsicos, Egypt and Syria had their fair share of Andalusi immigrations during earlier centuries. Celebrities like al-Mursi, Ibn al-Baitar and Ibn Arabi ended up settling and dying in both countries after having taught and shared their knowledge with devout followers.

The article tells it all, and the official website of the magazine is:

Magazine CoverTopics in this IssueCover Page for my article

Palestine’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Birthplace of Jesus

When the UNESCO accepted the full membership of Palestine last year, the US and Israel raised hell. The US decided to cancel the funding it gave to the UNESCO, which amountsed to some 20% of the UNESCO’s annual budget.

Now the UNESCO ‘strikes’ again, declaring the ‘Birthplace of Jesus’ as a World Heritage Site, being the first such site in Palestine. Funny enough, Jerusalem itself (which is only 10 kilometers away from this ‘Birthplace’) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site under…Jordan!

The Birthplace includes Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.

Other places added to the List yesterday include Rabat in Morocco. As Egyptian, I find hard to believe that Morocco should have more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than Egypt! (Morocco now has 9 sites, Egypt has 7), but it was never about the quantity.

Back to the Birthplace of Jesus, the US and Israel expectedly accused the listing of the site by the UNESCO as being ‘politically motivated’. Is there anything on earth that does not involve politics one way or antoher? Is there any doubt that a site like that should not belong to humanity at large?

Chapeau to the UNESCO for ignoring the criticism and for listing what truly needs to be protected in Palestine, a church and a pilgrimage route that belong to us all: a world heritage site.

Faking Heritage in Barcelona? Three Cases

When I first saw the soaring Columbus Monument in Barcelona (60 meters), I obviously wondered: as far as I know, he is Italian, and he set sail for his first voyage from Palos de la Frontera in Southern Spain, so, where does Barcelona fit into the picture? I asked an old Catalan historian who replied with a sense of accusation in his eyes: ‘you live in Barcelona and you don’t know Columbus was Catalan!’ I will leave it here (there is a debate going on about Columbus and his origins), but to be honest, Columbus was received in Barcelona by the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) upon his return from the first voyage to the New World. Maybe that is the missing (and only relevant) link he had to the city.

Bu then comes a true hoax: at the heart of El Call (the Jewish Quarter), a synagogue’s brochures and posters invite the tourists to visit ‘Europe’s Oldest Synagogue.’ You enter into a synagogue of a much later era (13th century and beyond) packed with an out-of-tune collection of objects, and the inevitable souvenir corner ‘inside’ the small synagogue. The oldest parts belonging to the original structure are from the 3rd and 4th centuries, but there is no concrete archeological evidence that this structure was a synagogue at all. If we accept the speculation about the foundation being that of a synagogue, then we must also accept that the Ostia Synagogue in Italy is Europe’s oldest synagogue (foundations dating back to the 1st century). Will the brochures and posters change? Of course not. They bring tourists in, they call it ‘cultural tourism’.

Then yet another in-your-face repatriation of someone else’s heritage: Nao Victoria. The ship-museum is a replica of one of the five ships of Ferdinand Magellan in his 16th century journey around the world. The offer is to buy a ticket to visit the ship of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first man to ever circumnavigate the planet. Wait a minute, wasn’t that Magellan? I know he was killed in Philippines, but again, maybe Elcano was a Catalan assistant of Magellan who ‘finished the job’ after Magellan’s assassination? Well, he was his assistant, but he was Basque, not Catalan. Maybe he landed in Barcelona? No, he landed in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Southern Spain. Again, what does Barcelona have to do with this? Why present this as if it was its heritage?

The funny part is that Barcelona has -for decades- ignored very interesting layers of its history and heritage: how many people know that Barcelona was the first Visigothic capital in the Peninsula (before Toledo)? How many people know about Barcino, the Roman city that formed the nucleus of what later became Barcelona? Is there any ‘itinerary’ of the barrack cities that once dotted the Barceloneta beach and Montjuïc? Interesting things to reflect on for all heritage specialists and fans, or maybe it’s just the dark side of cultural tourism.