Iran’s first intangible cultural heritage was registered 14 years ago on the UNESCO list, and four additional elements have been added to the list this year, making Iran the sixth country in the world with 21 cultural elements listed.
In 2009, Noruz was initially registered on the list as Iran’s first joint intangible heritage with a number of countries, and last week at the 17th session of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which was held in Morocco, four more Iranian elements were added to the list.
Here are glimpses of the 21 Iranian elements on the prestigious list.
Noruz (Nowruz), which usually falls on March 21st every year, marks the beginning of spring across a vast geographical area encircling Iran.
It has been registered as a common tradition practiced in Iran, Azerbaijan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq.
Noruz was initially registered on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, as a common tradition for Iran, Azerbaijan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
However, the five other countries put in requests officially to be added to the list during a meeting held in Tehran in January 2014.
According to UNESCO, Noruz promotes the values of peace and solidarity between generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and neighborliness, thus contributing to cultural diversity and friendship among peoples and various communities.
The rites that accompany the festivity vary from place to place, ranging from leaping over fires and streams in Iran to tightrope walking, lighting candles at house doors, and traditional games such as horse racing or the traditional wrestling practiced in Kyrgyzstan.
Radif of Iranian music
Inscribed in 2009, the radif of Iranian music is the traditional repertoire of the classical music of Iran that forms the essence of Persian musical culture.
More than 250 melodic units, called gushe, are arranged into cycles, with an underlying modal layer providing the backdrop against which a variety of melodic motifs are set. Although the main performance practice of Iranian traditional music unfolds through improvisation according to the mood of the performer and in response to the audience, musicians spend years learning to master the radif as the set of musical tools for their performances and compositions.
UNESCO has it that the radif embodies both the aesthetic practice and the philosophy of Persian musical culture. Learning the radif stretches over at least a decade of self-devotion during which the students memorize the radif’s repertoire and engage in a process of musical asceticism intended to open the gates of spirituality.
This rich treasury lies at the heart of Iranian music and reflects the cultural and national identity of the Iranian people.
Traditional skills of carpet weaving in Kashan
Long a center for fine carpets, Kashan, central Iran has almost one in three residents employed in carpet-making, with more than two-thirds of the carpet-makers being women.
Inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2010, the carpet-weaving process starts with a design, elaborated from among a series of established styles, including motifs such as flowers, leaves, branches, animals and scenes taken from history.
The Farsi weaving style is applied with exemplary delicacy in Kashan, so that the back side of the carpet is finely and evenly knotted. The colors of Kashan carpet come from a variety of natural dyes, including madder root, walnut skin, pomegranate skin, and vine leaves.
The traditional skills of Kashan carpet weaving are passed down to daughters through apprenticeship under instruction from their mothers and grandmothers.
Traditional skills of carpet weaving in Fars
The carpet weavers of Fars province, southern Iran, are among the most prominent weavers in the world. Wool for the carpets is shorn by local men in spring or autumn.
The men then construct the carpet loom – a horizontal frame placed on the ground – while the women convert the wool into yarn on spinning wheels. The colors used are mainly natural: reds, blues, browns, and whites produced from dyestuffs, including madder, indigo, lettuce leaf, walnut skin, cherry stem, and pomegranate skin.
The women are responsible for the design, color selection, and weaving, and bring scenes of their nomadic lives to the carpet. They weave without any design, and no weaver can weave two carpets of the same design.
The element was added to the list in 2010.
Music of the Bakhshis of Khorasan
In the Khorasan region, the Bakhshis are renowned for their musical skill with the dotar, a two-stringed, long-necked lute. They recount Islamic and Gnostic poems and epics containing mythological, historical, or legendary themes.
Their music, known as Maghami, consists of instrumental and/or vocal pieces, performed in Turkish, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Persian.
Bakhshis consider one string of the dotar to be male and the other female; the male string remains open, while the female is used to play the main melody.
Added to the list in 2010, Bakhshi music is passed on through traditional master-pupil training, which is restricted to male family members or neighbors or modern methods, in which a master trains a wide range of students of both genders from diverse backgrounds.
The music transmits history, culture, and ethical and religious fundamentals. Therefore, the social role of the Bakhshis exceeds that of the mere narrator and defines them as judges, mediators and healers.
Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals
Also added to the list in 2010, Pahlevani is an Iranian martial art that combines elements of Islam, Gnosticism, and ancient Persian beliefs. It describes a ritual collection of gymnastic and callisthenic movements performed by ten to twenty men, each wielding instruments symbolizing ancient weapons.
The ritual is held in a Zoorkhane, a revered dome-shaped building with seats for spectators and an octagonal, submerged arena. The Morshed (master) who leads the Pahlevani ritual performs epic and Gnostic poems and beats out time on a Zarb goblet drum. The poems he recites transmit ethical and social teachings and constitute part of Zoorkhanei literature.
Participants in the Pahlevani ritual may be drawn from any social strata or religious background, and each group has strong ties to its local community, working to assist those in need.
During training, students are instructed in chivalric and ethical values under the supervision of a Pishkesvat (champion). Those who master individual skills and arts, observe religious principles, and go through the ethical and moral stages of Gnosticism can attain the pre-eminent rank of Pahlevani (hero), signifying rank and authority within the community.
Ritual dramatic art of Ta’ziye or Tazieh
Registered on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2010, Tazieh recounts religious events, historical and mythical stories, and folktales. Each performance has four components of poetry, music, song, and motion. Performers are always male, and female roles are played by men.
Tazieh is a kind of drama that depicts the event of Ashura and is performed in Mahur, Chargah, and Shur Baghdad radifs of Iranian music.
It is based on the Ashura culture and the brave war and martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS). It is a religious play dated back to 9th-century dynamites and Buyids. However, Tazieh performance began during the Safavid era (1501-1736) and flourished during the Qajar era.
Naqqali, Iranian dramatic story-telling
Naqqali is the oldest form of dramatic performance in Iran and has long played an important role in society, according to the UN cultural body.
The performer or the Naqqal recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes instrumental music and painted scrolls. Naqqals function both as entertainers and as bearers of Persian literature and culture and need to be acquainted with local cultural expressions, languages and dialects, and traditional music.
Naqqali requires considerable talent, a retentive memory, and the ability to improvise with the skill to captivate an audience.
Naqqali was formerly performed in coffeehouses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. However, a decline in the popularity of coffeehouses, combined with new forms of entertainment, has resulted in diminishing interest in Naqqali performance.
The cultural element was inscribed in 2011.
Traditional skills of building and sailing Iranian Lenj boats in the Persian Gulf
Iranian Lenj vessels are traditionally hand-built and are used by inhabitants of the northern coast of the Persian Gulf for sea journeys, trading, fishing, and pearl diving.
Also inscribed in 2011, the traditional knowledge surrounding Lenjs includes oral literature, performing arts, and festivals, in addition to the sailing and navigation techniques and terminology, weather forecasting that is closely associated with sailing, and the skills of wooden boat-building itself. The navigational knowledge used to sail Lenjes was traditionally passed on from father to son.
Experts believe that specific music and rhythms also constituted inseparable parts of sailing in the Persian Gulf, with sailors singing particular songs while working. Nowadays, the community of practitioners is small and mainly comprises older people. Wooden Lenjes are being replaced by cheaper fiberglass substitutes, and wooden Lenj construction workshops are being transformed into repair shops for older Lenjes. The philosophy, ritualistic background, culture, and traditional knowledge of sailing in the Persian Gulf are gradually fading, although some of the associated ceremonies continue to be practiced in a few places.
Qalishuyan rituals of Mashhad-e Ardehal in Kashan
Passed down from generation to generation, Qalishuyan ritual of Mashhad-e Ardehal is practiced to honor the memory of Soltan Ali, a holy figure among the people of Kashan, Fin, and some other cities and villages nearby.
Inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012, the ritual takes place on the nearest Friday to the seventeenth day of the seventh Iranian calendar month of Mehr.
To observe the ritual, people come to gather at a mausoleum to sprinkle rosewater on the carpet in the morning. Having completed the wrapping rituals, they deliver it to the people of Fin outside, who rinse a carpet in running water and sprinkle rosewater drops with neatly cut and beautifully decorated wooden sticks.
According to legend, the dead body of Soltan Ali was found and carried in a carpet to a stream, where it was washed and buried by the people of Fin and Khaveh. The venue is the mausoleum of Soltan Ali, where a carpet is washed in the holy stream by a huge gathering.
The carpet is then returned to the mausoleum. People of Kashan contribute a prayer carpet, and some others celebrate their ritual the following Friday. These communities maintain oral transmission of the procedures, but also recreate the tradition by adding new and festive elements.
UNESCO comments that making flatbread as a widely practiced tradition in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey carries several genuine social functions and interactions.
“Making flatbread (that are named lavash, katyrma, jupka or yufka) involves at least three people, often family members, with each having a role in its preparation and baking.”
Lavash, a popular Iranian flatbread, can be made with very few ingredients, namely flour, water, and salt. The dough is rolled flat before it is smacked against the hot walls of a clay kiln.
Flatbread making was inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2016.
Art of crafting and playing with Kamancheh
Kamancheh, a stringed instrument of the fiddle family, epitomizes some major elements of classical and folkloric music and performances that Iran and Azerbaijan have in common.
Registered in 2017, knowledge associated with the art of crafting and playing kamancheh has been passed down from generation to generation from both families and musicians. The stringed instrument has a membrane belly and is played either by soloists or in ensembles.
Added to the list in 2017, Chogan is a horse-riding game traditionally played in royal courts and urban fields and accompanied by music and storytelling. In Chogan, two rider teams compete, and the aim is to pass a ball through the opposing team’s goalpost using a wooden stick.
It has a history of over 2,000 years in Iran and is a cultural, artistic, and athletic element with a strong connection to the identity and history of its bearers and practitioners.
According to the UN body, it has a strong presence in the literature, storytelling, proverbs, handicrafts, and ornaments that are valuable parts of the symbolism of its practitioners. As an element that promotes the health of the body and soul, Chogan also establishes a connection between nature, humankind, and horses.
Traditional skills of crafting and playing dotar
Inscribed in 2019, the traditional skills of crafting and playing the dotar are one of the most prominent social and cultural components of folkloric music among the ethnic groups and communities of the dotar regions.
Bearers and practitioners are mostly farmers, including male crafters and players and female players. The dotar is a folkloric plucked musical instrument with a pear-shaped bow crafted with dried wood or mulberry tree, a neck made of apricot or walnut wood, and two strings.
Some believe one string is male and functions as the accord, while the other is female, playing the main melody. Performers play the dotar on important social and cultural occasions, such as weddings, parties, celebrations, and ritual ceremonies.
In recent decades, it has also been played in local, regional, national, and international festivals. While playing, the players recount epic, historical, lyric, moral, and gnostic narrations that are central to their ethnic history, pride, and identity.
Traditional knowledge relating to crafting and playing the dotar is passed on informally through the master-student method, and the element is also present in local oral and written literature, which reflects the history and background of the bearers. The element fosters peaceful co-existence, mutual respect, and understanding both among different communities and with neighboring countries.
Art of the miniature
The miniature is a type of two-dimensional artwork that involves the design and creation of small paintings on books, paper-mâché, rugs, textiles, walls, ceramics, and other items using raw materials such as gold, silver, and various organic substances.
Historically, the miniature was exemplified by book painting in which the text was supported visually, but the element has evolved and can also be observed in architecture and as an adornment in public spaces.
The patterns of the miniature represent beliefs, worldviews, and lifestyles in a pictorial fashion and also gained a new character through Islamic influence. While there are stylistic differences between them, the art of the miniature as practiced by the submitting States Parties shares crucial features. In all cases, it is a traditional craft typically transmitted through mentor-apprentice relationships (non-formal education) and considered an integral part of each society’s social and cultural identity.
The miniature displays a specific type of perspective in which the size of the figures changes according to their importance – a key difference between realistic and naturalistic styles. Though it has existed for centuries, it continues to develop and thus strengthens the bonds between the past and present. Traditional painting principles and techniques are preserved, but artists also bring individual creativity into the process.
The element was registered on the list in 2020.
Pilgrimage to the St. Thaddeus Apostle Monastery
Also added to the list in 2020, the annual three-day pilgrimage to St. Thaddeus Apostle Monastery in northwestern Iran is held each July. The pilgrimage venerates two prominent saints: St. Thaddeus, one of the first apostles preaching Christianity and St. Santukhd, the first female Christian martyr.
The bearers of the element are the Armenian population in Iran, Iranian-Armenians residing in Armenia and followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Pilgrims gather in Tabriz before departing for the monastery. They cover 700 kilometers from Yerevan to the monastery annually.
The commemoration ceremony includes special liturgies, processions, prayers, and fasting. It culminates in a Holy Mass with Holy Communion. Special times are set aside for traditional Armenian folk performances, and Armenian dishes are served. The pilgrimage is the primary social and cultural event of the year.
Because attendees reside in tents near one another, the sense of community is enhanced. The monastery has been a pilgrimage site for over nineteen centuries. However, during the years of Soviet power in Armenia, participating in the pilgrimage was prohibited. Bearers of the element preserved cultural memories of the pilgrimage and transmitted them to families and communities. Only after independence in the 1990s was the pilgrimage from Armenia resumed.
National program to safeguard the traditional art of calligraphy in Iran
Iran’s national program to safeguard the traditional art of calligraphy was added to UNESCO’s prestigious list of good safeguarding practices in 2021.
The program is aimed to expand informal and formal public training in calligraphy, publish books and pamphlets, hold art exhibitions, and develop academic curricula while promoting the appropriate use of the calligraphic tradition in line with modern living conditions.
According to UNESCO, the tradition of calligraphy has always been associated with the act of writing in Iran, and even when the writers had limited literacy, calligraphy and writing were still intricately linked. But with the advent of printing and the emergence of computer programs and digital fonts, this art gradually declined and the emphasis on pure readability replaced the observance of both readability and aesthetics.
It resulted in a decline in the appreciation of calligraphy among the new generations. The safeguarding of the Iranian calligraphic tradition thus became a major concern in the 1980s, and a national program was developed for this purpose by non-governmental organizations in collaboration with the government.
Some of the work on this program was started by the Iranian Calligraphers Association before the 1980s and given its immense popularity, the public sector turned it into a national program by redefining and coordinating it on a large scale based on the experiences of the public and private sectors.
Persian calligraphy has long been one of the most revered arts throughout the history of Iran and other Persian-speaking communities.
Sericulture and traditional production of silk for weaving
Sericulture and the traditional production of silk for weaving has gained UNESCO status jointly for Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan this year.
In sericulture and the traditional production of silk for weaving, farmers care for the silkworms through their entire lifecycle, growing the mulberry trees that provide leaves upon which the worms feed and produce silkworm eggs.
As mentioned by the UN cultural body, the fibers are reeled from the cocoons, spun into silk threads, cleaned, and dyed. The threads are then used to create various types of craft products, including fabrics, carpets, rugs and curtains.
Silk products are highly valued by all social and cultural classes, and people use them for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and family gatherings. Deeply rooted in the traditions of the Great Silk Road, the practice is an expression of cultural identity and centuries-old traditions. It is also viewed as a symbol of social cohesion, as the silk trade contributed to the exchange of culture and science within and across the countries concerned.
Iran has long been home to silk makers, mainly in the regions of Gilan and Khorasan. For more than three millennia, silk thread produced in Iran has been used to make clothing fabric and for weaving Persian rugs.
Yalda night (Shab-e Chelleh), one of the most celebrated Persian traditional events, which marks the longest night of the year, was recently added to the United Nations’ cultural heritage list jointly for Iran and Afghanistan.
According to the UN cultural body, the ancient feast refers to a traditional celebration of the sun and the warmth of life. Practiced in Iran and Afghanistan, the event takes place on the last night of autumn, when families gather at the houses of elders and sit around a table adorned with a series of symbolic objects and foods: a lamp to symbolize light, water to represent cleanliness, and red fruits such as pomegranates, watermelons, beetroots, jujube, and grapes to symbolize warmth.
Broth, sweets, dried fruits, and nuts that are used specifically for the occasion are also set on the table and consumed during the gathering. Activities range from reciting poetry and storytelling to playing games and music and giving gifts to new in-laws, brides, and children. The event celebrates cultural identity, nature, respect for women, friendship, hospitality, cultural diversity, and peaceful coexistence. It is transmitted informally within families, although radio and television programs, publications, social media, and educational materials have also played an important role in transmitting the practice in recent years. Events, conferences, training, workshops and awareness-raising activities carried out by research centers, NGOs, cultural organizations and educational institutes have also had a significant impact on the proper transmission of the element to future generations.
On that graceful night, the winter chill is vanquished and the warmth of love embraces the entire family. It’s a time for pleasant family reunions that entails laughter, merriment, and good cheer. Hearts move closer to one another in the company of loved ones on Yalda.
The last evening of autumn and the beginning of winter is a ceremonious, auspicious time for Iranians and lovers of Iranian traditions everywhere on earth. Though it is not even an official holiday, Yalda still stands head and shoulders above some other ancient traditions. By the way, television and radio programs fully cater to it by airing special programs.
Turkmen-style needlework art
Turkmen-style needlework art was added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, jointly with Iran and Turkmenistan.
Needlework (Souzan-douzi in Persian) is a very common occupation among females in some regions of the country. It is the art of drawing images on plain fabrics by sewing delicate stitches using a needle and colorful yarns.
Turkmen-style needlework is a decorative applied art used on the national dress of people of all genders and ages in Turkmenistan and Iran.
In both countries, Turkmen-style needlework begins with the preparation of thin silk threads that are intertwined in three layers and twisted into a single thread, then straightened with a large needle.
According to UNESCO, this unique technology gives the thread a shine. For the most common needlework style, a series of loops are created by piercing the fabric with a thin needle and holding the previous loop with the thumb of the other hand. Other needlework styles vary according to the region.
There is no age limit, and young girls traditionally learn needlework from their mothers and grandmothers. In rural areas, the patterns used reveal the territorial identity of the needlewomen. They are also used to symbolize love, friendship, nature, and strength. The needlework is used on wedding clothes, in clothing for funerals and cultural events, and as decorative parts of ordinary clothing, such as scarves, coats, pants, shawls, and accessories.
Crafting and playing the Oud
Crafting and playing the Oud was recently added to the UNESCO list jointly for Iran and Syria.
The oud is a traditional, lute-type instrument played in Iran and Syria. The musician places the short-necked instrument on their leg, fretting with one hand and plucking the chords with the other. In both countries, the oud consists of a pear-shaped sound box made of walnut, rose, poplar, ebony or apricot wood. Crafting an oud takes up to twenty-five days, during which the wood is left to dry and harden and is then treated with water and steam for fifteen days to build its durability.
According to the UN cultural body, Ouds are crafted in different sizes for different-sized bodies and decorated with wooden carvings and mosaic patterns. They typically have five twin strings, though a sixth string can be added. With its bass and baritone ranges, the instrument can produce melodic and harmonic tones. The oud is played solo or in ensembles and is accompanied by traditional songs and dance in a wide range of events. Its practice is transmitted through apprenticeships and in musical centers, colleges, and universities in urban areas. Crafters are mostly men, although in recent years young women have developed an interest as well.