Egypt launches National Archive of Intangible Cultural Heritage at Cairo International Forum

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 14 Mar 2023

Last week, the grounds of the Supreme Council of Culture hosted the 7th Cairo International Forum for Intangible Cultural Heritage.

7th International Cairo Forum for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Photo by amira noshokaty


This forum marked the conclusion of the Islamic World Educational, Scientific, and Cultural (ICESCO) celebration of Cairo as one of the capitals of culture in the Islamic world and took place in 2022.

The two-day forum, headed by Nahla Imam, Egypt’s representative at UNESCO, and the heritage consultant of the Ministry of Culture, began with drums and mizmars, instruments of Egyptian musical heritage,  followed by an art exhibition on Arabic calligraphy and an awards ceremony for a children's drawing competition, titled Cairo in the Eyes of the World's Children. 

Under the auspices of the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Neveen Al-Kilany, this forum round was named in honour of Ahmed Morsy, a renowned and late figure of Egyptian literary heritage. The opening session even included a short documentary on Morsy, followed by a speech by his brother Khalid Morsy.

During the opening session, Imam also announced the establishment of Egypt's National Archive for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), implemented by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in collaboration with various entities, including the Highest Committee for ICH at the Supreme Council of Culture.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Imam noted that Egypt had its first archive in 1957. However, efforts to protect cultural heritage have been fragmented between civil society, the private sector, and individual enthusiasts. As a result, Egypt deserves its own ICH archive, utilizing modern digital technologies and the expertise of IT professionals for documentation.

According to Iman, a section will be opened dedicated to the donation of ICH data, and measures will be taken to protect the intellectual property rights of the creators and collectors, in collaboration with the Legal Department. Additionally, a special unit will be established to accept data, photographs and videos of various cultural practices”.

The archive will be open to the public, she concluded.

The forum covered many topics related to ICH elements and practices in Egypt and the Arab world, with rich papers presented over the two days.

Tunis’ Heritage Tourism

Tunis has set an inspiring example by innovatively repurposing ICH through palm leaves and pottery. Tunisian Professor Awatef Mansour discussed how heritage tourism is gaining popularity, where visitors can immerse themselves in the authentic cultural heritage of the countries they visit.

Egypt’s Human Cultural and Social Development Project

Renowned Egyptian artist and journalist Mohamed Baghdady introduced an extensive project aimed at training high school graduates and unemployed individuals in the handicrafts of their respective governorates. The project will utilize 650 cultural areas spread across 27 Egyptian governorates. The training program will not only focus on developing their skills but also educating them on their heritage and enabling them to exchange knowledge from those who practice it.

Additionally, an educational program will be incorporated to create cultured and aware handicraft artists."Sustainable development of handicrafts brought France eight times the national revenues of automobile manufacturing and accounts for 60% of China's national income. Egypt has 350 heritage crafts that are in high demand," he noted.

The Story of the Tarboush  

During one of the sessions, Mostapha Kamel, a researcher and writer, presented his initiative by visiting and documenting numerous Egyptian handicrafts in historic Cairo. Kamel, who grew up in Al Darb Al Ahmar, was particularly intrigued by the Tarboush, a traditional male head covering. Particularly its manufacturer, and the 200-year-old machine that is still in use today.

Coptic Apocrypha

During the event, researcher and professor Sahar Mourad Samy presented a 17th-century literary manuscript called Apocrypha. The anonymous author is rarely mentioned in Coptic history, and the manuscript includes the stories of Solomon written in simple Arabic. The story begins with a prayer similar to those of Muslim prayers, "Bismillah Al Raaouf Al Rahim" (In the name of God, the Kind, the Merciful).

Female Quran reciters, Sobooa rituals, and children's games

Researcher Dalia Fahmy's paper shed light on Egypt's cultural heritage, particularly on the madih (praise of the prophet and his descendants) and female reciters of the Quran. Fahmy noted that "Om Mohamed" was the first woman to recite the Quran during the era of Mohammed Ali, while "Sheikha Mounira" was the first woman to be accredited by national radio and to broadcast.

Egyptologist Randa Baligh's paper uncovered the enduring practice of intangible cultural heritage in Egypt. The Sobooa (week) ritual celebrates the birth of a new family member and involves placing the newborn in a large sieve while the mother crosses over them seven times, invoking God's protection and asking the child to listen to their mother. Meanwhile, another woman produces a bell-like sound using an Al Houn, a traditional copper grinding tool. "This exact ritual was depicted on a pottery piece dating back to the Sixth Dynasty, referred to as the child day, and likely celebrates the seventh day of the child's life, wishing them good health," she added.

Professor Ahmed Mansour highlighted the significance of games and toys in Ancient Egyptian culture, and explained how depictions of such toys and games can be found on temple walls. For instance, the game "Dawakhiny ya Lamona" (make me dizzy, you lemon) involved children spinning around, was depicted on the tomb of Betah Hoteb from the Fifth Dynasty. Another popular game, "Cops and Robbers," was also found in the same tomb.

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