Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 13.COM 10.A.7

The Committee

  1. Takes note that the Syrian Arab Republic has nominated Shadow play (No. 01368) for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding:

Shadow play is a traditional art consisting of handmade puppets moving behind a thin translucent curtain or screen inside a dark theatre, now practised mainly in Damascus. A light from behind the stage projects the shadows of the puppets onto the screen as they move along to an oral script and music. The theatrical content of Shadow play revolves around humorous social criticisms – employing elements of suggestion, poetry, prose, singing and music – and satire is employed to relay narratives between the two main characters, the naïve Karakoz and his clever friend Eiwaz. Other characters include female personalities and talking animals. Performances are traditionally held in popular cafes, where people gather to watch stories about everyday life. The prevalence of Shadow play has declined over the years, however, notably due to the spread of modern technology and digital forms of entertainment, and the mass displacement of Syrian people both inside and outside the country as a result of armed conflicts in Syria. Performances in popular cafes have waned and are now mostly confined to festivals, special holidays and theatres. The confluence of these factors has negatively affected the sustainability of the element, to the point that there is only one active Mukhayel (puppeteer) left in Damascus.

  1. Decides that, from the information included in the file, the nomination satisfies the following criteria for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding:

U.1:   Shadow play is a popular Syrian traditional performing art. Formerly transmitted from fathers to sons, nowadays Shadow play is also taught at the Syrian Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts and through workshops and other community-based public activities, especially for children and young people. Shadow play has a deep social and cultural meaning which conveys social, religious and political content and teaches people about proper social behaviour through satire. Its practitioners are skilled storytellers, musicians and craftsmen. Shadow play safeguards traditional Syrian oral heritage, helps strengthen social bonds and encourages interaction between the Mukhayels (puppeteers) and their audience.

U.2:   The practice and popularity of the element have been declining since the 1940s due to modern technology and new forms of entertainment. However, the situation worsened when the war broke out, forcing practitioners to migrate. In this situation, humanitarian needs are naturally prioritized before the safeguarding of living heritage. Non-formal modes of transmission within families are being lost together with almost all the Mukhayels. Due to its complexity and war conditions, the combination of these skills in individual artists is very rare; only one puppeteer masters the element in its former complexity. Deteriorating security conditions and the inaccessibility of certain areas have also interrupted Shadow play roadshows. Knowledge transfer-related challenges are accompanied by a lack of puppet-making workshops, and a body is needed to regulate the practice and protect practitioners’ rights.

U.3:   The safeguarding measures are based on practitioners’ recommendations and prepared in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders including dramatists, civil society organizations, artisans and representatives of the Ministry of Culture. The proposed plan includes: training new puppeteers; increasing performances; participation in international festivals; documentation; transmitting knowledge; launching a website; returning performances to cafes, networking and building a legislative framework to manage living heritage. The plan is realistic, fully reflects the current situation and is centered on practical activities. If implemented systematically, the activities to encourage transmission and increase performances could produce a new generation of puppeteers and revitalize traditional venues and related events.

U.4:   The last known active puppeteer was involved in the nomination process and the safeguarding plan largely relies on his active engagement. The nomination was drawn up by governmental organizations in partnership with artists, cultural associations and civil society organizations. A wide range of expressions of consent from different groups, individuals, communities and associations as well as governmental organizations are provided, confirming the significance of the element for Syrian people and their commitment to safeguarding and revitalizing it.

U.5:   The element was included in the National Inventory for Intangible Cultural Heritage Elements in 2017. The Syrian Cultural Heritage Support & Development Unit at the Ministry of Culture is responsible for maintaining and updating the inventory every two years in collaboration with the ‘Rawafed’ Cultural Project at the Syria Trust for Development and local communities. Shadow play was identified with the help of the practitioners and different governmental and non-governmental organizations.

  1. Inscribes Shadow play on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding;
  2. Reminds the State Party that it is responsible for the correct translation of all parts of the nomination file, including the consent letters, and underlines that references to the ‘World Heritage Convention’ in consent letters could undermine the claim of informed consent;
  3. Invites the State Party to prioritize the proposed safeguarding measures according to the urgency of particular needs and to ensure the sustainable development of the element after the four-year safeguarding plan has been accomplished.