Monday, April 11, 2016

Dry Stone: Intangible Cultural Heritage

The Tramuntana mountain range was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010. What may not be well understood are the criteria by which this declaration was made. It was not on account of the mountains being mountains. How many mountain ranges can there be across the globe? And how many would boast higher mountains than the Tramuntana can? No, the mountains in themselves, while obviously crucial, were not the principal reason.

Unesco identified the "historical, cultural and socioeconomic processes that have taken place". The mountains are evidence of cultural intermingling in that they have drawn on the physical efforts of the different cultures which have occupied them, most obviously the Muslims and the Christians of post-1229 invasion. What was initiated centuries ago is what there now is: a landscape that was shaped by the labours and ingenuity of its inhabitants. It is one characterised by water systems (hundreds of years before the massive reservoirs were created in the 1970s), by the terracing and by the dry-stone work which itself was used to make the terraces but also to form the means of communication that criss-cross the mountains - the pathways or rudimentary roads. And amidst these developments was the cultivation, such as the olive groves and orange trees.

It is, therefore, the cultural landscape that Unesco honours, one that sets the Tramuntana apart. But not wholly apart. The key element of dry stone, and dry stone in mountainous regions, is not unique to Mallorca. There are similar examples, for instance in Cyprus, and they have a common link - that of a Mediterranean culture combined with that of the Iberian peninsula and out into the Atlantic and the Canary Islands: the dry-stone culture.

What one sees in the Tramuntana is the physical presence of this remarkable culture, such as the path of the barranc (ravine) de Biniaraix in the south of Soller: the very name Biniaraix, a linguistic amalgam of the human cultures that carved the Tramuntana landscape - Arabic and Catalan. And now, in addition to this physical cultural heritage, there is an initiative to add the abstract, the non-physical.

In Mallorca, there is one and only one example of Unesco intangible cultural heritage. It can be seen in the sense that there are singers, but it is non-physical because it is a song, or a chant if one prefers. This is the chant of the Sibil-la, performed on Christmas Eve in churches, monasteries (and the Cathedral) across Mallorca: the most spiritual of Tramuntana sites, Lluc Monastery, is where the intangible meets the tangible in celebrating these different types of culture.

The Balearic regional government's culture ministry and the islands' councils are joining force in participating in an international campaign which is aimed at having "pedra en sec" - dry stone - be declared Unesco intangible cultural heritage. In fact, the first impulse behind this initiative came from the east of the Mediterranean: Cyprus and Greece. Now, and in addition to the Balearics, there is interest from regions in Spain as far apart as Galicia in the north-west to Catalonia in the east and Andalusia in the south, as well as in the Canaries.

But, one might ask, how can this be intangible culture? Dry stone can be seen, touched, walked upon, worked. It is tangible. Which of course is true, but the international candidacy of dry stone and its Mediterranean/Iberian culture focuses on what went into dry stone: the knowledge and skills of its working and the ways in which these were and have been passed down through the centuries. It is a culture of life, of living, of economy and of landscaping, one that unifies different cultures.

Unesco has to decide. Proposals can be made by governments and administrations for its committees to ponder. In the case of dry stone, the candidacy will concentrate on the technique of this ancient craft: the shared human ability that created the landscapes and transformed the physical environment, as happened in the Tramuntana.

All the regions (and countries) involved in this initiative will meet in September and finalise the necessary documentation to meet Unesco guidelines. If all goes to plan, then the candidacy will be submitted to Unesco by March of next year, and the result of the evaluation of the proposals will be known in 2018.

If a declaration is made, it wouldn't of course be Mallorca's alone, unlike the Sibil-la, but it would be great recognition nonetheless for the human ingenuity which left the legacy that it has for us to all enjoy.

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