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Polo as cultural heritage of UNESCO

The protection and preservation of human cultural achievements and unique natural phenomena: this is the aim of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Convention. In 2003, the UNESCO additionally adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. In 2006 it came into force and by now more than 150 countries have joined the convention.
The convention consists of three different lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and the Register of Best Safeguarding Practices. At present, 298 entries are inscribed on these three lists.
Currently, Azerbaijan has made an application for including Chovgan – an ancient kind of polo – in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. UNESCO will decide on this application during its Eighth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee taking place in Baku from December 2nd to 7th.
At present, this topic is all over the papers. As reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran protests against the application of Azerbaijan. Mohammad-Ali Najafi, the head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), wrote a letter to UNESCO claiming to register Chovgan as a multinational sport and not as an indigenous Azerbaijan sport.
Mehdi Hojjat, Deputy Director ICHHTO, said that Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have a claim on the game and objected against the application of Azerbaijan: “We will tell UNESCO that the traditional game is a common element that should be not registered exclusively in the name of a single country.”
Currently, the topic causes quite a stir and even the New York Times reports on it: → click here to read the article on the website of the New York Times
On demand of POLO+10, Bahruz Nabiyev, Secretary General of the Equestrian federation of Azerbaijan Republic, emphasized the significance of Chovgan for Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijan is one of the countries in which horses were domesticated and cultural equestrian emerged. In this region, there was a great number of Azerbaijanian horses, especially Kharabakh horses. If we have a look at the rules of Chovgan, in terms of choosing horse, we will find the local species of the Azerbaijanian, especially Kharabakh horse ideal. In addition, the described Chovgan game emerges in the most ancient works of art, the miniature samples. Besides, the game can be found in the most ancient writings of Azerbaijan. To this day it was the Azerbaijanis people who preserved and developed this game. However, it’s undeniable that this game was spread in neighbouring regions – South, North and other Asian and Caucasian countries over time. Given all this, we should certainly say Chovgan is one of the most historical equestrian games of Azerbaijan.”
Of course we have asked the Polo Federation of I.R. Iran for an opinion, too, but unfortunately did not receive an answer so far.
But before everybody gets all excited over this topic, we want to point out one important issue:
UNESCO assured POLO+10 that the Intangible Cultural Heritage List is not about exclusiveness. The inscription of one element into the list is a recognition of the fact that this element is a traditional cultural asset worth protecting and worthy of preservation and that it is practiced in the territory of the state party that submits the application. The application of the registration of an element resides with the respective nations.
In case UNESCO grants the application of Azerbaijan and Chovgan is registered on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, this, by no means implies that Chovgan will be marked as an Azerbaijanian sport. It only states that this traditional sport is practiced in the territory of Azerbaijan.
According to UNESCO, there are two possibilities in case Iran makes a claim to Chovgan as a cultural asset worth protecting and aims at inscription into the Intangible Cultural List:
1. Iran can submit a supplement to the inscription of Azerbaijan (provided that UNESCO grants the application of Azerbaijan at the beginning of December). This would mean Azerbaijan as well as Iran would be listed on equal terms as practising countries.
2. Iran can apply for a second, separate entry to UNESCO.
To complete the picture two examples of these two alternatives:
1. In 2010 the Mediterranean diet had been inscribed to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List by Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco. This year, in 2013 Cyprus and Croatia have applied for a supplement of their countries. This will also be decided on in December.
2. In the case of Khoomei there are two entries. In 2009 by China under the name of “Mongolian art of singing, Khoomei“ (→ click here) and in 2010 by Mongolia under the name of “Mongolian traditional art of Khoomei“ (→ click here). It is the same element, but as practiced in two different countries.

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