Intangible cultural heritage in the UNESCO (2003) convention

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, a specialised agency of the United Nations, was founded in 1945. Estonia joined UNESCO in 1991.

UNESCO promotes cooperation in education, science, culture, environmental protection, and human rights. UNESCO strives to maintain and preserve the world’s cultural diversity, relying on the initiative of local cultural policy.

Estonian National Commission for UNESCO serves as the link and coordinator between the UNESCO headquarters and the persons and institutions involved in the organisation’s activities in Estonia.


Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

The Convention entered into force on 20 April 2006 for the thirty States that had ratified it on or before the 20 January 2006. With respect to any other State, the Convention enters into force three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

Estonia joined the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006. According to the Convention, each state must establish its own list of intangible cultural heritage and, if necessary, adopt legal acts to protect it.

The Estonian list of intangible heritage administered by the Estonian Folk Culture Centre.



Foto: Toomas Kalve

Manifestations of Estonian cultural heritage in UNESCO lists

Estonian Dance Festival- Aivar Pihelgas

Baltic song and dance celebrations

Both a repository and a showcase for the region’s tradition of performing folk art, this cultural expression culminates in large-scale festivals every fifth year in Estonia and Latvia and every fourth year in Lithuania.These grand events, held over several days, assemble as many as 40,000 singers and dancers. For the most part, the participants belong to amateur choirs and dance groups.Their repertories reflect the wide range of musical traditions in the Baltic States, from the most ancient folk songs to contemporary compositions. Directed by professional choir conductors, bandleaders and dance instructors, many singers and dancers practise throughout the year in community centres and local cultural institutions.

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

Foto: Renee Altrov

Kihnu cultural space

Lying off Estonia’s Baltic coast, the small islands of Kihnu and Manija are home to a community of 600 people whose cultural expressions and agricultural traditions have been kept alive over the centuries largely through the island’s female population. The men of the Kihnu community have taken to sea to hunt seals and fish, while the women have remained on the islands to farm and to maintain the household. Kihnu women thus have become the principal custodians of the cultural traditions embodied in numerous songs, games, dances, wedding ceremonies and handicrafts. Singing is an integral part of collective handicraft activities and of religious celebrations. Particularly noteworthy among the musical repertory of the islanders is an oral tradition of pre-Christian origin, known as runic or Kalevala-metre songs.

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

Foto: Picasa

Seto Leelo

For the Seto community living in south-eastern Estonia and the Pechory district of the Russian Federation, the tradition of leelo, an ancient polyphonic singing tradition, is a cornerstone of contemporary identity. Performed to traditional melodies and in traditional costume, leelo features a lead singer who delivers a verse line followed by a choir that joins in for the final syllables and then repeats the whole line. Although lyrics are sometimes learned from former great performers, skill in composition is the mark of an excellent lead singer. Most choirs are composed wholly of women, and the most notable lead singer is crowned on Seto Kingdom Day as the King’s ‘Mother of Song’. Singing formerly accompanied nearly all daily activities in the Seto’s rural communities; today, although it is increasingly restricted to stage performance, the tradition remains prominently alive in community events as a central, vibrant and highly valued element of Seto culture. Popular among tourists and a source of pride for the Seto, leelo choirs are the hubs of their community and the embodiment of local identity.

Inscribed in 2009 (4.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Foto: Martin Mark

Smoke sauna tradition in Võromaa

The smoke sauna tradition is an important part of everyday life in the Võro community of Estonia. It comprises a rich set of traditions including the actual bathing customs, the skills of making bath whisks, building and repairing saunas, and smoking meat in the sauna. The sauna is a building or room heated by a stove covered with stones and with an elevated platform for sitting or lying. It has no chimney, and the smoke from burning wood circulates in the room. People usually visit the sauna together and remain until the body sweats. Water is thrown on the heated stones to produce hot steam-laden air and bathers beat their bodies with whisks to scrub off dead skin and stimulate blood circulation. After sweating, whisking, relaxing and possible healing procedures, people cool themselves outside and rinse their bodies with water. The procedure is repeated. The smoke sauna tradition is primarily a family custom, practised usually on Saturdays but also before major festivals or family events, whose main function is to relax the body and mind. Families take turns hosting each other. Usually an older family member is responsible for preparing the sauna, accompanied by children who gradually acquire the necessary skills.