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Traditional Sicilian puppet theater, known as Opera dei Pupi, was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2008. (Photograph by funkyfood London - Paul Williams, Alamy)

What’s a UNESCO Intangible?

The Tower of Pisa. Machu Picchu. The Palace of Versailles. You know them as UNESCO World Heritage sites—places of such universal cultural value that the United Nations recognizes them.

But what about the Mediterranean diet? The Peking opera? Portuguese fado?

As cultural practices, they might not be the concrete places you can easily protect with a restoration, but they make the world more diverse, interesting and, well, fun.

But First, What Exactly Is UNESCO?

Part of the mission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is to designate sites of universal cultural value, such as Machu Picchu and Angkor.

When Did UNESCO Start Its Intangibles Program?

In 2008, UNESCO began designating living cultural traditions such as Sicilian puppet theater and Mexico’s Day of the Dead ceremonies.

Why Traditions Need Safeguarding, Too:

The list is as varied as the world’s cultures themselves. And as important to fight for, says Cécile Duvelle of UNESCO. “The more globalized the world becomes, the more important it is not to lose forever these traditional roots.”

Take the French Table, For Example: 

The French gastronomic meal has elevated eating to an art form. There’s its structure (apéritif, starter, main, cheese, dessert, liqueurs); appropriate wine pairings; and an elegant table setting. Passed from one generation to the next, the tradition cements social ties and marks French identity.

The List Is Growing: 

There are 314 practices currently on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The latest batch includes the Uzbek art of wit performed at festivals, Kyrgyzstan yurt building, and the Brazilian capoeira martial art. And more will be added each year.

It all goes back to UNESCO’s mission to promote peace through respect of the world’s varied cultures and common humanity.

This piece, written by Amanda Ruggeri, first appeared in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler.