Common Histories, Constructed Identities: Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Rebranding of Serbia

Writer : Aleksandra Terzić & Željko Bjeljac & Nevena Ćurčić
Year : 2015


Even though Serbia is especially rich in intangible cultural heritage and folklore, there is still no established register of intangible cultural assets in Serbia that could evaluate particular elements of folk heritage. The ethnographic heritage of Serbia is rich in spiritual values related to customs, celebrations, music, song, dance, stories and legends, and this type of heritage is presented through numerous festivals, gatherings and tourist events. The Network for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage was formed in 2012. Of the twenty-seven proposals submitted, six representative elements of ICH that reflect the ethnic cultural identity of the Serbian nation were initially chosen: the feasts for patron-saints, the St. George's Day ritual, a folklore dance called kolo, singing with the gusle, flute playing and rug making in Pirot. These elements play an important role in the creation of national identity and have the potential to become significant for tourism in Serbia. In this study, some of the elements proposed for the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage are described, and their importance for the cultural identity of the Serbian people is explained.


Cultural identity is part of the identity of each individual or group; it awakens a sense of belonging to a nation, ethnic group, religion, social class or the local community, as well as to any social group that has its own specific cultural characteristics. Cultural identity is a much broader concept than national identity. The characteristics of the cultural identity of the people are often emphasised in history as a basis for strengthening national identity, and language and religion are the most dominant ones. Culturally, the entire Balkan region has a broadly similar cultural identity. For historical reasons, particularly the large migrations of the Slavs, essentially it comes down to the partition of the Slavic nation, from which the current Slavic nations were formed and new ethnicities created (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bulgarians). When it comes to national identity in the Balkans, in recent history there was a process of integration of culturally close ethnic identities with the formation of the SFR Yugoslavia.

The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia into six new states and the hostility amongst them caused by political relations, led to each of the new nations striving to claim their own origin, religion and culture in order to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. However, national identity cannot be fully established if there is no information about other states and the nations that inhabit the wider surrounding area, and thus the reference point for national identity is difference in relation to others, that is, in comparison with others (Triandafyllidou: 1998). Ethnic identity was of the highest importance for all the Yugoslavs, for whom, due to historical and nation building processes, ethnicity played a central role. The later political fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the conflict between some of its former parts both destroyed a positive united image and reversed the important development of tourism. The emergent newly-independent states had to put their Yugoslav and Communist pasts behind them and establish new national identities based on historical elements. These contested identities interact with the political and economic agendas of particular actors, who often deliberately manipulate identity politics in order to create conflict. The fact is that contested identities and the local contexts in which they are constructed and/or modified, deliberately or otherwise, are often heavily influenced by global cultural forces (Dudley: 2002).

As in many countries, the Serbian national identity is in crisis and is facing the challenge of globalisation. In the case of Serbia this crisis is deeper than in most other countries. Because of the international recognition of the former republics, many Serbian people now live outside Serbia in the states of the former Yugoslavia (Jovanović: 2011). Given that all the people of the Balkans are of common Slavic origin and have a common history, language, religion and culture, it is not surprising that a similarity can clearly be seen between elements of the intangible cultural heritage of these nations. For example, various forms of a particular folk dance are common to all Balkan nations, there is great similarity in their national costumes, epic poetry and playing of traditional instruments. Customs and religious rituals are common to all nations of this area, no matter to which religion they belong, given that their common roots are in customary pagan practices, and the same goes for legends and stories which are largely similar in theme and character.

Culture is a part of cultural heritage, including material and spiritual creations which are major elements that should be incorporated in the development of human society. Cultural heritage represents potentially the most important factor in forming a national ‘brand’ which can create a positive image of a country. Cultural heritage consists not only of individual buildings, monuments and other tangible and intangible cultural assets, but also of a number of other elements, such as customs, folklore, traditional crafts, gastronomy, national costume, artistic and literary works, etc. Intangible cultural heritage can be recognised in oral traditions and language, landscape as a part of the visual arts, social practices, rituals and festivities, traditional knowledge and applied knowledge about nature and the universe, and traditional arts and crafts. Basically, it is about oral folk cultures that were formed in the ancient past. The basic principles of oral culture can be seen as an obligation of constant safeguarding and transferring heritage to future generations.

In the Republic of Serbia, the Law on Cultural Properties (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia, 71/1994) recognises material cultural properties as immovable (cultural monuments, spatial cultural- historical complexes, archaeological sites, memorials) and movable (artistic/historical pieces, archival records, film, records, old and rare books), but immaterial cultural heritage is not listed. The reason for the current position is that in normative and institutional frameworks, the protection of immaterial heritage does not have a long tradition. The most valuable contribution in recognising the importance of intangible cultural heritage at international level was provided by UNESCO through the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Serbia ratified this Convention in 2010. The Ministry of Culture and Information formed a special network for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage (National Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage) within the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade in 2012. For inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Serbia nominated the patron saint celebrations; the St. George's ritual, the folklore dance kolo and the craft of making folk shoes (opanak) are at the moment in the nomination process (Niškanović: 2012; Bjeljac et al.: 2014). For this reason, the UNESCO list does not yet record much of Serbia’s intangible heritage. Twenty- seven nominations of intangible cultural assets were presented in the Initiative of the Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage of Serbia.(Table 1)

The products of the material culture of nations fall into the category of movable ethnographic or folklore items. As such, they can be presented to visitors in the form of exhibits which are installed within buildings or farms, as household tools that are used in gardening, in workshops or in agriculture. Folk creativity is still cherished to some extent by residents and the forms vary in different areas of the country. It is reflected mostly in traditional crafts and skills, and some traditional craft-work is still used in everyday life – the products of clothiers, furriers, knitters, embroiderers, weavers, folk shoemakers, goldsmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, potters, etc.. These vocations have a long tradition and they still exist. Pirot is famous for traditional rugs, Zlatibor for wool sweaters, national costumes from different parts of Serbia - there are folk shoes (opanak), folk hats (šajkača), representing specific ethnic characteristics. However, in modern society these items are mostly used as tourist souvenirs.

Unlike material folk art, Serbian folklore is also rich in spiritual values that are related to customs, celebrations, music, songs, dances, stories and legends, and this kind of cultural heritage is presented through a number of festivals and tourist events. The products of spiritual and artistic culture are categorised as movable cultural properties with artistic features, and are related to visual art, literature, music, film and the performing arts. As such they are kept in museums, galleries, archives and libraries (Бижић-Омчикус: p.157). Certain forms of intangible heritage are displayed through rituals, festivals and exhibitions and in this way they are accessible to visitors and tourists. Countries from the region that still have not recorded any of their intangible heritage are Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Romania, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia have started the process of listing.

Many thinkers are trying to give answers, from their own points of view, on issues related to the process of European integration and the forming of a common European identity as a synonym for the fellowship of the European nations. The regional approach in the examination of those processes is seen through the prism of the synthesis of natural, historical and socio- economic factors that lead to integration and the creation of new European identities (Шабић: 2008, pp.166-167). The common value systems that define the identity are state (in the case of the European Union, the supreme state), territory, ethnicity, history, language, customs, religion and culture. The value of the common identity structure, beside objective indicators, defines also the consciousness of individuals (Šabić, Pavlović: 2009, p.140). New European states - Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, the Baltic republics, Moldova and others that were created from the former socialist countries of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia - were unable to recognise common Yugoslav, Czechoslovakian or Soviet models of collective identity, as their interests were not plausibly represented in those countries. These new states passed through the formative phase and the creation of national identities at the end of the 20th century through the revitalisation of their cultural heritage and religion. This is something that most western European states had done in the 18th and 19th centuries (Šabić at al.: 2009, p.23).

Many studies show, directly or indirectly, that the construction of identity occurs in time and therefore in history. For terms such as ‘tribe’, ‘ethnicity’, or ‘ethnic group’, most historians refer to ‘regional groups’ or ‘regional populations’ that, at one time, have recognised or have been recognised by their neighbours as such (Esoavelomandroso: 2001). Historically older nations have a stronger identity, while surrounding ‘smaller’ nations often insist on the diversification of their own identity (Djordjević: 2003). Two nations can have a similar or even identical ethnic origin, the same religion, or very close and homogeneous cultural background (language, mythology, oral and written literature, folklore, customs and patterns of daily life). On the other hand, geographically close nations and ethnic minorities sometimes insist on the creation of identity differences (mainly linguistic or religious) that start to affect their mutual relationships and could even lead to open conflict or war. The Balkan nations, especially South Slavic nations, have a long history of mutual fighting and separation instead of cooperating for mutual benefit, even though their ethnic, religious and cultural identities are very closely related. (Djordjevic: 2003). For this reason, the countries of the former Yugoslavia have a common cultural heritage which makes it more difficult to identify heritage as exclusively national heritage. This tends to deepen already existing political conflicts among neighbouring and fraternal nations. In fact it fuels some types of competitive behaviour and a race for the recognition of their cultural heritage and its nomination for the UNESCO list. It is usual for nations to believe that, by receiving UNESCO's recognition, they will achieve the primacy and the exclusive right to arrogate particular cultural expressions. Pointing out the subtle differences in customary practices and cultural expressions may be seen as an attempt to deny the fact that intangible cultural heritage may belong not just to a single nation but to all nations in a wider region, continent or even the world.

The role of cultural elements in building national identity

Unlike traditional societies in which tradition as a determinant of personal and collective identity determined the present and the future of man, in modern society the importance of our own cultural traditions is relative to the context of free choice and the formation of our own identity. In criticising our own past, we tend to deny our own traditions, given that - a radical critical attitude towards the traditional form as the construct of identity, cultural history also receives a negative connotation because it is an impediment to stronger and faster strides towards the future and the world. (Jovanovic: 2011)

This negative attitude towards our own traditions is profiled within certain parties, certain institutions, certain NGOs and some media. Although the collective as a guardian of identity has an obligation to take care of its own cultural heritage and adequately represent its traditions, during the transition folk culture is replaced by a populist one, and entertainment and mass culture may become dominant and marginalise all other cultural matters. In addition, there are very common examples of the acceptance of the customs of other nations and religions, which from local, regional and national frameworks grow into universal values, such as the celebration of the Catholic saint St. Valentine on Valentine's Day, and the marginalisation of the practice connected with St. Tryphon (present in Orthodox and Serbian customary practice and tradition) where believers seek to confirm and demonstrate their Orthodox identity by tattooing themselves (Jovanovic: 2011).

Heritage is marked by stability, that is, continuity. Relationships between people and objects, people and images and people and ideas, not only in the sense of the pathways via which objects, images and ideas are spread and exchanged, but also in the sense of the symbolic values and meanings people attribute to them and to each other, can be seen in the presentation of intangible cultural heritage (Dudley: 2002). However, if we analyse the relationship between tourism and heritage, it is clear that tourism changes this perception of heritage.

Since tourism is not static, but rather dynamic, it affects tradition and heritage, that is, culture. Tradition even changes in some communities because of tourism; it is re-invented or created. Modern society forces people to create their own traditions, and tourism is one of the most prominent modern traditions (Richards: 1996, p.263). Tourism mixes people and cultures, and better understanding of these cultures will lead us to the understanding of tourism as a factor of change in the community and beyond (Jelinčić: 2006). Developing links between the cultural and tourism sectors is a challenge, especially bearing in mind that traditional culture is more and more used as a form of tourist attraction, but often not in a way that heritage experts would approve. Traditional crafts and all other forms of intangible heritage in the whole Balkan region represent a great resource for the development of cultural tourism (Horjan: 2011). However, more and more crafts and skills are disappearing, as well as traditional rituals and customs, as a consequence of modern life and of the process of globalisation.

The intangible heritage of Serbia

There are a number of rituals, customs, skills and techniques in Serbia which represent forms of the intangible cultural heritage and identity of the Serbian - and other multinational - populations of Serbia. Some forms of intangible heritage have a place in what is offered to tourists in Serbia. Intangible cultural heritage is usually connected to tangible cultural heritage (immovable or movable cultural assets) and in this way it increases its own value and enriches the quality of what is on offer to tourists. This is only the beginning of the identification process of intangible cultural heritage in Serbia, and this kind of cultural heritage is mostly presented through festivals and various tourist events (Bjeljac et al.: 2014). According to the WTO (2012), Intangible cultural heritage is manifested in the following domains:

1. Handicrafts and visual arts that demonstrate traditional craftsmanship

Traditional handicrafts and visual arts are the mainstay of the material culture of communities. The first data on handicrafts can be found in the charters of Serbian rulers from the 14th century, in the registers of craftsmen who were assigned to work in the monasteries together with their villages and properties (tanning and shoemaking among others). Traditional handicrafts form the majority of souvenirs purchased by travellers. Many of the tourism projects featured in this study were designed to alleviate poverty and deal with how to make handicrafts an attractive and economically viable way for communities to become involved in tourism. Zlakusa pottery, Pirot rug-making, stone carving, Kosovo embroidery, filigree work and wooden flasks are elements of intangible cultural heritage that are already on the national list, and products resulting from the development of these crafts, such as pottery and rugs, represent a significant part of the promotion of tourism in Serbia, through films or as tourist souvenirs. Peasant shoes called opanak are in this group, the craft of making these is now endangered. Peasant shoes are a type of footwear that until the middle of the 20th century was worn by most of the rural population in Serbia, and they are now one of the symbols of Serbian folk clothing (Bjeljac et al.: 2014).[Plate 1]

2. Gastronomy and culinary practices in the preparation of meals.

This group includes all foods and beverages that have special significance for cultural groups or are associated with certain geographical places. The geographical and climatic characteristics of certain areas of the world have influenced the formation of local cuisines which are characterised by the use of locally sourced foodstuffs, as well as by specific ways of preparing and cooking them (Калењук, Корбатфински: 2010). They are popular with tourists, and gastronomic heritage has put many places on the tourist map, especially in Europe and, increasingly, in Latin America and Asia. Examples include wine and gastronomic routes, food festivals, edible souvenirs, etc.. The category of gastronomy is not mentioned directly in the 2003 UNESCO Convention. However, it is a major part of cultural tourism in many countries and thus, for the purposes of this study, it has been separated from the ‘social practices’ category (WTO: 2012). The geographical and climatic characteristics of Serbia are such that there are many types of agriculture in the region (livestock farming, crop growing, viticulture, fruit growing). Some products that are exported bear the mark of their geographic origin (this applies to wine, brandy, cheese, etc.) and form an element of national identity. Gastronomy and culinary practices are presented in Serbia through tourist events (brandy days, cheese days, pie days, bacon days, vintage days, etc.) as part of the promotion of rural tourism. In 2014 an initiative was launched to put on the national list the processes of making sour cream, a type of bread called cipovka and plum brandy. Sour cream (kajmak) and plum brandy are recognised as traditional aspects of Serbian cuisine.

3. Social practices, rituals and festive events

Among the broadest and most vibrant ICH categories, this covers the secular and the sacred, the everyday and the extraordinary. How much of it has market appeal or should be modified for tourism is open to debate.

Most festivals featured in this study have some performing arts or gastronomic focus, combined with other ICH categories. They include displays of centuries- old customs at well-established events which on the one hand face the challenge of maintaining authenticity and managing tourist numbers, and on the other hand are focused on involving the rural population in the preservation of local traditions while developing home-stays for tourists. What is characteristic for the Serbian people is the festival of their patron saint, in which the Serbs differ from other Orthodox nations, and this element was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the end of 2014 as Slava, Celebration of Family Patron Saint Day. It represents the individual spiritual element of every Serb. There is also a ritual of St. George, which is associated with St. George's Day, as he is one of the main patron saints of the Serbian people. Festive tourism events are even held dedicated to making bread (harvesting days) and to the ritual of cutting the grass in the mountainous regions of Serbia. ‘Mowing on Rajac Mountain’ is one of the oldest festivals in Europe.

4. Music and the performing arts

This category includes cultural expressions such as music, dance, theatre, and others. A kind of folk dance called kolo a three step / six step line dance is singled out in this group as an element of national and cultural identity. Traditional folk epic songs are sung accompanied by the gusle a folk instrument. In mountainous regions, ever since the Middle Ages, shepherds have killed time by playing the fife while tending their livestock. Kolo the gusle and the fife are also the focus of tourism in Serbia through the organisation of folk life festivals, craft fairs and other events. The Guča Trumpet Festival is an example of good practice; it is one of the largest trumpet festivals in the world and the most visited tourist event in South East Europe (Bjeljac et al.: 2013). It is characterised by the art of playing the trumpet as part of Serbian folk tradition and is founded on the tradition of playing military trumpets in the Serbian army from the period of the First World War.

5. Oral traditions and expressions, including language

This category includes tales, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, prayers, chants and other elements that are orally transmitted from generation to generation. Language itself contains much that embodies a community’s history and cultural identity. Vuk’s Parliament is singled out as an element of intangible heritage, dedicated to Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Serbian linguist, reformer of the Serbian language, ethnographer, and a man who collected and recorded the old, traditional epic and lyrical Serbian poems, legends and folk stories. In some parts of Serbia, there are characteristic kinds of singing (like ojkanje which translates as ‘shout’), and specific types of humour (the so-called erski humour), which are also potential tourist attractions.

However, due to the turbulent history of the region, the conquest of south-eastern Europe and the imposition of the invader’s religion and way of life, spontaneous and planned migration and the mixing of cultures and the formation of new states in the region since the 1990s, there are other nations which also consider some of the twenty-seven elements contained in the Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Serbia to be part of their intangible heritage (Bjeljac et al.: 2014). Among the elements presented, the following ones are singled out as being very important for Serbian national identity and are discussed in detail.

1. Patron saint feast

The feast of a family patron saint is a household celebration in memory of the Christian saint on whose day the family converted to Christianity and who they chose as their patron and representative before God. This old religious custom of celebrating a family patron saint, the protector of the house and family, originated from the old Slav cult of respect for ancestors. The celebration of this festivity, as the reconciliation of Christianity and the pagan religion of the Serbs, was promulgated by Sava Nemanjić, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. According to tradition, the obligation of celebrating this saint is inherited and passed from father to son and almost never changes. This custom is passed through the family (those with same family name) and all those who worship the same saints are considered to be relatives. When a girl marries she takes the saint of her husband's family. A change of family saint is extremely rare and occurs only after traumas and tragedies in the family. The affirmation and development of this custom into a strong ecclesiastical and folk ritual may have been the result of the long hard period of Ottoman rule over Serbian territory. This custom survived even in the most difficult periods of Serbian history. (

The celebration includes special rituals and involves organising feasts in honour of the saint. Under the saint's icon, the lantern with incense and festive candles are lit, then the host says a prayer in the presence of family members gathered around the table, wheat grain is eaten, then a glass of red wine is shared among family members who pass it round the table three times, and then the specially decorated bread (slavski kolac) is cut in the form of a cross and sprinkled with wine and shared between father and son. The main rituals of this festivity are: the breaking of the decorated bread, raising bread in glory, standing and drinking the wine in God's and the saint's glory, talking about the saint – the protector of all the ancestors - and feasting in the host’s house with all invited and uninvited guests being served. Beside the ritual (decorated) bread, the necessary props are the candle, the icon of the saint to whom the festivity is dedicated, red wine and incense which is used to bless the house, the icon and family members. The festival is celebrated over two or three days (Грубачић, Томић: 1988: pp.6-8).

In the Dictionary of Serbian Language (1989, pp.343- 344), Vuk Stefanović Karadžić records that every Serb has one day in a year that he celebrates and it is called Christian name, Saint, holy, feast (Jovan Cvijić:1987, p.134). An example of the demarcation between the Serbian and Bulgarian national ethnicity is the celebration of slava. The Serbian population and the population with stronger Serbian influence are differentiated from the Bulgarian population by this custom. Some authors point out that the southern Slavs’ collective rituals represent a corresponding type of social community in Balkan villages (Stamenova: 1985; Vlahovic: 1998; Hristov: 2007). Links between people and saints are established by the annual celebration of the patron saint or getting a saint's name (Darch: 2006), such as Name day (in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia) and Family Patron Feast (unique for Serbs). The contradistinction between the Serbian slava, the Bulgarian sabor, kurban in Macedonia, as well as the variant of imposed imenden (name day) could be followed throughout the first half of the 20th century (Hristov: 2002) as a part of initiatives for creating national identities (Popov: 2007; Terzić et al.: 2015).

Within the Serbian population 78 family patron feasts are celebrated. Most families, however, celebrate St Nicholas (19th December), St George (two dates - 6th May, and 16th November) and the Archangel Michael (21st November) ( Besides the household family feast, church (monastery) festivities, village (town) festivities and craft guild (esnaf) festivities are also celebrated. Church celebrations involve the glorifying of the saint to whom a church is dedicated. The protector of Serbian schools, a Serbian educator and the first archbishop, St Sava, has been celebrated since 1827. Based on this and similar research, as well as on the fervour with which the celebration of patron saints is rooted in the Serbian nation, this custom has become a strong national and ethnic symbol, and part of the identity of the Serbian people (Bjeljac et al.: 2014). Family patron saint feasts are not events which would attract tourists, but certain customs and rituals do interest them. Church (monastery) and town celebrations attract tourists and are also an important part of the Serbian national and cultural identity.

2. Prayer on Mt. Midžor, a ritual performed on the feast of Saint George

The religious holiday and patron saint celebration dedicated to St George has a significant place in Serbian history, legends, folk poems and stories, and thus is a part of the national identity of the Serbian people. It is celebrated on the 6th of May, as the day of the victory and martyrdom of Saint George. This saint, apart from his symbolic presentation in icons (killing the dragon, victory triumphing over evil, paganism destroyed for the glory of Christ), is also important for being the subject of the first significant holiday after Lent when rich and varied food could be eaten, and it represents new beginnings. Many members of the Roma ethnic group (so called gypsies), after converting to Christianity, took Saint George as their protector, which became an important part of their modern identity (Грубачић, Томић, 1988:143). Despite their conquest by the Ottomans, and forced conversion to Islam, Serbians living in the mountainous area of Šara (in Sirinićka župa), nevertheless celebrated some Christian customs and rituals, retaining their original ethnic identity. Saint George's Day is without any doubt the biggest holiday of the Goranci nation, incorporating both pagan and Christian elements (Hasani, 2000:39). Because he triumphed over polytheism and paganism, Saint George has a significant place in other nations’ traditions as well as Serbia’s (e.g. Russia and England). Some maps from the first volume of the Lexicon of Spiritual Culture (MDABJ: 2005, maps 42, 43 and 44) show the linguistic and ethnographic aspects of the cult of St. George in the Balkans (celebrated on 23rd April and 6th May). The atlas establishes the presence of the saint’s cult throughout the entire Balkan region, including Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, Croatia and Slovenia (Sobolev: 2007; Terzić, et al.: 2015).

One of the most important aspects of the cult of Saint George is to do with plants and their properties. People go to the fields and woods in the early morning of this holiday to gather various herbs and medicinal plants, so the festival also has an imaginative-magical character (Antonijević: 2000, p.25). The custom includes the gathering of flowers and herbs for ointments and magical incantations, decorating houses with flowers, and weaving flower wreaths that are placed on rooftops or gates. In some parts of Serbia (Temnić, Levac) there are magical rituals to help marriageable girls find husbands (by preparing love potions and incantations) (Грубачић, Томић: 1988, p.144). In other parts of Serbia there is a custom of communities going out into the countryside and having breakfast in the fields – the so-called Saint George's Daybreak. Recently, in some villages in the northern part of Serbia, this custom has been extended to include tourists (Бјељац: 2010, p.118).

3. Folk dance kolo, ‘three-step line dance and six-step line dance’

Kolo (also known as oro or horo) as a form of the national folk dance is widespread, but it is mostly the characteristic of the southern Slavic nations. The term oro is used in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria and south-eastern Serbia, while in other parts of Serbia the term kolo is more often used. The basic meaning of this term is a cycle, a circle, a chain. It is danced with singing or with musical accompaniment, and represents a form of dancing in a chain, moving in a circle. In the past, as well as in the present day, it was the most popular folk dance in all parts of Serbia, but the style of dancing varies according to the geographical area and ethnic community (Šumadija, Vlaška, Kosovo and Metohija, etc). The dances, in three or six steps, have been taken from folklore practice, and these patterns of dance are the most common (Moravac, Žika's kolo and Kokonjeste, Čačak and Užice) (

The tradition of dancing kolo is best maintained in the rural areas of Serbia, but it is also present in urban areas when celebrations take place (such as weddings, fairs, tourist events). Kolo dance has been a part of many folklore programmes for tourists (Bjeljac, Ćurčić: 2010, p.230). Folklore events are institutionalised products of a sequence of presentations on which the national folklore is built, but they are mostly carried out by the so-called cultural-artistic assemblies (Kovačević: 2007, p.59; Lukić-Krstanović: 2004, p.54). Since the middle of the 20th century, visitors from other areas have attended these events as spectators, so they have evolved into tourist attractions. In this sense, folklife festivals are also interesting (Bjeljac, Ćurčić: 2010, pp. 234-235). The National Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage has nominated this traditional dance for the UNESCO Representative List in 2015.

4. Singing accompanied by ‘gusle’ playing

The gusle is a one-stringed instrument that is linked to the area of the South Balkans, and can be found in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dalmatia (Croatia). This instrument is made of maple wood covered with animal skin, the string and the bow being made of plaited horsehair. In Serbia, this instrument is mentioned in the 10th century and was known at the royal courts in medieval times. It played an important role in the creation of Serbian epic poetry.

Serbian national identity is connected with its cultural identity. It began in the 12th century with the development of the first Serbian state, the culmination of which occurred in the second half of the 14th century. It was the period which stretched from the founding of the principality of Raška to the Serbian Empire, and covered the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula, as well as being the period of the establishment of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Since 1389 and the battle between the Serbs and the invading Turkish (Ottoman) army in Kosovo and Metohija, the area which is the spiritual centre of the Serbian people, where many orthodox monasteries were built, the cultural identity of the Serbian nation began to develop. Since that time, Serbian folk poetry took the form of historical epics which preserved the Serbian national identity throughout almost five centuries of Turkish rule in south-eastern Europe. The poems were sung accompanied by the gusle and glorified heroes and the medieval period. Folk epic poems influenced the struggle for liberation from Turkish authority and helped bring about the creation of an independent Serbian state in the first decades of the 19th century, as well as aiding the development of Serbian history and culture.

Folk singers – the gusle players – had for centuries described important events from national history in their songs; this was an oral tradition until those songs were written down in the 19th century through the efforts of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (Papan: 2013). It must be noted that the people of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia also have a rich epic tradition with great similarities and patterns of expression, showing its common origin. Some festivals in Serbia include these type of performances and they are often organised for tourists. These are mainly domestic or Balkan tourists as interpretation of this kind of heritage is neither understandable nor interesting for foreigners.

5. Flute playing in Serbia

The Serbian flute (a primitive flute, pipe, frula) is a folk wind instrument that, according to classification, belongs to the labial fifes (folk flutes), and has been found in almost every nation of the world. It is a wind instrument (slotted or unslotted), mostly of a cylindrical shape with punched holes for playing, but there are other local variants (Golemović: 1998, p.88). It is one of the oldest instruments in the world, first made from bones without holes for playing, and it is important to mention that it produces only one tone. This meant that the sound of this type of instrument took on highly symbolic meanings. Some insight into how this instrument was present and popular in Serbia can be seen from the many existing folk songs, tales and sayings, as well as in iconographic items like painted frescoes. Each fife had six small holes for playing (Jаковљевић: 2009, p.95). The Serbian flute is always handmade from a single piece of wood, mostly plum wood but it could also be made from pear, acacia or the cornel tree.

The Serbs brought fifes with them during their settlement in the Balkans and they kept up the practice of playing the fife. It is known as the instrument of Serbian shepherds. The fife in Serbia once represented the centre of social life in the villages, and besides the gusle it was practically the only instrument that was used ( The fife was used in all public places, out in the country by shepherds, at village fairs and gatherings, and it provided the accompaniment for folk dances. For centuries it was regarded as one of the symbols of the Serbian people but these days it is less important. The practice of playing the fife is only kept alive in cultural-artistic assemblies, but every year a great number of events are organised to revive fife playing (Gatherings of fife players of Serbia Oj Moravo in Prislonica, etc. in Bjeljac, Ćurčić: 2010, p.232).

6. Rug-making in Pirot

Within the ethnographic heritage of the Serbian people, rug making is a 400 year old tradition. It is characteristic of Mt. Stara Planina, Pirot and its surroundings. Pirot kilims (rugs) are woven of wool following strict rules of design. Since 2002, Pirot kilims have had protected status through a certified geographical indication (GI) with 122 patterns and 96 ornaments registered in the catalogue of Pirot kilims. Each ornament and colour has a special meaning and symbolism. Possessing Pirot kilims was once a sign of prestige. Cattle-rearing was the main occupation of the region, and it also produced large quantities of excellent wool so the region around Pirot developed as a centre of carpet weaving. Rug-making also developed in the surrounding settlements of Čiprovci, Samokov, Lom and Berkovitsa in Bulgaria. Similarly, many carpets were produced in Sjenica, Novi Pazar, as well as in Bosnian towns – Gacko, Foča and Sarajevo (Stojanović: 1987).

Making rugs is predominantly a female occupation. Most often the weavers are housewives on rural farms who still know the technique of making traditional rugs. In the municipality of Pirot only about 100 women know this technique. Original Pirot kilims are very valuable, and since they are handmade each one is unique. The value of a rug is determined by the complexity and number of patterns used (Petković, Vlatković: 1996) and the price ranges from several hundreds to several thousands of euros (the average price is about 200 euros per square metre). As the process of production is time- consuming, the demand is greater than the supply. The main customers are embassies, galleries, private collectors, foreign buyers, private companies or people from Serbia who live abroad. Small carpets are mainly sold as souvenirs but there is also a demand for programmes teaching the craft of rug-making. There are several initiatives to open an international school of Pirot kilim making, and tourists often take time out to learn this process during their visit to Pirot (Arandarenko et al.: 2009).[Plates 2, 3 and 4]

Although the process of identifying intangible cultural heritage in Serbia has begun, there are many problems. In the first round of identification in 2013, certain elements of the intangible cultural heritage were nominated. These were collected by various institutions, associations and organisations to which the necessary documentation was submitted. The question is whether the call for nominations was submitted to all the appropriate institutions dealing with cultural and ethnographic aspects of Serbian culture, and to what extent it was answered. Another problem that has been identified in this process concerns the delimitation of types of intangible cultural heritage registered at the national level, as well as their importance. Specific criteria must be set which will determine whether an element of intangible heritage is of local, regional, national or international importance. So far, no methodological approach has been applied to define the different categories of Serbian intangible heritage, so the elements presented are just summarised.

Intangible cultural heritage as a key factor in the formation of the Serbian tourist 'brand'

The only attempt at a methodological evaluation of elements of intangible heritage is expressed by using a modified model of tourism evaluation. This was H. du Cross’s method (2000) in which all twenty-seven identified elements of the intangible heritage of Serbia were individually evaluated and categorised, based on their value as tourist attractions (Bjeljac, Terzić, Ćurčić: 2014). The authors did not categorise elements of intangible heritage on the basis of their national importance, but on the basis of their potential for attracting tourists, and took into consideration a number of factors. According to the previous author's research, a total of 24 out of the 27 elements of intangible cultural heritage of Serbia were directly or indirectly the basis for the organisation of at least 94 tourist events in Serbia (Бјељац и др: 2013). The elements of intangible cultural heritage representing the national identity of the Serbian people are usually presented through tourist events. They have a significant share in the national tourism industry and the promotion of Serbia. They are: Vuk's Parliament in Tršić, the Prayer on Mt. Midžor (Feast of St. George) in Knjaževac municipality, the Days of Filip Višnjić (a gusle and epic song festival) in Šid municipality, the Parliament of flute players in Svrljig municipality, the Parliament of flute players Oj Moravo in Čačak, the 'Golden Shoe’ folk dance festival in Valjevo, etc.. Many of these events are organised in rural and underdeveloped regions of Serbia. These places are also recognised as the areas with the highest levels of preservation and original presentation of intangible cultural heritage.

From the point of determining categories the following factors need to be considered:

  • Is the element of intangible heritage known outside the local community?
  • To what extent is it an important national symbol?
  • To what extent does it differ from the elements of intangible heritage in the wider environment (neighbouring countries, the Balkans, south east Europe)?
  • To what extent is it prevalent at the national level?
  • Traditionalism. To what extent is it associated with tradition and national culture?
  • To what extent is it connected with national history?
  • Does it possess a general social value?
  • To what extent is it connected to other elements of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage?
  • To what extent is it preserved in its original form?
  • To what extent are further changes possible in order to safeguard it?
  • Are these cultural elements adequately and properly prepared for presentation to tourists?

Intangible cultural heritage is what best reflects national identity as something unique and common to a nation, and is particularly attractive to tourists. The promotion of ethnological elements is very common in the tourist industry and the most recognisable ethnic elements become the focus of a destination. The combination of those elements can create a tourism ‘brand’, but in addition, some of its forms are often positioned on the tourist market as souvenirs. What is recognisable for Serbia as a country and tourist destination are actually ethnic elements – folk shoes (opanak), folk hats (šajkača), flasks of plum schnapps (čutura šljivovice), fifes, the folk dance kolo, gourmet dishes – kajmak, belmuž, proja, gibanica, pljeskavica, mućkalica, kulen, etc.. Every region in Serbia also has its own special characteristics. So, if the multi-national demographic structure of the Serbian nation is taken into consideration, the ethnographic characteristics of minority communities can also be featured as they are equally representative and attractive in the cultural and tourism sense. [Plates 5, 6 and 7]

Using the same tourism potential evaluation model, it was concluded that the most representative elements of the intangible heritage of Serbia are not necessarily attractive for tourists. The scope of tourist use of intangible heritage may include ethnographic presentations in museums and galleries or the participation of tourists in events during their visits to certain destinations. Many tourist events relate to specific customs, rituals, beliefs and traditions of local people. They are usually based on folklore, traditional handicrafts and national gastronomy. Tourist events also represent the oldest tourist attractions and destinations (Bjeljac, Ćurčić: 2010).

However, not all elements of intangible heritage are suitable for tourist presentation since some are sensitive to interference and commodification. Here it is primarily about individual religious traditions, such as the patron saint feasts, the safeguarding of Christ's tomb and the farmers' candles in Tronoša monastery. These, in addition to their secular character, also have deep spiritual and personal attributes, so participating in them is reserved for family members or, in the broader sense, the local community.

Certain customs had almost completely disappeared but were then resurrected as tourist events, like the St. George's festivities and customs. They consisted of several ritual and magical acts involving the whole community, numerous families that celebrate this day as their patron-saint feast, as well as activities among different ethnic communities in Serbia. Nowdays this custom is primarily promoted through the tourist event ‘The Prayer on Mt. Midžor’ that gives a wider regional and international (tourism related) significance to the tradition itself. It must be noted, however, that the highest number of visitors to this event come from Serbia. They are usually familiar with the customary practice and its importance so the event has not been commodified as a tourist attraction.

In Zlakusa village in western Serbia, traditional production is based mainly on horticulture and fisheries and the sale of dairy products, but the economy of the village also relies heavily on rural tourism. The village is also renowned for its traditional pottery. Out of 210 households in 2008, about 30 families worked as potters (in 1960 there were only six), and about twelve households are registered for rural tourism. Tourism is therefore one of the primary activities in the village and much of the pottery is sold to tourists. (Identity card of Zlakusa-Potpeć, Council for Rural Development, Zlakusa: 2010).

An example of the positive impact of tourism on the preservation of intangible heritage can be seen in the craft of making traditional footwear - opanak - which is in the process of being recorded on the national list. This craft is in danger of extinction since the shoes are no longer worn and they are only bought for ethnographic collections in museums and the relatively modest needs of cultural folklore societies. However, this product - in original or miniature form - has found a place on the tourist market and is very popular, in fact it is the best- selling tourist souvenir of Serbia worldwide. Small Pirot carpets, Zlakusa pottery and some culinary specialties are also sold as souvenirs.

The Serbian Government decided to prioritise the creation of a national identity, and the establishment of a distinctive Serbian ‘brand’. Even though the process has started in some projects, the creation of a national brand to promote the national identity of Serbia is still new and underdeveloped. This can be seen in the efforts to properly present all the existing values of Serbia and create new ones. This national brand includes numerous elements: services and products, public institutions, elements of culture, art, science, sport, natural and anthropological resources, events, people, architecture, cultural-historical monuments, artistic creativity, information and ideas. It can be said that it includes all the elements that could enhance a positive picture of Serbia by differentiating it from other countries, especially from neighbouring countries with similar characteristics.

During the process of creating a national identity and the formation of a tourist brand based on that national identity, the real situation should be acknowledged and the fiction of elements of identity that the nation does not actually possess must be avoided. The idea of the brand must be positioned in the minds of both the general public and tourists alike. If a positive image of the country and nation is created, there is a greater chance that tourists will decide to visit the country. Therefore, the most significant elements of the national and cultural identity should be recognised, linked and presented to the global public in the best possible way. The available data from surveys of public opinion in Serbia on the state of the national identity should also be noted. According to the Gallup Balkan Monitor of November 2010, the citizens of Serbia mostly identify themselves with the national identity. Thus, 44.9% of the citizens of Serbia said that their identification was extremely strong when it came to national identity, 20.3% of them stated that this identification was very strong, while 20.6% of the respondents marked it as strong. [Plates 8 and 9]

In an effort to improve its image in the world, a promotional tourist film was recorded about Serbia, its natural beauties, cultural attractions and traditional characteristics (Tourist Organisation of Serbia: 2007). It was broadcast on CNN on American satellite television. It proved to be an absolute failure given that very few authentic and representative landscapes and national symbols were shown in the video. The film showed Serbia as a modern country, with preserved landscapes and beautiful buildings, and the examples given spoke about our state of spiritual confusion in which tradition had lost its former importance. According to some studies, 52.6% of the Serbs think that the image of Serbia has improved in recent years (Jovanovic: 2012). The traditional symbols of Serbia are rarely highlighted in promotional videos which are about cosmopolitanism and modernism, except when it comes to products of rural tourism in which elements of intangible heritage and traditional symbols play a key role.

In 2005 the European Parliament proposed to the European Commission (EC) that they should select a series of exceptional European tourist destinations in the European Union (EU), after which it was agreed to go ahead with a pilot project European Destinations of Excellence – EDEN. When Serbia became a candidate for membership of the European Union, the Tourist Organisation of Serbia in 2014 launched the EDEN project with the theme ‘Tourism and Local Intangible Cultural Heritage’. The aim was to identify and reward lesser known destinations that were developing and basing their tourism on promoting local elements of intangible heritage such as handicrafts, oral traditions, events, customs, traditional food and the like. The winner of the first contest held in Serbia was the municipality of Knjaževac and the St. George’s Day Ritual Prayer.

Today, the Tourist Organisation of Serbia tries to portray all aspects of Serbia - preserved nature and active leisure, culture and cultural heritage, the metropolis and events, rural spaces, hospitality and traditions, gastronomy (‘Soul Food’), etc. All promotional campaigns try to point out the ‘heart and soul’ of Serbia that is incorporated in virtually all forms of tourism promotion. It is also integrated in the official logo of the national tourism organisation. The focus is placed on the intangible, on the experience. The formation of a national identity and a tourist brand by using intangible cultural heritage can influence the creation of a more positive image of Serbia. It can be promoted as an attractive tourist destination with an ‘open heart’, preserved traditions and ‘living’ culture.


The protection of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, should become the imperative of every nation. Cultural heritage is what makes a nation special and unique in the world. It reflects all its positive aspects, while the current state and the neglect of cultural heritage is a very negative aspect of the nation and sends the message that those who do not respect their own heritage are unable to respect the heritage of others. The identification, protection, conservation, presentation and promotion of cultural heritage to a wider international audience through the formation of a national identity and a tourism ‘brand’ is a way of affirming the state to itself, as well as to the world.

The identification of certain elements of Serbian intangible heritage reflected in the initiative for recording and nominating those elements for UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is certainly a positive beginning to what will be a long and all-inclusive process. The six proposed elements, as well as the other identified elements of intangible heritage in Serbia, are only a small percentage of the ethnographic characteristics present within the Serbian nation. It can be expected that the number of identified elements will continue to grow, as the specific characteristics and skills of the Serbian people differ from those of other nations. Such customs and skills differ significantly in different parts of Serbia, depending on the area and which national groups have lived there and mixed with the Serbian people. The governmental institutions and the public of Serbia recognise the necessity of promoting the national identity and potential of the country to the world. The most obvious example of these efforts is the promotion of tourism in Serbia.

The long-standing negative image of Serbia is gradually starting to change. In that sense, it is necessary to direct all our available resources into building a strong positive national brand as an instrument that will evaluate cultural and social elements and gain international support through an influx of investment and tourists.

The basis for the creation of a national identity and a tourist brand can be seen in the efforts to present all the existing values in Serbia properly. Perhaps the most important element in the process is the culture itself that in a special way reflects the country’s rich intangible cultural heritage. However, we must ensure the inclusion of the wider public and increase their knowledge about the value and importance of the intangible cultural heritage. Serbia must continue to strive to ensure that the general public becomes familiar with the process of recording their own cultural heritage. Therefore, concrete efforts and measures must be taken to motivate local communities to identify their own special elements of the intangible heritage. The basic elements representative for the whole nation would be recognised and a unique national identity could be created. This process, of course, must involve extensive and time-consuming research, documentation, evaluation and categorisation processes, followed by the adoption of certain elements as being the most representative aspects of the national identity. These elements also have a significant influence on creating an attractive tourism product and establishing a tourist image for Serbia. Through tourism, these elements can find a usefulness and economic value which is important for ensuring their sustainability and public use.