Research & Studies

A Journey through Cultural Heritage and Transformation – a Welcome Speech by Gábor Soós, Secretary-General of the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO

Gábor Soós, Secretary-General of the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO

Gábor Soós, Secretary-General of the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO, inaugurated the 6th UNESCO MOST Winter School with an engaging speech. He outlined the event’s focus on exploring the dynamic interplay between cultural heritage and sustainable development. Emphasizing the significant role of cultural spaces in fostering social transformations, Soós’s address set the stage for a series of discussions aimed at deepening the understanding of culture as a cornerstone of sustainable progress and peace.

Dear Director-General, Dear Mayor, Dear Participants of the 6th UNESCO MOST Winter School,

It is a pleasure to be in Kőszeg again and to warmly welcome you at the UNESCO MOST Winter School on my behalf and also on behalf of Dr. Miklós Réthelyi, the president of the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO. As you know, it is the 6th time that this Winter School is organised by IASK, it all started in 2019 with the topic Intercultural Heritage and the Complexity of Sustainability – A Future-Oriented Central European Approach. But what are MOST Schools?

UNESCO, as the United Nations’ specialized agency for education, culture, the sciences, and communication is mandated to advance knowledge, standards and intellectual cooperation in order to facilitate social transformations conducive to the universal values of peace, justice, freedom and human dignity. Through its Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme, UNESCO works with governments, science communities and civil societies, and the private sector to improve connections between knowledge and action, connections that are key to positive social change. MOST “Schools” such as this one are capacity-building activities focused on strengthening the competencies for evidence-informed decision-making in Member States. They help develop the capacity of researchers, civil society, the private sector and decision-makers to translate knowledge into public policies. Training sessions are conceived on the basis of local demands arising from specific needs in concrete contexts and thematic areas. MOST “Schools” are co-designed with local partners, who shape the initiative and identify the theme. They contribute to the realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

At the centre of the present MOST School are cultural spaces that interpret culture, history, and the arts. Therefore I would like to take you to a short Odyssey of the rich heritage that surround us here in Kőszeg and its vicinity, some of which have received UNESCO designations, while some other are European designations.

First of all, the Celebration of the ’grapevine bud break’in Kőszeg was inscribed on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. It is a rite of the grape shoots’ perpetuation process, and was presumably developed from medieval legal customs and is still a living tradition here. The presentation of the grape shoots at the renewal ceremony of the town officials and the ’mountain masters’ (hegymesterek) was practiced at least since the 16th century. The ’Book of the Grapevine Bud Break’ contains records from the year 1740; during the election of the principals the sprouts were registered with spectacular drawings. Initially the latter process had a predictive/weather forecasting function. Nowadays not just the local wine producers but the entire population of the town feels real ownership toward the denotation of the ’Grapevine Bud Break’ at Saint George’s day and the presenting of it to the current mayor in front of the town hall as well as the tradition of the public recording in the above-mentioned book. This community-forming effect of the centuries old tradition has also a significant impact on the town’s surroundings.

Then, 60 kilometres to the North from here is the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park near Sopron. It received the European Heritage Label in 2014. European Heritage sites are milestones in the creation of today’s Europe. Spanning from the dawn of civilisation to the Europe we see today, these sites celebrate and symbolise European ideals, values, history and integration. The Memorial Park commemorates the civil initiative of the Pan-European Picnic peace demonstration held on 19 August 1989. The temporary opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border during the demonstration gave nearly 600 citizens of the German Democratic Republic the opportunity to flee to the West, an event which marked the beginning of the destruction of the Iron Curtain. Having divided Europe ideologically and economically into two separate areas, the fall of the Iron Curtain led to the reunification of Germany and the EU’s Eastern enlargement in 2004. The Memorial Park stands for the post-1989 borderless and unified Europe.

This Park is also part of a Cultural Route of the Council of Europe, namely the Iron Curtain Trail. This trail is equal to the European Cycle Route Network 13 and obtained the European Cultural Route certificate in 2019. The trail hasn’t finished yet, but it would be the longest EuroVelo trail; it would follow the track of the formal Iron Curtain, which separated the formal communist countries, from the Barents see to the Black see. On this more than 10000 km route, the bikers can learn about European history from the end of the WW II till the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the demolishment of the iron curtain, the military objects, which once had guarded the borders, became memorial sites. The borderline is a rich natural environment with unique flora and fauna. Hiking routes are joined to the bike routes and information can be obtained by Apps too. The route arrives in Hungary from Austria and leaves it to Serbia, Croatia or Slovenia. The bikers can reach natural parks, touristic venues and memorial sites such as the memorial site of the Pan-European Picnic near Sopron; the Iron Curtain Museum, at Felsőcsatár, or the Iron Curtain memorial site at Felsőszölnök.

Another Cultural Route of the Council of Europe is the Saint Martin of Tours Route that starts at nearby Szombathely. This route got the certificate from the European Council in 2005 in order to introduce the life of the most famous European Saint, Saint Martin, as well as the main sites and memories of his cult. He was born in 316 in Savaria (today Szombathely), which was a settlement of the ancient Roman province, called Pannonia. He joined the army, and as a soldier, at the age of 18, on a frosty day, he gave his half cloak to a shivering beggar. Next night Martin had a dream. He learned that on the previous day Jesus was the freezing beggar whom he gave his half cloak. As an effect of his vision, Martin had converted into Christianity, left the army, and became a missionary. In 371, despite his protest, he was elected as bishop of Tours. As the legend says, he had hidden in a geese house, but the birds’ loud cackle betrayed him. The route starts at his birthplace: Szombathely (Hungary) and goes to Tours (France) to his episcopal seat and tomb. The route joins Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Netherland, Luxemburg, Germany, Belgium, and France.

And the Veneration of Saint Martin in Hungary was also inscribed on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2023. Saint Martin is one of Europe’s most popular saints, and his veneration in Hungary dates back to the foundation of the state. The traditions associated with his person, such as religious practices, Martin’s songs, Martin’s Day customs and pilgrimage sites, are known throughout the country and form an important part of the identity of the settlements linked to the saint’s life. One of the central places of veneration is Szombathely, which according to legend was the saint’s hometown, while the Pannonhalma Abbey, founded in 996, was dedicated to Saint Martin and he is also venerated in many settlements of the Great Hungarian Plain for e.g. in Kunszentmárton. He gained popularity not only in the Catholic but also in the Calvinist and Lutheran communities. Besides the religious aspects, there are a large number of secular customs associated with Martin. Many organisations, individuals and local communities are involved in documenting, presenting and celebrating the heritage associated with the veneration of Saint Martin in Hungary.

Also, less than 60 kilometres to the North is the Fertő / Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape, a transboundary World Heritage site inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2001. The Fertő/Neusiedler Lake area has been the meeting place of different cultures for eight millennia. This is graphically demonstrated by its varied landscape, the result of an evolutionary symbiosis between human activity and the physical environment. The remarkable rural architecture of the villages surrounding the lake and several 18th– and 19th-century palaces adds to the area’s considerable cultural interest.

Within a radius of 130 kilometres there are three more World Heritage Sites: to the North is the Historic Centre of Vienna inscribed also in 2001, also to the North are the Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Danube Limes (Western Segment) inscribed in 2021, and to the North-East is the Millenary Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma and its Natural Environment inscribed in 1996.

Finally, let me mention that in 2022, at the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies – called MONDIACULT – 150 countries endorsed the roadmap for policy engagement to leverage culture for sustainable development. The one hundred-fifty States unanimously adopted an ambitious Declaration for Culture. In the Declaration, the fruit of ten months of multilateral negotiations led by UNESCO, States affirm for the first time that culture is a “global public good”. Consequently, States call for culture to be included “as a specific objective in its own right” among the next United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In the light of all this, I wish you all productive sessions and constructive, high-quality debates. I wish you all every success in your work.