The Unesco world heritage list is normally associated with towering religious monuments and ancient Greek temples, crumbling castles and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It recognises the cultural value of the Hindu complex at Angkor Wat and the Acropolis in Athens, alongside the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines.
Now Italian officials are certain the UN will add a salad of tomato and mozzarella, topped off by a splash of olive oil to its list of global patrimony worth protecting.
The Mediterranean diet, with its mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, grilled fish and olive oil faces a final vote in November for ranking on Unesco's list of “intangible” cultural heritage, launched in 2003 to complement the collection of monuments and natural wonders, and covers oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals.
A plate of pasta washed down with a glass of wine could join the list of 178 cultural experiences including the tango, the polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of central Africa and Croatian lacemaking.
“This is a big success for our country, our dietary traditions and our culture,” said the Italian agriculture minister, Giancarlo Galan.
Rolando Manfredini of the Italian farmers' lobby group, Coldiretti, said: “It is a bit strange putting a diet on the list, and the first time they would do it, but it makes perfect sense. Not only is this culture, but it also makes you live longer and better.”
While trying not to dampen Italy's enthusiasm, a spokeswoman for Unesco warned that no decision would be made before a meeting in November. “The committee is free to make up its mind and there is no indication on what it will approve,” said Sue Williams.
Galan said the proposal was first made by Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco four years ago, and was turned down. The countries resubmitted it, stressing the cultural content of the diet, and this time he was convinced it would get the nod.
“A positive recommendation made by Unesco will now be ratified,” he said. The diet would join Sicilian puppet theatres and Sardinian pastoral songs, which already represent Italy on the list.
The diet took off in the rest of the world in the late 20th century, with postwar cookery writer Elizabeth David helping to promote it among English speakers. Today, said Williams, protecting a plate of tortellini was no different to stopping people scratching their initials in the Great Wall of China: “Being on the intangible list means the host country must promote and protect it exactly as it would a monument like Stonehenge,” she said.
Recent activities sponsored by Unesco include the revival of the intergenerational transmission of Georgian traditional polyphony and the “safeguarding” of Somali board games.
While the Mediterranean diet has found favour with chefs around the world, Coldiretti said it was in desperate need of protection in its native countries.
“In Italy today parents are still in good shape, but their children are increasingly suffering from obesity,” said Manfredini. “There has been a complete break in eating habits from one generation to another.”
For pulmonary ailments, certain mediaeval physicians had a useful medical textbook on hand offering detailed information remarkably similar to those a modern doctor might use today. One of the fathers of medicine, the great Persian scholar Avicenna left a wealth of information in his many works. Iranian academics dust off one of these in an article published today in the SAGE journal Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease, sharing in English details of Avicenna's work that still fascinate both physicians and historians of medicine alike.
Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi and Mohsen Raza dug deep into Avicenna's original ancient text, housed in the Central Library of the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, where they both work. In particular, they aimed to highlight Avicenna's work on respiratory diseases, which may be informative or interesting to physicians and pulmonologists today.
Avicenna discusses respiratory diseases in volume three of the Canon of Medicine, covering the functional anatomy and physiopathology of the pulmonary diseases that were known in his time in detail. His descriptions of the signs and symptoms of various respiratory diseases and conditions are remarkably similar to those found in modern pulmonary medicine. The topic is covered under five chapters: breathing, voice, cough and haemoptysis, internal wounds and inflammations and principles of treatments.
The authors also highlight both herbal and non-herbal treatments Avicenna recommends for respiratory diseases, and their signs and symptoms from the second volume of the Canon of Medicine. Avicenna suggested 21 herbs to treat respiratory disorders, and today we know that several of these herbs contain bioactive compounds with analgesic, antispasmodic, bronchodilatory or antimicrobial activities. For instance, Avicenna would have prescribed opium at that time for cough and haemoptysis, a practice which today has an established therapeutic basis.
“In the time of Avicenna, the presentation of respiratory diseases, their treatment and their prognosis was much different than in modern times,” says Hashemi. Mediaeval physicians had a greater reliance on history, physical examination (which was mostly based on visual observation), individual variation, environmental factors, diet, and so on, for diagnosis and treatment.
Even so, several of Avicenna's observations related to signs and symptoms, aggravating and relieving factors and the treatment of pulmonary disorders are still valid and can be explained by modern science. For example, one of the important symptoms in the diagnosis of asthma that Avicenna discusses is dyspnea during sleep that leads to awakening. Avicenna also observed plaster-like material in tuberculosis patients' sputum, which is now known as lithoptysis (stone spitting), where a patient coughs up calcified material due to perforated bronchial lymph node.
Despite many limitations and the lack of modern instruments in his day, Avicenna adopted a scientific approach to the diagnosis and treatment, not only of respiratory disorders, but also more generally to illnesses he treated and mentioned throughout the Canon of Medicine.