Unesco recognises Ommegang as Intangible Cultural Heritage


Brussels big summer event has been recognised by the UN as invaluable cultural heritage


Brussels’ annual Ommegang procession, which re-enacts Charles V’s visit to the city in 1549, is now inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unesco’s list raises awareness of cultural practices around the world that “encourage dialogue, reflect cultural diversity and testify to human creativity”.

Heritage agency urban.brussels applied for Unesco heritage status for the procession 2.5 years ago. Unesco uses several criteria to approve an event or practice for the prestigious list, including the number of participants and meaning to the larger community.

Ommegang brings together almost 1,200 participants of various backgrounds, including families who are descendants of those who welcomed the Emperor in the 16th century. It sees actors playing the royal family as well as the knights, jugglers, fire eaters, stilt-walkers, musicians, dancers and many others who performed for Charles V and his family in 1549. A procession precedes the entertainments, which take place in the Grote Markt on two nights in early July.

Sacred beginnings

While the current event has taken place every year since 1957, the procession called Ommegang goes back to the 1300s. ‘Ommegang’ is the old Flemish word for ‘circumambulation’, or the act of carrying a sacred object.

In Brussels’ case, the sacred object was a statue of Mary, brought to a chapel on the Zavel from Antwerp. This was at the behest of a religious woman who said that Mary spoke to her and wanted the statue to be placed at the chapel on the Zavel.

Every year, the Guild of Crossbowmen, whose job it was to protect the statue, carried it from the church to the Grote Markt in a show of loyalty and devotion. This grew in size year after year, until many guilds, local authorities, religious groups and wealthy families were all taking part in the procession.

Ommegang conveys the social, economic and political cohesion of the city

- Heritage agency urban.brussels

When Charles V was set to arrive in Brussels in 1549, the city did not miss its chance to show off its community procession. Charles was suitably impressed.

The procession died out in the 18th century, but was revived in 1930 to celebrate the centenary of the Kingdom of Belgium. It was based on the descriptions of the procession that Charles attended in 1549.

It would be another 27 years before it was planned again, and then it remained. “The values that the Ommegang continues to convey are the social, economic and political cohesion of the city,” said urban.brussels in a statement. “A heritage event that recalls the roots of the urban community, this historical procession promotes the identity of the city, the Capital-Region and the European capital.”

Photo ©Frederic Andrieu/Ommegang