Crete’s Minoan Treasures Are Still in UNESCO Limbo
By Phil Burtler*
It has been called “Europe’s oldest city.” The Palace at Knossos on Crete was the center of European culture from before 2800 B.C. until after 1350 B.C. Today, the archaeological site dating back to Neolithic times 9,000 years ago, is rightfully one of the most visited cultural monuments in the world.
However, despite all the wonder, culture, myths, and magic of this legendary Minoan masterpiece, the epic palace where King Minos ruled is still NOT a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Many reading this must wonder how it is possible that the most famous place of antiquity in all of Europe has failed to make the cut as a treasure of our collective heritage. As ridiculous as the possibility seems, I assure you the end of the story is even more ludicrous.
The Silent Battle of the Minoans
As far as my research shows, the Knossos site was submitted for the tentative World Heritage list back in the early 2000s. The way the World Heritage listing process has worked since UNESCO was established back in 1946, is that countries submit cultural monuments for consideration to be listed as tentative sites. After this is done, a process of certification is undertaken.
In the case of Knossos, the Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO submitted the site in 2003, and the Minoan palace was turned down for inclusion in 2009 after years of work had been done to bring the site into compliance. As far as “compliance” is concerned, I have still not been able to find out what the chain of authority there looks like.
In 2009, according to a Mrs. Ekaterini Tzitzikosta, President of the Hellenic Commission for UNESCO, the only things holding Knossos back were some illegal houses on the outskirts of the site, and — astonishingly — “noise pollution.” I will not describe the noise levels or railroad yards next to other European UNESCO sites here.
It should be noted that Tzitzikosta worked from 1965 to 1987 at the World Bank. She also worked for the World Food Agency and the European Investment Bank prior to taking on her role as head of the Hellenic Commission to UNESCO.
After five more years, and five million or more visitors to the Crete landmark, in 2014 the Greek delegation submitted not only Knossos, but the palaces at Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Kydonia as well, to UNESCO. Now, in February of 2019, we finally see Lydia Knoniordou, Greece’s Minister of Culture, and Crete’s most exuberant parliamentarian engaged in a pitched battle to get Greece’s priceless heritage recognized.
But what about the 2009 report stating Knossos met all but two compliance criteria? And who put forth these criteria in the first place? First, allow me to quote from the Greek Culture Ministry’s application to UNESCO in 2014:
“The Minoan civilization that developed over the course of two millennia (2800-1100 BC) culminated in a high peak for its time, boasting marvelous buildings, a ground-breaking water drainage system, equal participation of men and women in religious and social life, and masterpieces of art.”
A call we got from UNESCO’s Media Chief, George Papagiannis in Paris, clarified many of our questions, but not all. Talking with him for 45 minutes, I learned about the circuitous route some countries must take in getting cultural treasures included as World Heritage sites. Time, red tape, interagency agreements and communications, and the financial bog Greece and other UNESCO seekers encounter when trying to get their sites on the list are huge hurdles.
But the bureaucracy of the system is not the biggest problem. My discussion with Papagiannis, who is interestingly the former Director of Communications for the current Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, led me to question all I’ve learned about public policy and current democracies.
Papagiannis, who is a brilliant PR man, naturally tried to absolve UNESCO of any role in the Knossos debacle. The veteran media man managed also to defend the Greek ministers for having failed to push the Minoan treasures through to UNESCO recognition.
Our discussion has been ongoing, but the UNESCO’s take on all this is that the fault lies in local communities not supporting (funding) these projects properly, and with the aforementioned red tape. While I agree that UNESCO is not fully to blame, the organization’s charter suggests the UN body should be doing more.
What makes all this insane legislation, red tape, and politicking even crazier is the fact that the public knows absolutely nothing about the Knossos situation. It’s as if western civilization were falling like Rome, and nobody is the wiser.
Local Action – Widespread Disconnect
Meanwhile, calls and emails to Greece’s UNESCO representatives are still unanswered as of this writing. My clarification questions to some officials, a message to the curator of Knossos, and other official communications have proven difficult. Research the last few days has turned up the pitifully underfunded UNESCO effort, an economic barrier I had not imagined existed, and a plethora of inconsistencies in the way these cultural treasures are funded, publicized and preserved.
Dizzying. This is the only way I have for describing the whole Knossos mess. But who is to blame? To find out, I conducted a random survey of people here on Crete.
I walked the streets of my Heraklion neighborhood as I always do. Only this time I took paper and pen to jot down my neighbors’ responses and comments on Knossos – “Is it UNESCO, or is it not? I also consulted Cretans via Facebook, in order to get a better cross section. Their answers as to whether or not their most valuable cultural landmark is recognized at UNESCO were more telling than anything politicians or high-dollar PR men could tell me.
The baker, Akis, whom I buy cheese pies from every morning, assured me that Knossos is a World Heritage site the moment I asked him. An educated young man of 30-something, he works 6 days-14 hours a day – and hears every story there is to hear about everything on Crete. When I asked him what he thought about the site not being included, he replied: “It’s nobody’s fault but our own.”
Across the street from his bakery, burly Stelios has run a small market with his wife Neftaria for 40 years or more. Stelios thought for sure that Knossos already was a World Heritage site until I informed him. When I asked him “Why do you think it is not?” – his response was Homeric, epic, telling. “They want to sell it to pay the debt,” Stelios told me.
Indeed, it was just last month that the Greek government took Knossos and other sites off the list of “sellable assets” owned by the people of Greece, after many people protested.
The Graveyard of Splendid Dreams
That people know and care about these issues is a function of being informed and educated. At least three of the people I spoke to mentioned that none of this is taught in the Crete schools they attend. The Palace of Knossos, the plight of Crete’s rural landscape, priceless artifacts crunched under foot while politicians and vested interests haggle… the whole mess is indicative of something even more foul.
While most of those I spoke to placed the ultimate blame on the individual, this is also where UNESCO, local politicians, the media, and even dedicated archaeologists have failed miserably. This sad story ends with an acknowledgement of humanity’s most important cultural monuments being kept limbo for decades, and with no end to the tragedy in sight.
Here is my assessment as to why this has happened. Citizens have given up, politicians have given up or take advantage. And UN and EU bodies are too remote, detached and cumbersome to do anything.
This is the full span of the Knossos issue, which bears the earmarks of a Greek democratic process which is currently in tatters. It is a bitter irony that the birthplace of democracy as an ideal should end up being the graveyard of splendid ideas and dreams.
Phil Burtler is Editor in Chief of Argophilia Travel News