In 2014 the Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO submitted an application to UNESCO so that the ancient Minoan palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros, and Kydonia might be included as World Heritage sites. Today, we received what amounts to a declaration from a Heraklion SYRIZA MP, condemning the lack of respect Greece’s priceless heritage is receiving from UNESCO and others. If Europe’s earliest forays toward refined civilization cannot be recognized as heritage sites, it’s clear the system is broken.
Update: UNESCO’s Chief of Media Services, Mr. George Papagiannis contacted me this morning in order to address the situation. According to the media chief, the interim listing of Knossos can only be carried through to completion by the initiative of the Hellenic National Commission for UNESCO. Mr. Papagianni went on to explain that neither UNESCO nor the Greek commission had “dragged their feet” in furthering the Knossos World Heritage status. He also addressed many of the mitigating factors which have slowed the process.
“It’s time to fight the battle for Knossos. It is time to preserve and promote the legacy of the ancient Minoan Civilization.” – Nikos Igoumenidis
The Knossos Battleground
A press notification from Hellenic Parliamentarian, Dr. Nikos Igoumenidis we received this morning put everyone in our offices in a state of disbelief. In fact, I had to translate and read the announcement three times. As an interested historian and writer about Crete, learning that the Minoan Palace at Knossos is not a UNESCO treasure made me (and everyone else in the office) feel stupid, just to be honest. The fact that “none” of these Minoan treasures are World Heritage sites will leave readers here gobsmacked, I am sure. Most people assume Knossos and other Minoan palaces were World Heritage sites long ago.
News of the meeting of the Special Permanent Committee of the House Regions, and of Igoumenidis’ reported to the Minister of Culture and Sport, Mrs. Myrsini Zorba, on the situation of “Regional Cultural Policy,” was confirmed by Dr. Igoumenidis’s press office earlier today. According to the news, the MP laid out the current state of progress, and went on to describe the foot-dragging bureaucracy of the whole UNESCO affair a kind of “brinkmanship exploitation of our cultural heritage.” This was following Mrs. Zorba’s suggesting that her offices are dealing with UNESCO delays and the red tape, something she
For our staff and bystanders in our Heraklion office, the “systematic” problem in the Knossos case seemed like a denial of our common human legacy. One Heraklion shopkeeper who just happened to be making a delivery commented, “criminals, they are all criminals, what do you expect?” Taken from a historical perspective, and based on what I’ve seen of the vastness of Minoan influence here, for UNESCO to have delayed so long borders on abject negligence. The United Nations arm I came to respect these last years of reporting, should have approached Greece and Crete, not the other way around. In order that the reader understands more clearly the magnitude of disbelief here, I quote from the Greek Culture Ministry’s application to UNESCO:
“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 and drainage system, equal participation of men and women in religious and social life, and masterpieces of art.”
Is UNESCO Reburying Minoan Culture?
The purpose of UNESCO in the first place was to ensure that war would never again tear at the fabric of European and world civilization. The reason UNESCO was decreed by all those listed nations, was to foster better understanding and appreciation for the cultures, traditions, and history of world neighbors. And somehow the most historic place outside of Egypt and Mesopotamia is DEAD LAST on the World Heritage list! I am a bit surprised Heraklion’s Nikos Igoumenidis was screaming the idiocy of the situation in front of the Morosini Lions Fountain in Crete’s capital.
The Constitution of UNESCO, which was signed on 16 November 1945, and came into force on 4 November 1946 states that:
“The purpose of the Organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.”
For those totally unfamiliar with Crete and the situation with UNESCO, the Minoan Civilization of Crete and the greater Mediterranean thrived for thousands of years before Classical Greece or Rome came into existence. From before 3,000 BC to around 1,100 BC, the Minoans built a peaceful maritime empire the likes of which the world had never seen before, and with art and cultural aspects, that have never been seen since.
One trip to Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum by a historian/analyst friend of mine from Germany last summer, proved to me once and for all that very few people understand the immense importance of Knossos and these other heritage heirlooms. Holger Eekhof, who’s from Germany’s oldest city, the former northern capital of the Roman Empire, Treves, commented during our visit to the museum:
“Phil, it’s unbelievable, the richness and vastness of this heritage. What they’ve unearthed and preserved here, is one of humanity’s greatest epochs.”
My wife Mihaela (Mig), who’s one of the most prolific travel writers in the world commented from our office after the shopkeeper, registered her own disbelief that a site like the Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct) could be declared a heritage treasure at the same time a Minoan palace founded eons of time before crumbles to dust before our eyes. To call the situation a travesty, is just too mild a criticism. Currently, there are only 18 UNESCO sites in all of Greece, and not one of the Minoan palaces are among them. As for Knossos, this majestic site was turned down in 2009 over creative restorations done by the legendary archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, and because UNESCO claimed that there was noise pollution in the area. Read on, and discover the ridiculousness of this latter claim.
Questionable UNESCO Values
It seems as if logic would prevail in all these UNESCO listings, but no simple logic seems in use for me. Take the Völklingen Ironworks in Germany’s Saarland region, for instance. Founded in 1881, the Saarland metalworks were named UNESCO treasure back in 1994. This tribute to German industriousness and metalworking lore, and for being the only intact integrated mill in America or Europe from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are several reasons I chose these ironworks here. First and foremost, UNESCO has funded and supports this dilapidated steel mill for its amazing contribution to human heritage, at the same time the unrivaled (British School at Athens Studies) Bronze Age metallurgical geniuses in Minoan forges are forgotten because of lack of funding.
Metallurgical art that cannot even be reproduced today sits in exhibits in Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum, and UNESCO is helping Germany preserve rusty blast furnaces in Völklingen for future generations to learn of modern industrial might. Please forgive the sarcasm, but this is the rarest form of madness. Read this UNESCO report in PDF form, should you doubt me. I will leave it to those imbued with an investigative sense to figure out why a German environmental disaster was converted into a tourist attraction. For those of us worried true world heritage is being ignored, let me continue.
The aforementioned German steel mill at Völklingen was nominated for UNESCO inclusion September 15th of 1993. A few months later the site was made a UNESCO treasure, an infrastructure set up, funding arranged, employees hired, and not long afterward tickets went on sale. I refuse to get into the past ownership of this steel mill and the Nazi past here. It does, however, exist even according to Der Spiegel Online. My point is clear here. Months after the Germans submit a bio-hazard they needed to be cleaned up as a UNESCO treasure, the site was well on its way to being a metalworking Disneyland.
Meanwhile, the civilization that had the most to do with iconic culture for Europe still takes a back seat to politicized funding requests. The Knossos palace application was submitted over 5 years ago! Yes, you read all of this correctly. Dr. Igoumenidis should have an army of concerned citizens at his back marching on Paris and UNESCO headquarters. Outrage, this is what all Greeks and anyone who cares about our legacy should feel. My words cannot be harsh enough.
The Danger We Face
Since moving here to Crete, I’ve discovered more unprotected and uncovered heritage than that which exists in the whole of my own country in America. What we consider UNESCO treasures there, pales in comparison to the tapestry of human culture that exists above and below ground here on Crete. A 5,000-year-old palace in a valley might go undetected, while somebody gets a wood framed house in my hometown of Charleston, SC approved as a “treasure.” The point is, the relativity is askew. I can give dozens of examples beyond the clear “business” shown with the Völklingen Ironworks case. In that one, the Germans were clearly optimizing their economics, as per usual. They even proclaimed the preservation of the Fatherland’s steel albatross as their legal duty before UNESCO even received the nomination. I must stop here, my investigation into this is becoming a horror story of politicized business machinations disguised as cultural preservation.
As I write this, the islet of Spinalonga, in northeastern Crete, will officially be competing for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list, according to the Greek Culture Ministry. What no one but MP Nikos Igoumenidis seems to be pointing out is, the whole island of Crete should probably be submitted as a UNESCO site. I was at the lost Palace of Galatas (above) just last week, an archaeological discovery only found by chance just 20 odd years ago. In Monastiraki in the Amari Valley, another palace of undiscovered importance gets excavated for a few weeks in a season – plot by cubic plot, grid by grid by a lone archaeologist with dedicated volunteers. At the ancient port Kommos on the Gulf of Messara, a rusty chain link fence is all the guards the mysteries of antiquity from destruction. What’s worse, amazing palaces, villas, even whole cities cannot be enjoyed by the world simply because we have not dedicated ourselves to their rediscovery and preservation.
UNESCO is supposed to see to this for humankind! By contrast, what’s really taking place is the ignorance of an entire civilization, not simply Knossos and the other palaces. While the EU struggles to “Europeanize” all of Greece, the origins of Europe’s vibrant culture are being reburied. This is my view.
Someone, a whole group of someone(s) are doing a very, very bad job. Knossos, at the very least, should have been made a UNESCO treasure the day the organization’s constitution was ratified. There was certainly no noise pollution back then. UNESCO is in Europe, and Knossos is Europe’s oldest palatial treasure (so far). In Central Europe, business and the politicians vote to preserve what needs bulldozing, while Knossos or Galatas sinks into the ever after for lack of proper funding and attention. How is this even possible? This is my question for all the ministers and politicians out there.