Long after an unusually-hilarious experience at the Minoan Palace of Knossos, we (humbly) learned that a little bit of homework before our trip would have gone a long way.
There’s something to be said for the concept of blind travel. Visiting a new place without prior knowledge or preconceived notions can lead to wonderful experiences. Yet while this approach is certainly one free-spirited way of inviting the unexpected, it can also be a bit risky. This holds true even more so, when visiting sites of historical, cultural or religious sensitivity: places of worship, cemeteries, battlegrounds, or in this case, archaeological reconstructions.
Greece’s #2 archaeological tourist attraction
Whether you’re interested in history, archaeology or Greek mythology, you’re sure to find some fascination while exploring the Minoan Palace of Knossos on Crete.
But there’s a shadowy backdrop to these ancient ruins. One that is steeped in controversy, claims of historical inaccuracy, and a mysterious shroud of uncertainty.
Admittedly, we were not well-prepared for our visit to Knossos. Aside from a few flashbacks to high school history class, all we knew was that a visit to Crete wouldn’t be complete without seeing this storied archaeological site firsthand.
It wasn’t until long after our visit—while doing some Knossos fact-gathering for our “best time to visit” travel guide—that we finally started to dig in and uncover some of this controversy.
This post-mortem research resulted in 2 things:
- Humbling self-reflection
On a foreign stage, sometimes just being aware that there are things to be aware of, can make a big difference.
Blissful ignorance at the Minoan Palace of Knossos
Apart from visiting at the worst possible time of day during the worst possible month of the year, we had a positive experience at the Minoan Palace of Knossos. We didn’t pass out from the heat. We learned a lot. And we had fun (probably too much fun, we now realize).
For 90 minutes, we navigated the entirety of the ancient ruins, on our own self-guided tour. Like many visitors, we stopped at each of the site’s 22 featured landmarks, looked around, soaked it all in, and took a moment to read the info placards, which offer short explanations about each landmark in both English and Greek.
But after the first 3 info placards, a recurring theme stood out to us. Something about the writing. Subtle at first, but after enough repetition, glaringly obvious.
At first, it kept us scratching our heads. Soon, it had us laughing hysterically.
What’s so funny?
The theme: on every info placard, at least one part of the explanation seems to either contradict itself, or partially discredit the man to whom all credit is being given (some “Sir Arthur Evans” guy).
Here are a few examples:
Call it immaturity. Call it heat-induced delirium. Whatever it was during that hot afternoon in July, we simply found this hilarious—reading sign after sign after sign that said one thing in one breath, then in the next, gently suggested the opposite.
After a bit of early trial and error, we hit our stride, and the jokes started flowing naturally:
Man, I’m thirsty.
Are you? Or are you really overly-hydrated?!
I don’t know…but let me know if you see a bathroom, OK?
How ’bout those aqueducts? They could be considered bathrooms, can’t they? Or can they…?!
We did feel badly for Evans though. Whoever put this signage together was clearly not a fan of his. Seems like everything he believed, claimed, or did is contradicted or met with an underlying degree of skepticism. A few aren’t even that subtle. And it’s all in writing!
How many people come here each year? Almost 700,000? Below the belt!
So, seriously: what’s the story with Evans?
Time to do some homework
Fast forward to travel guide research time. We begin searching things like “Knossos controversy” and “confusing info signs Knossos.”
A few clicks later, we come across this slide:
After the laughter subsided, our research continued.
There really was something to the second-guessing & skepticism we sensed within the signage!
Here’s what we would have learned…had we done our homework ahead of time.
The Minoan Palace of Knossos: 4000 years of history
Knossos was once the center of the ancient Minoan civilization—a civilization considered by many to be the oldest in Europe. It’s roughly 4000 years old, and it’s the largest Bronze Age archaeological site in the world. During its height, the palatial complex was home to over 100,000 people.
There are conflicting accounts surrounding the downfall of the Minoans and the destruction of Knossos. However, most believe it was around 1450 BC—over 3500 years ago.
Then, in the early 1900’s, an English archaeologist named Sir Arthur Evans led the discovery, excavation and reconstruction of Knossos.
Sir Arthur Evans: 120 years of controversy
Like him or not, Evans is recognized as the driving force behind the site’s modern-day restoration. He’s even credited with naming the civilization Minoan (so called, after the Cretan King Minos; son of the Greek God Zeus).
The Knossos controversy is many-fold, starting with the timing and manner in which Evans acquired the site. Some believe he took advantage of a climate of unrest & instability in Greece; one that included Ottoman occupation, war, and religious infighting between Christians and Muslims.
Others claim the purchase was orchestrated via a dishonest financial loophole. Evans was aware that the landowners wouldn’t sell the property to individuals—but they would sell to a fund—so he created the Cretan Exploration Fund to close the deal. Allegedly, he just failed to disclose that he was the sole contributor (ahem: individual).
While some praise Evans for his boldness in bringing the 4000-year-old archaeological masterpiece back to life, others criticize his brazen misuse of creative license. A commonly-cited example is Evans’ commissioning of a pair of Swiss artists to repaint the Throne Room. The result: walls covered in frescoes with arguably no archaeological basis, nor any connection to other Minoan artifacts. To his harshest critics, this is a step beyond historical inaccuracy; it borders on sacrilege.
Herein lies the core of the Knossos controversy: not so much that its present-day construction is a disputed interpretation of the past, but that a significant piece of its history has been written by a foreigner, sometimes without regard for historical accuracy.
Is ignorance really bliss?
With all of that in mind, let’s get back to our lighthearted frolic around Crete’s touristic hotbed of archaeological controversy.
Are we culturally-insensitive people? Absolutely not.
Did we appear culturally insensitive, cracking jokes and laughing our way through what we now understand to be an important historical site shrouded in controversy? Yes, we probably did.
One could argue that lack of preparation actually contributed to our overall positive experience. There’s no question that we laughed a hell of a lot more than the 1000 other tourists we rubbed elbows with that day.
But in hindsight, we realize the seemingly-ironic info that fueled our amusement is a point of contention for others; one that likely incites feelings of frustration or anger.
The lesser of 2 evils?
Is the Minoan Palace of Knossos better off restored with a bit of off-the-mark creative license? Or, better off never excavated at all?
What about the legacy of the Minoans, and how their civilization has been permanently depicted on their walls, creatively reconstructed by a foreigner?
Some may be of the opinion that “creative license” is better suited for artists & musicians than historians & archaeologists.
Those same people might argue that historians & archaeologists are better suited to write articles about history & archaeology than questionably-credentialed travel writers.
There are 2 sides to every story, and in this case, we still don’t know enough to take one side or the other. But what we do know now—and what we did not know during our visit—is simply that those 2 sides exist. Had we been aware prior to our self-guided tour of Knossos, we probably would have behaved differently.
Before your trip, learn about your destination
The country…the city…its people…their language…any cultural sensitivities or faux-pas.
For a traveler, even the slightest degree of awareness can go a long way. You’ll never be judged for lack of expertise, but you’re almost always better off not being completely clueless.
If you’re planning to visit a Buddhist Temple in Thailand, and you don’t know all the rules, that’s perfectly OK. Still, it’s good to know that certain rules do exist. Stand back, observe others, and behave accordingly. If you see others taking their shoes off before entering the temple, follow suit. And if you’re unsure—which you most certainly will be at times—smile and ask.
How you present yourself in public—particularly on a foreign stage—is not only representative of you, but of where you come from.
Be an ambassador for your country rather than making an ass-out-of-yourself.
There are no foreign lands; it is the traveler only who is foreign.
— Robert Louis Stevenson
We hope you enjoy your trip to the incredible island of Crete, and all of its breathtaking destinations.
If you’re not the Fjallraven-pack, Lonely-Planet-in-the-back type of traveler, just open a new window on your iPhone (80% chance it’s already in your hand), and check out our complete guide to planning the perfect day trip to the Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Or, skip the guide, and do as Sir Arthur Evans would do: show up clueless and just kinda make things up as you go along!
PS — Fjallraven-pack, Lonely-Planet-in-the-back © 2019 travelhelix.