06 January 2001

The Crete of Kazantzakis

The grave of Kazantzakis. It bears the pithy epitaph: “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Crete’s main airport lies to the east of the island’s capital Iraklion, well-positioned to whisk tourists further east to the popular resorts of Hersonnisos, Piskopiano, Malia and Aghios Nikholaos. Few return to explore the “Little Athens” of Crete, with its narrow streets and open markets, and their enchanting mix of Byzantine churches, fortified Venetian gates and walls, Ottoman minarets and fountains. This is the city whose museum houses the greatest collection of Minoan artefacts, where El Greco was first schooled in icon painting, and that inspired Greece’s greatest modern writer, Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957).

In the West, Kazantzakis is best remembered for Zorba the Greek (1946) or, perhaps, The Last Temptation. But for Cretans, his outstanding works are his autobiographical but posthumous Report to Greco (1960) or Freedom and Death (1946), set in Iraklion during the struggle against Ottoman oppression. Freedom and Death first appeared in Greek as Captain Michailis, and the eponymous hero is the author’s own father. The characters are the people of 19th-century Iraklion, the settings are its streets, churches, fountains, mosques, and houses. His own epic version of the Odyssey occupied Kazantzakis for 10 years. His novels included Christ Recrucified, The Fratricides, and the fictionalised biography of Francis of Assisi, The Poor Man of God. But his work also included poems, plays, travel books, encyclopaedia articles, journalism, translations, school textbooks and a dictionary.

Educated in Athens and Paris, in his later years, Kazantzakis was banned from entering Greece for long periods, and died in exile in Germany on October 27th, 1957. When his body was brought back from Freiburg, the Greek Orthodox Church refused to allow any priests to provide rites or ceremonies in Athens, and western writers often claim he was denied an Orthodox burial because of his unorthodox views, or because of The Last Temptation. But Aristotle Onassis provided a plane to take the coffin to Iraklion, and Kazantzakis laid in state in the Cathedral of Aghios Minas. Those who came to pay tribute were the Archbishop of Crete and the resistance leader and future prime minister, George Papandreou.

Manolis Chrisakis, the proprietor of Mika Villas, a popular destination in Piskopiano for Irish tourists, denies his great-uncle was ever excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church, and insists he was never disowned by the Church of Crete, which is semi-independent under the Patriarch of Constantinople. Family photographs of the funeral on November 5th show Orthodox priests mingling with men dressed like Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight as the coffin was paraded through the thronged narrow streets of Iraklion up to the city walls. A year later, a priest led the traditional family prayers at the graveside on the southernmost bastion, built by the Venetians in the 16th century.

Peter Bien of Dartmouth, who translated many of the novels, once wondered whether Kazantzakis would be read 50 years after his death. Although he never received the Nobel Prize, Kazantzakis is still hailed by Greeks as a literary giant of the 20th century. At Mirtia near Knossos, the country mansion once owned by Captain Michailis now houses the Kazantzakis Museum.

These days, many Iraklians gather on the Martinengo Bastion at the weekend to get a free view of the football stadium below, and to pay their respects at the tomb of Kazantzakis. Here one can look north across the city out to the deep blue of the Mediterranean, or south towards Mount Juktas, described in all its beauty in the opening scenes of Zorba. The mountain ridge looks like a sleeping man - transformed by Cretan lore into the dead Zeus and giving rise to the classical Greek slur that all Cretans are liars. Kazantzakis inherited the islanders' healthy scepticism towards religious and political dogmas. His tomb is marked only by a simple wooden cross framed by a flowering hedge and an undecorated gravestone with the pithy epitaph: “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free”.

This feature was first published in The Irish Times on Saturday 6 January 2001

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