Wednesday, 25 August 2004

Translating a Greek icon

Inspiration; Yannis Ritsos, left, with Amy Mims, who spent 12 years translating his last major work into English

Having brought Yannis Ritsos to English speakers, his translator is now taking Kavanagh to Greece, writes Patrick Comerford

Amy Mims, an award-winning poet and translator, is proud of her descent from the O’Sullivans of Castletown Bere, in Co Cork. Having lived in Greece for more than four decades, she now feels Greek. But having devoted much of her working life to introducing Yannis Ritsos, the great Greek poet of the left, to English-speaking readers, she is now introducing Patrick Kavanagh to her adopted home.

Mims met Kavanagh on her very first day in Ireland, in 1957. On later visits she went with Kavanagh and John Ryan, the friend and supporter of many literary figures, to Newgrange, where they made comparisons with Knossos and the Minoan civilisation of ancient Crete. Studies in classical Greek at Harvard, followed by Byzantine and modern Greek studies at Oxford, led to a Fulbright scholarship in 1958 to study medieval Greece. Having chosen to stay in Greece, she now describes herself as “Greek by identity”.

She has published four translations of Nikos Kazantzakis – author of Zorba The Greek and The Last Temptation Of Christ -- innumerable versions of contemporary Greek playwrights and poets, and her own poetry and essays. She has been good friends with Leonard Cohen since they first met on the island of Hydra, but her literary and artistic Greek friends have included the composer Mikis Theodorakis and, of course, Ritsos.

Like many creative Greeks, she was forced into exile under the colonels, first to Paris, where the Greek exiles included Vassilis Vassilikos, author of Z, followed by “18 ghastly months in London” and travels in Cyprus and Crete and among the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea.

Ritsos (1909-1990) paid for his political commitment with long periods of internment and internal exile under the post-war right-wing regime and under the colonels. His epic poem Epitaphios became the anthem of resistance to the colonels, while Romiosini made the resistance movement the natural heir to the heroes of Greek mythology. Both were set to music and arranged by Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis.

Ritsos was hailed by Aragon as the greatest poet of his time; Pablo Neruda thought Ritsos better qualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mims first met him in Cyprus in 1973, then spent the next 30 years making his works available to an English-reading audience.

Her translation of Ritsos’s nine-volume Iconostasis Of Anonymous Saints was a 12-year labour of love on his last major work, the one he considered his freest and finest ever; it led to her three-volume collection from the leading Greek publisher Kedros (1996-2001). Now a new complementary bilingual work, Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, offers readers in both languages a companion for the journey through the Joycean passageways of her translation of Ritsos’s swansong.

The iconostasis is the screen decorated with icons of saints that traditionally separates the altar from the main body of a Greek church. For Ritsos, the anonymous saints he needed to remember in his prayers and to keep the oil lamp of his heart burning before are not the traditional saints of Orthodoxy but the everyday “anonymous saints” from his neighbourhood in old Athens, members of his large family, the simple inhabitants of his home town of Monemvasia, his tragicomic aunts, unassuming political prisoners sharing internal exile on a lonely island and a close-knit band of friends.

All these “anonymous saints” are skilfully counterpointed with the hero, Ion, who is Ritsos, and his alter ego, Ariostos, and woven into a dreamlike tapestry of reminiscences, vivid memories from childhood, reflections on modern Greek history and politics, introspective confessions and surrealist dreams. Although a quarter of the size, it has been compared with Proust’Remembrance Of Things Past.

Although the Times Literary Supplement described Mims’s translation as a “wild and fascinating work”, the Iconostasis received little attention from the Greek literary world and has yet to attract a wider readership. Her translation has been praised by Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, as “a marvellously diverse and rich work” of “sheer beauty, individuality and humour”, a “masterpiece that remains always inexhaustible” and a commonplace Odyssey of “the world’s little people”. Theodorakis believes Ritsos Of The Iconostasis “should be read by all who love the work of Ritsos”.

In Ritsos Of The Iconostasis, Mims finds similarities between Ritsos’s style and that of James Joyce in Ulysses. “Ritsos’s Iconostasis is embellished with an almost Joycean richness of words,” she says, “including outrageous puns, unprecedented though ineffably ‘poetic’ erotica and miraculous flights of language.” Although Joyce’s Ulysses is often compared to Kazantzakis’s sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, she prefers to compare Joyce and Ritsos.

She describes Ulysses as an expression of the “miraculous kinship” between Ireland and Greece, and believes Joyce and Ritsos would have enjoyed each other’s company. She speaks of Joyce “the Ulyssean” and Ritsos “the Odyssean” as “kindred spirits from two opposite poles of Europe”, yet “two writers with certain essential points in common”.

She sees parallels between Joyce and Ritsos in their tremendous variety of styles, the plethora of puns and use of invented words, games with names, superb passages where only the music of sound plays a role, the use of onomatopoetic words appearing as single sounds, the occasional obsession with bodily functions or misfunctions not usually discussed in polite company, and “the aura of ‘poetic obscenity’ … almost always transforming even the rawest sexual scenes into poetry.

“Molly Bloom’s monologue, with her allusions to her sexual life at the end of Ulysses, is transcended and transmuted into a marvellous paean to nature. Ritsos does the same thing. Wherever he has a particularly raw section, it is almost always followed by a lyrical outburst of unparalleled beauty. One of the main motives in my writing the companion was to help dissolve the prejudice against what many people have called the obscenity in the Iconostasis”.

Even Ritsos’s allusions to the Orthodox liturgy parallel Joyce’s outrageous quotations from the Latin Mass. Yet, unlike many critics, she praises Ritsos for “his deep religious themes”. “Many people think that for a Marxist this is impossible”" she admits. However, she insists “he did indeed believe in God and, above all, in the power of love”.

Ritsos’s epic Epitaphios, drawing on the imagery of the Good Friday rituals in the Greek Orthodox tradition, became the anthem of resistance to the colonels in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite its unique place in modern Greek literature, Epitaphios has never been fully translated into English. Mims translated eight of the 20 cantos for MBI’s recording, in 2000, of Epitaphios, but she admits the “translation of 15-syllable Greek verse can never really be at an end” and concedes she is still unhappy with the final work.

Now she is returning to her Irish roots, translating Yeats and Kavanagh into Greek. Having translated The Great Hunger and The Green Fool during two previous visits, she returned to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the artists’ retreat in Annaghmakerrig, for a third visit earlier this year and continues to work on translating a selection of 28 of his shorter poems. She has persuaded Macdara Woods to write an introduction and hopes the Athens publisher Odos Panos will eventually publish her translations of Kavanagh.

This quarter-page feature was first published on the Arts pages of ‘The Irish Times’ on 25 August 2014

Wednesday, 18 August 2004

The ancient
Greeks are
speaking to us
across the ages

Homer’s wooden horse in a scene from the film Troy. Some feel that the terrors of the modern era and the war in Iraq have set the stage for a return of Greek tragedy and its continuing lessons for us

The Olympic Games and the success of the movie Troy are inspiring fresh debates about the relevance and value of the classics, writes Patrick Comerford

Wolfgang Petersen’s epic treatment of the Trojan war in takes many liberties with Homer's story. However, after a family viewing, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were dusted down, and Homer became popular reading once more for my two teenage sons, testimony to the continuing power of the classics to stir the imagination.

The Olympic Games have returned home to Greece this month for the first time since 1896 and I am reminded that an important component of the original Olympic tradition was a ceasefire in all conflicts throughout the known world, a tradition now more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Apart from the Olympic hype and the Greek success in Euro 2004, some Greeks were also captivated this summer by the success of The Trojan Women at the Epidaurus Festival, which was marking its 50th anniversary.

If Troy is based on the ultimate war story, then Euripides’s The Trojan Women is one of the greatest anti-war plays, and the critics hailed the Diadromi Theatre production as “majestic yet appropriate for a modern audience”.

The play deals with the imperious Greeks’ brutal treatment of the women of Troy following the Trojan War.

In this compelling tragedy, Euripides shows that in wars the victors often become dehumanised and that the winners in all eras are arrogant. After the Greeks have bullied their way to victory, a young girl is sacrificed to a ghost and an innocent infant is dashed to its death.

The Trojan Women, which finishes its summer tour in Athens next month, was also staged this summer, appropriately, in Troy. There were no fears that the message would be lost on a Turkish audience. “This is an honest play that praises the Trojans’ morals,” said the translator Costas Georgousopoulos, who pointed out that in this tragedy Euripides trivialises the Homeric heroes. To use a Greek play that criticises Homeric values, that points out the immoral politics in Greece during the Trojan wars, and that praises the Trojans is a positive gesture as the political authorities in both Greece and Turkey struggle to find new ways to be good neighbours after generations of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Euripides lived through Athens’ debilitating war against Sparta and eight of his 19 surviving plays deal with the disastrous political and social consequences of the conflict. In The Trojan Women, he presents the tragic fate of the women of Troy who are waiting to be handed over as slaves to their new Greek masters after the sacking of the city.

It challenges the false heroics that were perpetuated in the Homeric tradition – and that are uncritically represented in the film Troy. However, while The Trojan Women appears on the surface to be dealing with Homeric themes, the first audiences must have had a sense of déja vu as they realised that Euripides was demolishing mythology to criticise tragic deeds perpetrated a short while before on the island of Milos during the Peloponnesian War.

Georgousopoulos reminded his audience in Epidaurus that the play was first staged in Athens shortly after the Athenians destroyed Milos. The islanders, who had a tradition of friendship with Sparta, rejected Athens’ demand for a contribution of men or money for the war. But the Athenians were having none of this special pleading – the warning to small states that “you are either with me or against me” is a declaration that has been heard once again with tragic consequences recently.

The Athenians attacked Milos, put to death all male inhabitants, sold the women and children into slavery, and colonised the island, and Euripides’ criticism of a colonial military effort to expand power is clear in The Trojan Women. One of the timeless morals of the play is the corrupting effect that war has on its victors.

Another tragedy by Euripides, Hecuba, is being staged in London next month and in Stratford-on-Avon in January. At one level, Hecuba is a character study of Priam’s widowed queen, driven to murderous vengeance by her suffering. But according to director Jonathan Kent the play is also “one of the most savage indictments of war ever written”.

In Hecuba, both victors, Agamemnon and Odysseus, refuse to consider seriously the ex-queen’s human rights. But Euripides argues that if the justice owed to individuals is sacrificed to political expediency, society will soon disintegrate – a timely reminder to the world in the light of recent revelations about the treatment of captives in Iraqi prisons.

In Iphigenia at Aulis, written 16 years after Hecuba, Euripides took a cynical and satirical look at the actions of public figures.

It was written at a time when he was losing faith in political leaders and realised their inability to extricate themselves from an interminable war.

The Greek critic Spyros Payiatakis reviewed The Trojan Women for the Athens daily, Kathimerini. As he was leaving the theatre at Epidaurus, he overheard someone exclaim: “If Euripides was alive now, he would be suffering from déja vu” – the reference to Iraq was “more than obvious”. At the same time, the drama critic Michael Billington was writing in the Guardian of how the “terror of modern times” has set “the stage for Greek tragedy”.

Billington also saw the current series of revivals on the British stage as “a direct response to the Iraq war” and the tragedy in the Middle East. They include Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, adapted from Trachiniae by Sophocles, and three plays by Euripides – Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, and the two revivals of Hecuba.

Of course Greek tragedy is timeless, a permanent part of Western culture. As Crimp recently declared: “Every writer writes/rewrites the Greeks in his or her own image.” But directors have also discovered a metaphor for our own times in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Crimp’s own adaptation of Sophocles is set in a world where cities are pulverised, liberators become aggressors and violence is justified in terms of expedience. “If you want to root out terror there is only one rule: kill,” says a government minister.

“Coming at a time when even an independent US commission has denied the Bush regime’s linkage of Saddam Hussein’s regime to al-Qaeda, the words have an ominous ring,” Billington observes. But in the end, he says, “it is the Greek understanding of the human consequences of war and the gulf between public rhetoric and private feeling that makes these plays seem shockingly relevant to our own divided world”.

Rev Patrick Comerford is Regional Co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland).

This half-page feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 August 2004.

Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Keeping the past of a maritime republic alive

Letter from Venice
Patrick Comerford

The “Queen of the Adriatic” is a city of over 100 islands and 400 or more bridges. But few visitors give themselves a chance to get lost in its narrow alleyways or to discover the unique and colourful minorities that have been part of Venetian life for centuries.

Jews have lived and traded in Venice since 1381. In 1516 they were forced to live in the New Foundry or Ghetto Nuovo, a tiny island still linked by three small bridges to the rest of Venice. But by then their numbers were being swollen by new arrivals from Spain and Portugal, from central Europe, and from Greece and Turkey. Europe’s first Ghetto was soon too small for the Jewish community, which spilled out into the neighbouring Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovissimo, and Napoleon tore down the walls and gates of the Ghetto in 1797.

About 200 Venetian Jews were deported to the death camps in 1943-1944, and only eight returned. But today there are about 400 Jews in Venice, including 80 or so in the Ghetto, their numbers boosted in recent years with the arrival from Rome and New York of enthusiastic, pious Hasidic Jews. Four synagogues remain open in the Ghetto area: the Scola Tedesca and the Scola al Canton, built by German and French Jews between 1528 and 1531, are virtual museums. But the Scola Spagnola, built by Spanish Jews at the same time, still alternates Saturday services with the Scola Levantina, built by Greek Jews in 1538, complete with a hip-level screen inspired by the iconostasis or icon-screen of Greek churches.

A significant Greek community has lived close to Ponte dei Greci (the Bridge of the Greeks) since the 11th century, when the first Greek artisans arrived to decorate Saint Mark's Basilica and many of the early churches of Venice. They expanded significantly with the influx of refugees following the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453. The church of San Giorgio dei Greci, with its leaning belltower, was built at a cost of 15,000 gold ducats between 1539 and 1573, and the vivid iconostasis or icon screen was painted by Michael Damaskinos, the greatest Cretan iconographer of the day and a contemporary of El Greco.

As the Serene Republic lost its Greek colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, Greeks continued to flood into Venice, and their presence helped to spread classical culture throughout Europe. A whole Greek neighbourhood took shape around the church on the banks of the Rio dei Greci, and at its peak the Greek community numbered 15,000 people. But Napoleon's abolition of the Republic of Venice in 1797 marked the beginning of the decline of this prosperous community as their assets and church treasures were confiscated. However, a convent of Greek nuns and their girls' school survived until 1834, and until 1905 the Greek College provided Greek communities in the Ottoman territories with educated priests and teachers.

Despite their decline in recent generations, the small Greek community continues in Venice. The Collegio Flangini now houses the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, a museum in the former Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci displays a unique collection of icons, and San Giorgio dei Greci has become a cathedral, with an archbishop living in the old palace.

Close to Saint Mark's, the Calle degli Armeni is in the heart of the old Armenian quarter. By the end of the 13th century, the Armenian community had a secure presence in Venice, finding their niche as tradesmen and moneylenders. The church of Santa Croce degli Armeni was founded in 1496 and the procurators of Saint Mark paid annual visits in recognition of the "well-deserving and most-favoured Armenian nation." The city's best-hidden church is now locked except for Sunday services, and the most conspicuous Armenian presence is out on the lagoon on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where a monastery was founded on the former leper colony in 1717 by a group of Armenian monks expelled from the Morea in Greece by the Ottoman Turks.

The monks of San Lazzaro survived Napoleon's confiscations because of an indispensable Armenian in the imperial secretariat. Byron spent six months here, learning classical Armenian and compiling a dictionary. But, despite the proximity of the Lido, the monks are virtually undisturbed by visitors. On the afternoon I arrived, only half a dozen others got off the vaporetto. As he took me around the library with its 200,000 precious manuscripts and books, the museum with its Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy, and the gallery of Armenian paintings, Father Vartanes explained that there are only eight Armenian monks left on San Lazzaro and no more than 10 Armenian families in Venice.

When evening falls and the tourists leave Venice, the dwindling numbers of Jews in the Ghetto, the Armenian monks on San Lazzaro and the remaining Greeks of San Giorgio are left alone once again.

The proportion of native Venetians who live here continues to decline rapidly as wealthy Italians from Milan and Turin snap up properties on the market. Even the Venetians are becoming a minority in their own city.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 17 August 2004 (p. 7)

Saturday, 19 June 2004

Cautious welcome
to Holy Mountain

About Us

Cautious welcome
to Holy Mountain

Scenes of Mount Athos: the wildlife and beaches remain unspoiled ...

... small hermitages and monasteries are almost hidden in the landscape (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

The monks of the theocratic republic of Mount Athos resolutely defend their isolation – and the complete exclusion of women, writes Patrick Comerford

Mount Athos, in eastern Macedonia, is one of the most isolated parts of Greece, and reaching the peninsula is difficult, even for the most determined pilgrims. There is no direct road access from the Greek mainland and there are strict limitations on who can board the two ferries that ply daily from the small ports of Ouranóupoli and Ierissós to the coastline of this monastic mountain.

The monks of Mount Athos robustly defend their isolation and autonomy, and the number of arrivals is strictly limited each day. Most visitors may stay for only three or four days, and non-Orthodox visitors must demonstrate a genuine interest in Orthodoxy, theology or Byzantine studies before receiving a special permit. Known to Greeks as Ághion Óros, or the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos is a monks’ republic whose autonomy has been guaranteed for generations and is written into Greek constitutional law. Since 1926, Mount Athos has had the unique status of a theocratic republic, with its own government, elected by the 20 monasteries on the mountain.

There are no roads connecting the Holy Mountain with the rest of Greece, ensuring its continuing isolation. Sailing from Ouranóupoli or Ierissós, visitors have a feeling of leaving the world behind. Visas and passports are checked thoroughly before the two-hour journey, and large signs at both ports warn visitors to Mount Athos that the entrance of women and the approach of visitors and crafts without special permits are “entirely forbidden”, and that “any violation” of these prohibitions “involves serious penal sanctions”.

Since 1060, when the Byzantine emperor, Constantine IX, issued a decree banning women from living on or even visiting the peninsula, the population of Mount Athos has been exclusively male. The ban extends even to female animals – with the single exception of cats, which are needed to control rodents. Isolation has its benefits: because tourism and industry have made no inroads, the ecosystem and wildlife of Mount Athos are unspoiled. There are few paved roads, just a handful of trucks and buses, and no electricity pylons or telegraph poles. Beaches that any travel brochure would boast of have not been blighted by beach bars, banana boats or sunbathers.

At Vatopedi, the feeling is of a traditional Greek village ...

... (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Each of the 20 monasteries on Mount Athos has its own atmosphere and ethos, and the peninsula is speckled with smaller monastic dependencies, small houses and solitary hermitages. Although 20,000 monks were living on the Holy Mountain in its heyday, monastic life reached its lowest level in the 1960s, when numbers dropped to barely 1,000. In the past decade, however, there has been a dramatic revival, so that today there are more than 2,000 monks, with new young novices arriving in large numbers at monasteries such as Simonopetra, Philotheou and Vatopedi, along with a growing number of pilgrims.

This revival is hard to imagine at Esphigmenous, where even Orthodox visitors find anything but a warm welcome. At the strictest foundation on Athos, the monks have revolted against the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople because of his ecumenical reputation, and daring monks have hung out a banner greeting visitors with the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death”.

By contrast, Vatopedi, a three-hour walk away, is Athos’s most welcoming monastery. Once described by Osbert Lancaster as “the Christ Church of Athos”, Vatopedi is like an intimate, hospitable Greek village with its cobbled courtyard, cascading buildings, hanging balconies and gently ageing belltowers and fountains. Vatopedi was facing serious decline a decade ago but has recently doubled its numbers to 90 monks, making it one of the fastest-growing monasteries on the peninsula – a revival which has confounded those who predicted that monastic life on the mountain was in terminal decline.

At Vatopedi, pilgrims are welcomed ...

... by Abbot Ephraim, one of the leading figures in the revival of the monastic tradition (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

The welcome at Vatopedi is an exuberant expression of traditional Greek hospitality. Guests are warmly greeted by the guestmaster with a glass of raki and large dollops of loukoúmi – known to most Irish people, unfairly, as “Turkish delight” – and any efforts to pay for bed and board are politely spurned. At some monasteries, the monks are said to leave visitors standing in the rain outside the main church and the refectory and send them packing early in the morning. But at Vatopedi, pilgrims are welcome to take part in the liturgy with the monks and invited to dine with them in the refectory.

Staying at a monastery is no easy escape from the secular world. The monks follow the Julian calendar, which is a fortnight behind the rest of the world, and the clocks keep an eccentric Byzantine time - although the monks' wristwatches are more worldly. Each morning I was woken at 3 a.m. by the call that “Christ is Risen” to join the monks for Morning Prayer, followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Only much later, at 7.30 a.m., is breakfast served: generous portions of cheese, bread, olives, beans, eggs, and even a glass of wine, as a monk reads from scripture and delivers a short homily.

As the monks pray and work during the day, pilgrims can easily find time to read, pray and be silent. The call to prayer comes again at 4 p.m. with Vespers, and later, after a simple dinner that bears a marked similarity to breakfast, the monastery’s relics and special icons are put on display. Without a hint of doubt, Father William, an American-born monk, points out portions of the True Cross, the girdle of the Virgin Mary entrusted to the apostle Thomas at her Dormition, the skull of St John Chrysostom, with a blackened ear still attached, and the skull of St Gregory Palamas, the 14th-century monk who became Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

During my stay, Greek businessmen taking their sons on their first pilgrimage questioned me about the ordination of women and the consecration of gay bishops. Villagers from Cyprus could not understand why a priest visiting the Holy Mountain was not wearing a cassock. A group of Romanian seminary students gently tried to convert me to Orthodoxy. There was a handful of Russians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians, and a small party of Greek-Americans. But everyone left me with time for prayer and solitude.

On the ferry back to Ouranóupoli, I gazed up at the onion domes and copper roofs of Panteleimon, the last Russian monastery on Mount Athos, but was starkly interrupted by a reminder of ugly reality from the outside world. A group of Serbs, who had visited Chilandar despite a devastating recent fire, wondered why the new Europe was forgetting their plight and failing to embrace Serbia. Mount Athos was no retreat from worldly politics.

A fountain inside a monastic courtyard in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Rev Patrick Comerford is southern regional co-ordinator of CMS Ireland, a Christian mission and development agency.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 19 June 2004.

Tuesday, 4 May 2004

Web’s literary pilgrims find
oasis in iconic desert monastery

Letter from Sinai
Patrick Comerford

Despite the rapid growth of tourism in Egypt and the development of resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, the Sinai Peninsula has long been a remote region. It takes six or seven hours to travel from Cairo to Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, and for generations the Sinai Desert remained the wilderness it must have been when the Children of Israel trekked through here for 40 years after they fled across the Red Sea.

Today, the Sinai Peninsula continues to command the spiritual awe of followers of the three main monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush and gave him the Ten Commandments, here Elijah hid in a crag in the rock, and here Muslims believe Muhammad was a visiting trader prior to the beginnings of Islam, perhaps even visiting Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, dating to the fourth century, is the principal tourist attraction in the desert.

“We have three types of tourists visiting us,” the monastery’s abbot, Archbishop Damianos, recently told the Greek journal Odyssey. “There are the devout, there are art lovers who came to see our treasures, and then there are the worst kind – those who come because they consider a daytrip to Saint Catherine’s to be the cultural part of their beach holiday.”

For many visitors, the monastery is the starting point for a daunting three-hour climb to the 600-metre summit of Mount Sinai. The daily trek, led by Bedouin camel drivers, sets off before 3 a.m. so climbers on the rough, steep path are saved from the burning sun. Later in the day, the monastery is open to tourists only for 2½ hours, from 9.30 a.m. to noon, and remains closed on Fridays, Sundays, and all Greek Orthodox holidays.

Egypt was once the intellectual and spiritual powerhouse of the early church, and the dogmatic debates in Alexandria helped produce the Creeds. But Egypt also gave Christianity the Desert Fathers and the monastic tradition.

In this remote corner of the Christendom, the monks of Saint Catherine’s continue to value the desert silence but are also acquiring some of the benefits of 21st-century technology.

The most visible legacy of the Desert Fathers at Saint Catherine’s is a unique library and collection of icons, textiles and religious artefacts. The Icon Gallery includes rare sixth-century icons that survived the ravages of the iconoclast controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. The library includes 3,500 bound manuscripts, 2,000 scrolls and fragments, and more than 5,000 early printed books, of an age and linguistic diversity matched only by the Vatican Library.

In the monastery library, Father Justin explains that the most valued treasure was once the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the fourth century. It was “borrowed” in 1865 by a visiting German scholar, Constantin Tischendorf, who promptly presented it to the Tsar; Stalin sold it for £100,00 to Britain in 1933, and the codex now rests in the British Museum. Fifteen missing folios were found in the monastery’s north wall in 1975, leaving the monks with part of the oldest existing copy of the New Testament.

The library also proudly retains a copy of the achitames – a document with the imprint of Muhammad’s hand, guaranteeing Saint Catherine’s protection under Islamic rule. In AD 635, the monks of Mount Sinai sent a delegation asking for Muhammad’s patronage and protection. The request was granted and was honoured when the Muslims conquered the Sinai in 641. Later, in 1009, the mad Caliph al-Hakim built a mosque within the monastery walls, with an unusual qibla pointing towards Jerusalem rather than Mecca as the direction for prayer. The monks continue to keep open the only mosque to survive within the walls of a monastery, and Father Justin describes it as one of the “many examples of tolerance, respect and affection” between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

The monks admit they would find it difficult to survive without the support and kindness of their local Muslim neighbours. The local Bedouin, from the tiny Jabiliyya tribe, claim descent from 200 Greek soldiers brought by the Emperor Justinian from Alexandria and Thrace to fortify and guard the monastery in the sixth century.

Although they are Muslims, Father Justin says they join in many of the monastery festivals and look to the abbot, who is also Archbishop of Sinai, as their community leader, protector, judge, and even as their “grandfather”.

The Church of Sinai is the smallest self-governing Christian denomination in Egypt – its only members are Archbishop Damianos and his 25 monks, who have come mainly from Mount Athos and other parts of Greece.

But despite their long history and their tiny numbers, the monks are planning for the future of Saint Catherine’s. With the support of international donors, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Courtauld Institute in London, they are assessing the state of the library collection as part of a programme of refurbishment and conservation.

Father Justin points out that without this outside help, the resources of the monastery would have been overwhelmed by the task of safeguarding its treasures. The droves of tourists may disturb the morning peace of one of the most isolated monasteries in the world, but the west’s generosity has brought benefits too.

In the calm of the Sinai afternoon, Father Justin is busy digitising the ancient scrolls, manuscripts and books. “Our goal is to digitally reproduce the entire library,” he says without betraying any tiredness.

Once again, thousands of ancient manuscripts will be available to modern scholars, but this time without the threat of theft or misappropriation.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 4 May 2004

Thursday, 1 April 2004

Legacy of an
who loved
a Greek writer

Letter from Crete
Patrick Comerford

Crete is the island of myth and literature. It is the island of the Minotaur, El Greco and Theodorakis. And it the island of Nikos Kazantzakis, Greece’s most celebrated modern writer.

Kazantzakis was born in Iraklion in 1883. His works include translations of Homer, Aeschylus and Dante, the epic poem Odyssey, and the novels that earned him acclaim in the West, especially Zorba the Greek. By one vote, he lost the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus a few days before he died in 1957.

Manolis Chrysakis and his family are proud of their kinship with Kazantzakis. One balmy summer's evening with the Chrysakis family in Crete, Manolis’s uncle, the late Kostas Chrysakis, pored over old family photographs, postcards and letters, sharing childhood memories of his famous “Uncle Nikos”. Kostas treasured his photographs of his uncle's funeral, attended by older Cretans dressed in traditional island costumes, like Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight. The author’s grave is marked by a plain cross and the simple epitaph: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.”

In Report to Greco – an autobiographical novel edited by Eleni Kazantzakis and published four years after her husband’s death – Nikos Kazantzakis described falling in love with “an Irish girl” in the summer of 1902. She had arrived in Iraklion four years earlier as an English language teacher and they shared a love for music and poetry. “What joy when I began to saunter through English lyric poetry with this Irish girl! The language, its vowels and consonants, had become so many warbling birds,” he wrote.

Early one September morning, the couple climbed Mount Psilorítis, and he told a village priest they met that she was “the daughter of a pastor on a distant, verdant island”. As they talked, “the priest ... wagered that if the girl’s father had been with us, he would have converted him to Orthodoxy in one night.”

The pair separated the day before Kazantzakis left to study in Athens that autumn – he was 19 and she was 26. However, the Irish teacher’s identity remained a secret, even years later when he recounted the affair in Report to Greco. Kostas Chrysakis once told me his family knew about her but had no clues to her identity. The writer’s widow, Eleni, was aware of all her husband’s previous lovers and met many of them, but for most of her life she too never knew the identity of this Irish woman. Many researchers thought she was another Cretan myth, a romantic figure invented as a literary device by the writer himself.

Eleni’s goddaughter, Niki Stavrou of the Kazantzakis Foundation in Athens, also doubted whether she could ever establish her identify: “She seemed to me like a character drawn out of an Irish fairy tale, or at least an imagined dream-lover made up by the wishful imagination of a young author.” When Kazantzakis left Crete for Athens, his young Irish teacher “disappears a short while afterwards without leaving behind her the slightest trail. It sounded too magical to happen to anyone, even to a charmed spirit like Kazantzakis.” Now, however, new clues have identified this long-anonymous lover as Kathleen Forde, a rector’s daughter from Ireland. Niki’s father, Patroklos Stavrou, the adopted son of Eleni Kazantzakis, recently found notes this Irish woman sent to Kazantzakis and naming her as Kathleen Forde.

As he removed the notes tenderly from their protective wrapping, he said to his daughter: “If only we could find her!” At first, Niki’s search proved fruitless. “I am sure you can imagine how many Kathleen Fordes I found in Ireland.” Then an unexpected email arrived from Cathy Scaife in Western Canada, a descendant of Lewis Ogilby Forde, brother of a Kathleen Forde who was born in Ireland in 1876 and whose father was a Church of Ireland rector.

Kathleen left Crete soon after that tender summer, taking with her a secret she never revealed to her family. She followed her brothers to Canada before settling, around 1928 in California, where she may have found happiness in marriage to August Eberhardt. In an old family recipe box, Cathy Scaife found a recipe written by Kathleen and a little note with Christmas and New Year greetings to her brother Lewis and his wife Dorothy: “I find being married has done so much in settling me down and making me stick to things.” Comparing the handwriting with the notes found by Patroklos Stavrou, Greek police graphologists confirmed the handwriting was the same as that of Kazantzakis’s Kathleen.

Did Kathleen ever recover from her tempestuous affair with Nikos? “I can only imagine a young woman with a broken heart, having to hear people talk about him everywhere she went,” says Niki Stavrou. Kathleen died alone in a psychiatric hospital in Santa Cruz on October 8th, 1963. “Life can often outshine fiction in the most beautiful and tragic way,” says Niki.

For decades, Kathleen Forde’s identity had escaped me. Returning to the search, I found she was born on February 1st, 1876, in Kilcronaghan Rectory, Tobermore, Co Derry, the eldest daughter of Canon Hugh Forde (1847-1929). Unlike Kathleen’s Greek lover, Dr Forde never became a celebrated writer, but he wrote at least three books, travelled as far as Canada, Gibraltar and Morocco, was a senator of the University of Dublin, and had a doctorate in laws – the sort of priest who would have enjoyed theological debates with the village priest who was once host to Kathleen and Nikos.

When Eleni Kazantzakis died in Athens this February at the age of 102, she was brought to Crete to be buried beside her husband on the old Venetian walls of Iraklion, close to the spot where Kathleen Forde found love and romance on her Greek island generations before Shirley Valentine.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 1 April 2004