06 August 2001

New Turkish tourists symbolise Greek
search for a pluralist, tolerant society

Minarets still dominate the skyline of Rethymnon in western Crete, where Turkish fountains and hanging balconies decorate the narrow streets and alleyways

Letter from

A militant campaign led by Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens has vigorously fought against the government’s determination to drop any reference to religious affiliation from Greek identity cards. The campaign came with veiled threats and challenges to the authority of the government of the Prime Minister, Mr Costas Simitis. But many Greek Orthodox bishops were unhappy with the campaign, and it appears to have backfired as a petition organised by the primate failed to garner the hoped-for number of signatures.

At times, it is easy to confuse Greek identity and loyalty to the Greek Orthodox Church. But the presence of a continuing number of Muslims in northeastern Thrace and in the Dodecanese islands is living testimony to the diversity within the Greek identity and to Greece's struggle to be a more open, tolerant and pluralist society.

The Muslim minority in Crete suffered severely after Crete’s formal unification with the modern Greek state in 1912. Many were removed to the Anatolian mainland of Turkey, while smaller numbers were relocated to the Dodecanese – principally Rhodes and Kos – only to find they were living in a Greek society once again in 1948.

Many Cretan towns still retain fine examples of late Ottoman architecture. The skyline of Rethymnon is dominated by both the Venetian fortezza, capped by the dome of a 16th century Turkish mosque, and by the minarets of the Nerandzes and Veli Pasha mosques. The charm of its side streets and alleyways is enhanced by a multitude of wooden hanging balconies, Turkish fountains, and doorways with Turkish inscriptions in florid Arabic script. In the island’s capital, Iraklion, the former mosque of Vezir Tzami is now the Church of Saint Titus, proudly displaying the severed head of the Apostle Paul’s martyred companion.

The new rapprochement between Turkey and Greece – symbolised this summer by the joint visit to Samos by the two foreign ministers, Ismail Cem and George Papandreou – has brought a new type of tourist to Crete. In recent months, the children and grandchildren of repatriated Cretan Muslims have returned to Iraklion in search of the houses and streets where their ancestors once lived. Greeks have been used to visiting Istanbul – the city they still call Constantinople and continue to dream of as Byzantium – as tourists and as pilgrims to the Patriarchate. But few expected to see Turks becoming enthusiastic tourists in Greece.

For Ms Lena Chryssakis, this is a welcome development in tourism. For years, she and her husband Manolis have run Mika Villas, a popular destination in the foothills above Hersonnisos for “young and lively” Irish holidaymakers. As a trained tour guide with a love of Classical, Byzantine and Venetian Crete, she has delighted in taking special tours to the island’s archaeological sites, including the ancient Minoan palaces and remains at Knossos and near Archanes, in the hills above Iraklion.

Now the arrival of a new generation of Turks in search of their ancestral homes has provided her with an opportunity to proudly introduce visitors to the history and culture of Crete. Many are surprised to find that the old houses in the Turkish quarter of Iraklion, bounded by Avgoustou and Chandakos streets, have been lovingly renovated.

A recent group of Turkish tourists explained that their grandparents once lived in central Iraklion, close to the Cathedral of Aghios Minas. Hidden away from the eyes of tourists, this part of Iraklion is typical of many Greek towns, with its narrow streets, busy shops, and traditional houses. Here, centuries ago, the young El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, trained as an icon painter.

The area around Aghios Minas is also the setting for the novel Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek. The hero of the novel, Captain Michailis, was Kazantzakis’ own father. The book is an epic account of his struggle against the Turks for Cretan liberation and of his marriage to Margi Christodoulakis, the great-aunt of Manolis Chryssakis, who continues to live in this part of Iraklion.

But if the back streets of Iraklion are attracting new attention from the grandchildren of those who fought against Captain Mikhailis, they are home, too, to another of Greece’s tiny minorities, the Roman Catholics. For centuries Crete had a large Venetian population. Although they inter-married and integrated with the Greek Orthodox minority, the small sleepy eastern village of Neapolis, home to Lena Chryssakis’ father and his family, has one claim to universal fame: it was the birthplace of the only Pope born in Crete, the Franciscan friar Alexander V (1409-1410).

Traditionally, the largest Catholic presence in Greece has been on the islands of Tinos and Syros. But today there are four Catholic churches on Crete. The small modern church of Saint John the Baptist, hidden in the side streets, close to the studio of Iraklion’s acclaimed icon painter, Antonis Theodorakis, offers a full programme of recitals and live music throughout the summer.

In Chania, there has been a renewed interest in Crete's ancient Jewish minority, dating back 2,400 years. The island’s only surviving synagogue, Etz Hayyim, was designated one of the world's 100 endangered cultural monuments, and after decades of neglect was restored under the direction of Nicholas Stavroulakis, with the help of the Lauder Foundation, and rededicated in October 1999.

Tourism and a renewed confidence among once-dwindling minorities may yet help Crete to become an example of the pluralism and tolerance that become the hallmark of modern Greek society.

This news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 6 August 2001.

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