06 July 2017

Are abandoned hotels and shops
signs of the times in Greece?

Wandering through an abandoned hotel in Koutouloufari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Perhaps it is a sign of the times that two of the abandoned buildings standing on prominent sites in Koutouloufari are a former bank and an apartment block or hotel that was once popular with Irish tourists.

To the west, in neighbouring Piskopianó, some of the main apartment blocks that were once popular with ‘young and lively’ Irish tourists have closed. The ‘Molly Malone’ pub in Piskopianó, once popular with Irish tourists in their late teens and early 20s, is locked up, empty and for sale, a sign of the change in tourism and entertainment patterns here.

Molly Malone is under lock and key in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

According to one local businessman, another apartment block once popular with young Irish holidaymakers now only accepts Irish bookings from return customers and clients they are sure are middle-aged.

On the long resort stretch from Iraklion out to Hersonissos and beyond, fur shops that once catered solely for Russian tourists are feeling the pinch and some have closed.

A closed fur shop near Gouves once catered for Russian tourists only (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tourism has cushioned Crete against some of the worst consequences of the present economic crisis in Greece. Abandoned small hotels and shut shops in Crete are signs not so much of the economic problems facing Greece, but of changing patterns in tourism.

The latest figures show Greece is expecting a record-breaking 30 million tourists this year. The Tourism Minister, Elena Kountoura, said that summer bookings in some areas have risen by as much as 70%, and throughout Greece tourism earnings have grown by 2.4% or €23 million.

Tourism follows shipping as the second main source of foreign earnings in Greece, and accounted for eight out of 10 new jobs created in 2016. It is estimated that for every 30 extra tourists visiting Greece, one new job is created.

Last year [2016], figures show, 27.5 million tourists visited Greece, an all-time high. Figures from the Bank of Greece show around 23.5 million tourists visited Greece the previous year [2015]. They put €14.2 billion into the economy, which is 24% of the Greek GDP.

If Greece is picking up some figures in the Mediterranean tourist market, it is partly due to the falling popularity of Turkey following last year’s ‘coup’ and recent unsettling political developments, and because holiday packages in sunny resorts across North Africa, from Morocco and Tunisia to Egypt, have lost any attraction.

Although numbers are up throughout Greece, local businesses in Crete say there are fewer British tourists here because of the fall in the spending power of the Pound Sterling and uncertainty over ‘Brexit.’

Many tourists come as part of an ‘all-inclusive’ type of holiday. You can notice them because of their coloured wristbands, but package holidays like this mean they seldom wander beyond their resort complexes to eat or shop locally or to use local taxis. These hotel complexes provide much-needed employment. But when these tourists travel out, it is generally on organised coach tours that direct them to specific shops and chosen restaurants.

The empty swimming pool in the abandoned hotel in Koutouloufari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Closed shops and apartment blocks are more than an eyesore for tourists. For local businesses, they take way from the attractions of a street that could be pretty and lively, they cause a loss of footfall and so mean fewer customers and dwindling profits; for landlords, they mean lower potential rents; for the Greek economy, they mean the loss of indicators that the present crisis may yet recover.

The abandoned apartment complex on a prominent corner in Koutouloufari was a sad place to wander around this week. The glass in many windows is shattered and broken, window shutters flap in the summer breeze. Inside, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the rusting furniture and fittings. The pool may never have been drained but simply dried out and is filling with rubble and dirt brought in by the changes in the weather.

As I climbed the empty stairs leading to nowhere, caught glimpses of the sea view through the arches, walked around the empty pool and peered into the apartments that must have provided many a tourist with happy memories, it felt like walking around a monastery that had long been abandoned.

I wondered if this hotel continued to crumble and decay would archaeologists in distant, future generations stumble across it and start looking for evidence of late 20th and early 21st century tourism in Greece: food wrappers and remains that indicate where they came from; furniture from the days before IKEA arrived in Crete; traces of how much foreigners ate and drank on holidays in Crete?

What future is there for an abandoned hotel in Koutouloufari? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Greeks have a
word for it: (9) icon

Christ the Pantocrator … a 14th century icon from the Church of the Virgin, Gouves, in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday afternoon at the exhibition of Cretan icons in the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the former Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in the Centre of Iraklion. This museum houses one of the most priceless collection of icons in Greece.

Crete has an important place in the tradition of iconography, that links the tradition of iconography on Mount Sinai and in Byzantium through the great Cretan School of Icons, based in Iraklion, and the works of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593), Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608), and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco, with Western art and painting.

As I watch tourists visiting churches in Rethymnon, Iraklion, Piskopianó, Koutouloufari and other towns and villages in Crete, I notice how easily they are captivated by the beauty of the icons and frescoes, although most are obviously unaware of their significance or their underlying theology.

Two weeks ago [22 June 2017], I was invited to open the summer exhibition of icons by Adrienne Lord in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Later, someone commented on one of my postings on this exhibition: ‘I can’t differentiate between icon and graven image in my head. Maybe for others it is ok.’

The True Vine … an icon in the parish church in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The word εἰκών (eikón, image) refers to a religious image or representation of a sacred figure or event. Originally, in Greek, the word eikon denoted a depiction of an object without the necessity of sanctity or veneration. But over time, however, icons became popular religious object, used to evoke veneration and to educate people.

A dominant theme in Orthodox icons is the depiction of faces, particularly of Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also of saints and angels. In the Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament uses several words for face – panim, aph, ayin and anpin – when referring to the face or the presence of God. Of these four words, panim is the most frequently used. In the Greek New Testament, the word προσοπον ( prosopon) is used in most cases, with the exception of one verse that uses οψις (opsis).

Of course, the word ‘face’ has other uses in the Bible, as when the earth’s surface is described as ‘the face of the earth,’ or for body directions or postures, such as to set your face against something as an expression of opposition, or to fall on your face as an expression of worship.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image (εικονα, eikona) of God’ (I Corinthians 4: 4). He also says Christ himself is the ‘icon’ (εἰκὼν, eikon) or ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15):

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως,

He is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

In one sense, therefore, Christ is an icon, the perfect icon of God.

The writer of Hebrews says something similar when he says Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint (χαρακτηρ, character) of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1: 3).

As people, we are also made in God’s images. Saint Paul writes: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (εικονα) from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (II Corinthians 3: 18).

In Romans 8: 29, Saint Paul tells how God has predestined us ‘to be conformed to the likeness (εικονος) of his Son.’ In I Corinthians 15: 49, he tells how on the day of resurrection we will ‘bear the likeness (εικονα) of the man from heaven.’

An icon of Christ as the King of Kings and Great High Priest in the village church in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Where the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to a lesser degree tend to use the rather vague ‘into his likeness,’ the KJV had the more vivid ‘into the same image.’ The same image as what? The answer seems to be: the same image as Christ. In other words, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us results in our being made into ‘icons’ of Christ.

Saint Paul writes: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image (εικονα) of its Creator’ (Colossians 3: 9-10). So, we too are living icons, and it is for this reason that people as well as icons are censed in the Orthodox liturgy and public prayers.

The Biblical motif of the icon is important for understanding the Christian life. God is at work in our lives, conforming us into the image of his Son. We become icons of Christ just as Christ is the icon of God. Orthodox theology described this process of Christian growth as θέωσις theosis – becoming partakers of the divine nature (see II Peter 1: 4).

The NIV is one of the most widely used among Evangelicals. However, a reading of these Greek texts suggests the NIV has an inbuilt bias towards iconoclasm. In the texts I have cited, the NIV is inconsistent in its translation of the Greek word εικων (eikon), using the vague ‘likeness’ when referring to Christ but the more direct ‘image’ in reference to Christians.

There is an Italian saying, traduttore, traditore. If the translations we read allow the translators’ own theology to interpret the text rather than allowing the text to shape the translators’ theology, then it becomes difficult to develop a theology that has a biblical foundation and that is not biased towards reaching one particular conclusion.

God is present although we cannot see him, but the day is coming when we shall see God face to face. Thus, the icon points to the end of the present age and to the coming of the eternal kingdom of Christ. The icon of Christ is a promise that we will one day see God face-to-face.

Two of the icons in the museum in Iraklion show the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter holding the Church in balance between them. These are icons of Christian unity. But we could also see the Church itself as an icon of the world to heaven, and the Church as an icon of the world presented to heaven.

The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul holding the church in unity … an early 18th century icon in the Museum of Christian Art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)