You may have heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, but where has this most celebrated name crossed your path? Perhaps at the airport that’s named after him as you arrive in Heraklion. Or in the opening credits of the film Zorba the Greek. One of Greece’s most successful writers and philosophers, he received wide acclaim around the world
A man after our own hearts, he was a great traveller who understood that travel would open up a person’s soul and feed his nature, and that understanding another man’s culture was the key to understanding one’s own.
Ironically, there has perhaps been no other writer who was so strongly judged, harassed and slandered, and yet hailed, as much as Nikos Kazantzakis. The popularity of his work ultimately far outweighs the social, religious and political criticism he received, and to the people of Crete his work will always be considered timeless and instructive.
WHO WAS NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS?
Born in Heraklion on 4th March 1883, Kazantzakis attended Law School in Athens and Paris, where he received his doctorate. He would only later delve into the world of Greek literature, submitting plays to competitions and writing under pseudonyms for newspapers and magazines. The written word became his passion, and his love of philosophical writers like Dante, Homer and Nietzsche would fuel his passion and convert his philosophical thought into a plethora of plays, poems, essays, novels, and everything in between.
Kazantzakis travelled the world, and from 1927 began an anthology series of travel articles detailing his experiences. He published travelogues of his trips through Spain, Egypt-Sina, China-Japan, Russia and England. He mused consistently on different world views in his many philosophical writings and translated works like Dante’s The Divine Comedy with a view to bridging the gap between different cultures. He eventually rose to fame for his own contributions to literature and philosophy and was nominated for a Nobel Prize a total of 14th times!
To himself and many of his admirers and peers, his work was centred around his Cretan beliefs that love and freedom should be at the heart of all things. He was a free thinker, much like Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson, whose works he greatly admired, but he wasn’t so quick to please everyone. The attitude of the Church of Greece towards Nikos Kazantzakis was that of a sour apple. They marked his writings as blasphemous and felt his grandiose ideas were religiously ignorant. In particular, The Last Temptation of Christ was deemed disrespectful to God and the clergy, and the Church demanded it be banned from circulation. He would be plagued by controversy and regularly hailed as a sympathiser to asceticism and atheism until his dying day, 26th October, 1957.
Despite all this, the renowned writer and thinker is considered a cultural treasure. Prior to his 1957 death, he brought to life a plethora of works that solidified the effect of his Cretan talent worldwide. The most notable of his works are his philosophy book Askitiki: The Saviours of God, published in 1927, the epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, representing a follow-up to the celebrated fiction Ulysses, and prose works Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ – with the latter work sparking the most controversy within the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.
THE ODYSSEY: A MODERN SEQUEL
This mammoth epic poem tops out at an impressive 33,333 verses. It was considered by Kazantzakis himself to be his greatest and most important work. It took 14 years, from 1924 to 1938, for him to deem the work fully complete. The Odyssey begins with Odysseus returning to Ithaca an unsatisfied hero, one who remained a wanderer and had yet to achieve true freedom.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ALEXIS ZORBAS AKA ZORBA THE GREEK
It was in 1915 that the author, along with his friend I. Skordilis, planned to bring timber down from Mount Athos. This failed experience, along with another similar one, in 1917, where he tried with worker George Zorbas to exploit a lignite mine in Mani, inspired the much later the novel Zorba the Greek, which was published in 1946. The story portrays Zorbas as the personification of man’s primitive instincts and wild curiosities. No four walls could confine a man whose personality could burst forth at any moment. Inspired by his carefree nature and incorruptible lust for life, Kazantzakis put pen to paper and a masterpiece was born that would go on to be translated into 34 languages.
The character of the real Zorbas would later be described from Kazantzakis as “an excellent eater, drinker, and hard worker”. Kazantzakis received posthumous critical acclaim when Zorba the Greek was adapted for the 1964 triple-Oscar-winning film featuring the music of Mikis Theodorakis.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
As with many creative people, the character of the ‘tormented artist’ was strong within Kazantzakis. He was regularly tormented by restlessness, anxiety and metaphysical and existential agony.
“When I write, my fingers get covered not in ink, but in blood. I think I am nothing more than this: an undaunted soul.”
This is never more evident than in his work The Last Temptation of Christ, which tells Kazantzakis’s personal version of the Biblical story of Christ.
The novel narrates the love and passion of a man: Jesus of Nazareth. The son of a carpenter, this man would love to fall in love with a woman and have a family, but the voice of God explodes in his soul, arming him with the force of more than a thousand armies, imposing sacrifices and martyrdoms on him. The inner conflict of this man, between flesh and spirit, his rebellious instinct and his irresistible desire to be united with God, emerge here in a narrative mural that glorifies the supreme sacrifice of Christ. On the cross, now dying, Jesus has a vision: what would his life have been like had he not followed God’s call. It is indeed the last temptation, the temptation that Christ rejects by dying for the whole human race.
Perhaps one of the most controversial works of all time, Kazantzakis’s work made it onto many lists of banned books and caused the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches to reach agreement on something for the first time since 1054. Martin Scorsese adapted the book into a 1988 film of the same name, thus reigniting the controversy three decades on.
EXPLORE THE LEGACY OF NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS IN HERAKLION
NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS MUSEUM
The Nikos Kazantzakis Museum pays tribute to this important intellectual, author, thinker, philosopher, politician and traveller. Comprising a cluster of buildings in the central square of the historical village of Varvari, today known as Myrtia, the museum’s exhibition is housed on a site formerly occupied by the home of the Anemoyannis family, who were related to Kazantzakis’s father, Kapetan Michalis.
The Museum was founded in 1983 by set and costume designer Yiorgos Anemoyannis, a pioneering figure in Greek theatre. His main aim was to preserve the author’s memory and promote his work and thought. Significant assistance was offered by Eleni Kazantzaki, the author’s second wife. The museum’s opening ceremony was held on 27th June 1983.
NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS’S GRAVE
Head to the highest point in Heraklion, to Martinengo Bastion atop the Walls of Heraklion, and you’ll find the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis. From here, the view across the city, wide and grey from this vantage point, is juxtaposed by the deep blue of the Mediterranean and the fresh greenery of Mount Juktas to the south. A moment here takes you back to how it is described in the beautiful prose of the opening scenes of Zorba the Greek. Years later, the story of Crete is ever-changing yet forever remains the same. An epitaph is etched upon the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis that seems to sum up his history here:
“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I’m free”.
THE ‘K’ SUITE AT LEGACY GASTRO SUITES
The celebration of Nikos Kazantzakis is the heart and soul of the K Suite at the Legacy Gastro Suites in Heraklion. The K Suite is dedicated to Kazantzakis himself, and no detail has been disregarded. From the spectacular bookcase that frames the bed (with Kazantzakis’s books and the authors who inspired him), to the writing desk next to the wide window overlooks the sea. From here you can cast a gaze over Crete as though through the eyes of Zorbas:
“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
The twelve boutique luxury suites at Legacy Gastro honour a sense of grandness and luxury. You feel like royalty as you step into this world of fine dining and opulent furnishings. But the true reason to spend a relaxing break here is to celebrate Crete’s finest creations. The exquisite local gastronomy, and discovering Cretan culture through Nikos Kazantzakis, painter El Greco and poet Vitsentzos Kornaros. This is an experience of Crete like no other, where everything comes together to offer you the best possible way to understand the Cretan culture and nature.
His legacy will burn bright as generations still to come fall in love with the works of Nikos Kazantzakis and the Cretan way of life. As you pound the pavement and explore the wonders of Crete, whether it be the scent of indulgent coffee mixed with the freshness of the sea on the breeze, the vibrant colours of paintwork or summer flowers framing every building, or simply the chance to relax on the beach. Remember to seek a little further and sink a little deeper into its history; to cherish the works of incredible personalities, like Nikos Kazantzakis, who have made it what it is today.