What does it mean to live like a Cretan? To Nikos Kazantzakis, it means to search for “the consciousness of [your] land and race”.
His words live on to the heart of every Cretan and every Greek. Raw, full of passion, resilient, rebellious, changeable, and often with mysterious intent, much like himself. He encapsulated Crete in ways that many before and after him have failed. He saw his homeland as an entity and chose to put many of his stories at the heart of it, as though Crete itself was a story that begged to be told.
“I don’t see Crete as a picturesque, ‘smiling’ place. Its form is austere. Furrowed by struggles and pain… Yes, the truth is hard to swallow, but the Cretans, toughened by their struggle and greedy for life, gulp it down like a glass of cold water.”
You may have heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, but where has this most celebrated name passed your eyes? Perhaps at the airport named after him as you alight into Heraklion. Or at the opening credits of the film Zorba the Greek. One of Greece’s most successful writers and philosophers who had much acclaim around the world.
A man after our hearts, who as a great traveler 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 your own.
Ironically, there has perhaps lived no other writer who was judged, harassed, slandered, and yet hailed as much as Nikos Kazantzakis was. In the end, the popularity of his work far outweighs the social, religious, political criticism, and to the Cretans, his work will always be considered to be timeless and instructive.
Who Was Nikos Kazantzakis?
Nikos Kazantzakis was born in Heraklion on the 4th of March 1883. He attended Law School in Athens and Paris from where he received a doctorate. Later he would delve into the world of Greek literature, submitting plays to competitions and writing under pseudonyms for papers and magazines. The written word became his passion, and love of philosophical writers such as Dante, Homer, and Nietzsche would fuel his passion and philosophical thought into a plethora of plays, poems, essays, novels, and everything in between.
Kazantzakis traveled the world, and from 1927 began an anthology series of travel articles about his experience. He published travelogues of his trips through Spain, Egypt-Sina, China-Japan, Russia, and England. He mused consistently about different world views in his many philosophical writings and translated works such as 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 the Nobel Prize a total of fourteen times.
To himself and many of his admirers and peers, his work was centered upon 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 who’s 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. ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ in particular 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 October 26, 1957.
Despite all these, the renowned writer and thinker is considered a cultural treasure. Before his death in 1957, he brought to life a plethora of works that solidified the effect of his Cretan talent the world over. The most notable of his works are his philosophy book ‘Askitiki’, published in 1927, the epic poem ‘Odyssey: A modern sequel’: a follow-up to the celebrated fiction ‘Ulysses’, and prose works Zorba the Greek (Vios kai politeia tou Alexi Zorba), and The Last Temptation of Christ (O teleftaios peirasmos). The latter of which sparked the most controversy within the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.
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’ or ‘Zorba the Greek’
In 1915 the author along with a friend, I. Skordilis, planned to download timber from Mount Athos. This failed experience, along with another similar one, in 1917, where with a worker, George Zorbas, they tried to exploit a lignite mine in Mani, inspired much later the novel Life of Alexis Zorbas published in 1946. The story tells of Zorbas, the personification of man’s primitive instincts and wild curiosities. No four walls could keep in line 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 the masterpiece was born which would 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 ”
Nikos Kazantzakis received posthumous critical acclaim when ‘Zorba the Greek’ was made into a film in 1964 with the music of Mikis Theodorakis. The film won 3 oscars.
‘The Last Temptation of Christ’
As with many creatives, the ‘tortured 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’. It tells Kazantzakis’s version of the Christ story.
The novel narrates the love and passion of a man: Jesus of Nazareth. The son of a carpenter, the man Jesus would love to love a woman and have a family, but the voice of God exploded in his soul, arming him with a force of more than a thousand armies, imposing sacrifices and martyrdoms on him. The inner conflict of man, the other between flesh and spirit, the instinct of rebellion 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 be like if he had not followed God’s call. It is indeed the last temptation, the temptation that Christ rejects, dying for the whole human race.
Perhaps one of the most controversial works of all time, Kazantzakis’s work made it onto many banned book lists and caused the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches to agree on something for the first time since 1054. Martin Scorsese made the book into a film in 1988, sparking controversy once again three decades later.
Explore the Legacy of Nikos Kazantzakis in Heraklion
Nikos Kazantzakis Museum
The Kazantzakis Museum pays tribute to the important intellectual, author, thinker, philosopher, politician and traveler Nikos Kazantzakis.
The Museum is made up of a cluster of buildings in the central square of the historical village of Varvari, now known as Myrtia. The Museum Exhibition is housed on a site formerly occupied by the home of the Anemoyannis family, which was related to Nikos Kazantzakis’ father, Kapetan Michalis.
The Museum was founded in 1983 by set and costume designer Yiorgos Anemoyannis, a pioneering figure in Greek theatre. His fundamental 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 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 Nikos Kazantzakis Grave. 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 greens of Mount Juktas in the south. A moment here takes you back to how it is described in beautiful prose in the opening scenes of Zorbas. Years later, the story of Crete is ever-changing and 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 glossed over. From the spectacular bookcase that frames the bed (with Kazantzakis’ books and the authors who inspired him), to the writing desk next to the wide window that overlooks the sea. From here you can witness Crete as though through the eyes of Zorbas:
“I felt once more how simple and frugal 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 honor a sense of grandness and luxury. You feel like royalty as you step into a world of fine dining and opulent furnishings. But the true reason to spend a relaxing trip here is to celebrate Crete’s finest creations. The exquisite local gastronomy, and the discovery of Cretan culture through Nikos Kazantzakis, El Greco, and Vintsentzos Kornaros. It’s an experience of Crete like no other, where everything comes together to give you the best possible way to understand the Cretan culture and Nature.
His legacy will burn bright as generations still to come to 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 colors 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 that have made it what it is today.