[ Philhellenic Perspective
[ November 1996 Issue ]

[ Choose to proceed ] In this issue:
  • [1.] Philhellenic Perspective - On the Web
  • [2.] Finding Greece: Recommended Books

  • [3.] Nikos Kazantzakis: Tempting you to go beyond Zorba
  • [4.] Next Time

Philhellenic Perspective - On the Web

It's official: you can read all the issues of Philhellenic Perspective at the Hellenic Resources Instutute web site at: http://www.hri.org/philper/ This issue has a bit more specific focus than previous ones. First I want to call your attention to some better than average sources of information about Greece. We'll do that by profiling three interesting guide books on aspects of Greece. Secondly, Greece can be 'found' via its literature, and for this I will focus on two of the lesser known works of Nikos Kazantzakis. [ Top of the Page ]

Finding Greece: Recommended Books

Greece: A Country Study
Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
Ed. Glenn E. Curtis, 4th ed., 1995
U. S. Government Printing Office

This is one of a series of books published under the auspices of the United States Government. There is one for each country of the world, and they are updated once a decade or so.

These books follow a uniform outline. A country profile and introductory essay is followed by chapters titled Historical setting; The society and its environment (geography, demography, religion, education, health, etc.); The economy; Government and politics; and National security. Some statistical tables and references complete the work.

This series has its origin in a series of books for the U. S. Army which explains, I assume, the space given to national security issues and to the presence of a table of rank insignia for each armed service. Despite these quirks, the books are in substance a survey or overview of many aspects of the country.

Two things in particular are worth noting about the Greek edition. First, the historical survey covers not only the standard story of the ancients, but the full history, including analysis of the political movements in post-independce Greece. Written in late 1994, the survey covers the elections of 1993 and gives some anticipation of the struggle for succession that both major parties were seeming to face in that period.

Secondly, the book contains an extensive bibliography. Each chapter ends with a very brief annotated bibliography pointing you to some of the significant sources. At the back of the book is a 22 page bibliography, organized by chapter. It emphasizes books in English available in the United States, but also covers some journal articles as well.

The pluses for this book lie in a sort of deadpan even-handedness, the bibliography, and coverage of a wide spectrum of events and issues for Greece including such things as analysis of particular industry sectors. I've read a few other volumes in the series in addition to Greece, and what you get is a briefing: steady, moderately wide-ranging, sober.

What you don't get is any radical points of view (some will be mentioned), any deeply lyrical writing (which Greece so invites), any color pictures, or much excitement. Nor do you get any travel information, hotels or stories. Because it is a U. S. government sponsored series, but not actually written by the government, it doesn't attack any U. S. government positions in depth, speculate on CIA involvement and so forth. However, it will alert you to the issues, including the common Greek suspicion of U. S. control or dominance of their foreign policy.

What this book can offer is a sort of grounding that more narrowly focused or ideosyncratic books don't give, access to the literature, and a view inside the major political and social issues for the country.

Knopf guides
First American Edition,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994

In contrast to the visual sparseness of the country guide above, this offers a visual feast. In a somewhat awkward vertical format of 9 by 4 1/2 inches, its 450 pages cover not only Athens, but Piraeus, Sounion, Delphi, Corinth and much of the Peloponnese (though not in the detail that Athens is covered)

The first 100 pages of the book are interesting essays and pictures dealing with: natural flora and fauna; history, mythology and language; traditional costumes; food and celebrations; architecture and excerpts from the work of painters and writers. This is followed by 150 pages devoted to Athen's sites from all eras. There is an interesting and slightly defensive essay from Manolis Korres about the theory and practice for restoration of the Parthenon. The guide moves beyond the obvious: there is also coverage of Roman Athens, 19th century mansions, the national university and other aspects of the city.

Visually it is stunning, using its slick paper to advantage to offer such items as some small reproductions of representative paintings by Parthenis, Tsarouchis, Ghikas and Pierrakos; several photos of oldtime Athens and Piraeus; and a number of religious works. Many pictures of sites, ancient works, and maps are present, including some of 3-D maps to orient you to sites.

The editors are to be congratulated for their choices: for example, even the few pages on Nafplio convey a surprising amount of information and give a feel for the texture of the city.

There is some coverage of hotels and restaurants, but nothing the average tourist guidebook wouldn't cover in more depth.

For an interesting review of this guide as it compares to the simularly-formatted "Eyewitness" series, see Bill Newlin's comments at: http://www.moon.com/tm/tmearly/00dkvsknopf.html/

The Thomas Cook Guide to Greek Island Hopping
Thomas Cook, $20, various annual editions

Everybody is always asking on the rec.travel.europe newsgroup "is there a ferry to...?" And the answer is usually the same: if you can't stand on the dock itself and inquire, do the next best thing and read this book.

The guide not only covers the actual ferry schedules but also offers an overview of the various route patterns. This is especially valuable given the somewhat random nature of the schedule of Greek ferries (see below). The route patterns and timings are valuable for planning a general strategy to serious island hopping.

Beyond this basic information, the annual guide offers gossipy reviews of individual boats, companies, and the changing picture of ferry travel from year to year. There are also little intros to various islands. These island reviews are notable for detailed maps of the port cities showing where the boats land and the location of selected hotels.

Even ferry schedules published on site in Greece are notoriously "selective" in their accuracy, so how good can this book be? Obviously, I've not checked everything, but for the (very) few journeys I and my friends have taken, it has proved accurate.

But, in no way would I rely on it. Use it to assess frequency and general times. Then go to the ferry dock itself, or the ferry agents. Double check WITH THE SPECIFIC COMPANY YOU ARE USING, because what company A tells you about Company B is next to useless. Bear in mind that schedules reduce in the off season. Nonetheless it is quite useful. Rough Guides call it "superb, user-friendly."

Thomas Cook has a web page for this book, but not much info is there.

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3. Nikos Kazantzakis: Tempting you to go beyond Zorba

"The Greek Passion"
Nikos Kazantzakis
Translated by Jonathan Griffin
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1953

Just "Zorba the Greek," and "The Last Temptation of Christ" would be enough to make the Cretean author Kazantzakis (1883-1957) both well known and controversial. But he has written other books that deserve some publicity.

It might be useful if I 'decloaked' a bit here: I am a Lutheran Pastor, so the morals of a book and the presentation of Christianity is of concern to me both personally and professionally. Frankly, I found "Last Temptation" unconvincing: I wasn't offended, I just didn't find the sudden conversion of Jesus to be realistic, or the other characters to be engaging. And, by the way, there is not one word in the Bible that says Mary Magdelen was a prostitute.

Far, far better as a religious novel, in my view, is Kazantzakis' comparatively unremarked work: "The Greek Passion." (Published outside the US as "Christ Recrucified") The novel is set in a little Greek village during the time of the Turkish occupation. Starting with the assignment of roles of villagers to play in the annual passion play, the novel turns into a real passion play.

The village elders, a dismal lot of over-fed, oppressive, back- biting types, pick various villagers to play roles in the once- every-seven-years passion play. However, Manolios (chosen to be Christ for his gentle looks) and three friends, chosen as apostles, are humbled by the honor and begins to struggle with God's will. The crisis is provided by a band of refugees from another village. Run out by Turks, they seek sanctuary in this village only to be refused both land and food by the village elders who fear their corrupting influence and the loss of revenue. The contradiction between the words of Christ, and the actions of those who claim leadership of the church and the village lead Manolios and his friends to ask dangerous questions. The elders, as elders tend to do, are reluctant to give up any power, and not inclined to accept theological analysis from those who they command. Eventually, the passion is acted out for real, with Manolis accused of treason and the sleepy Turkish overlord acting the part of Pilate to perfection.

Liberation Theology is a term we associate with the Roman Catholic church in Latin America, but I would suggest that this work, dating from 1953, has anticipated the movement in amazing detail. Such standard concepts of Liberation Theology as "the preferential option for the poor," "base communities," reading the Bible out of experience rather than theology, and so forth, are portrayed here as Manoilis and his friends struggle with what God has to say to them.

"Report to Greco"
Translated by P. A. Bien
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1965

"Report to Greco" is Kazantzakis "autobiography" although even his widow in the introduction admits both that the book is a mixture of "fact and fiction" and that there are some "small modifications" when he speaks about his own adventures. So, think of it as another novel, or philosophical tract.

It begins with some of the most profound and true words about death I have ever read: "I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect. Night has fallen, the day's work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground. Not because I am tired and cannot work. I am not tired. But the sun has set."

The book is full of sayings and brief passages like this, revealing at every turn the familiar Kazantzakis struggle for "ascent": growth, unity, passion. "It is our duty to set ourselves an end beyond our individual concerns, beyond our convenient, agreeable habits, higher than our own selves, and disdaining laughter, hunger, even death, to toil night and day to attain that end. No, not to attain it. The self-respecting soul, as soon as he reaches his goal, places it still farther away. Not to attain it, but never to halt in the ascent. Only thus does life acquire nobility and oneness." (p. 80)

In this quest for ascent, Kazantzakis is led into both a journey of ideas and to physical travel. The book abounds with accounts of his adventures in Israel, Mt. Athos and throughout Europe in addition to his encounters with the great ideas.

It is the significance of the stories that captivate me, as I remain suspicious of the biographical value of the material. He speaks of the "balance" of the ancients as not effortless but difficultly won against the forces of chaos that triumphed before and after the magic moments of the 5th century. As he describes the decline: belief in the country replaced by individual self- sufficiency; the arts shifting their attention to glorification of the indulgences of the wealthy; and to ever more "realistic" depictions of degradation (p. 170); he could be describing our time as well. Other striking stories of original sin (p.25) or an encounter with a monk who found the one true joy in life not in worship but in illicit sex (p. 225), his warning of the dangers of the "minor virtues" (p. 142, 213) are worthy of reflection and study.

His struggle for oneness, to unite passion and discipline, the Dionysian and Apollian sides of the Greek heritage (p. 323-4), remains our struggle. Or at least it should be the struggle of those who wish Christianity to speak to the full person, not just to the self-flagellating ascetic.

I was going to end this essay with some pointers to Kazantzakis related web sites. Well, there isn't much that I found. Some book stores that sell his books are on the web, but that is hardly worth a reference. A short discussion can be found at:


Hey! We need a Greek author's web site.

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4. Next Time

we'll take a look at on-line news sources for info on current Greek events.

Philhellenic Perspective

is published once a month to the newsgroups soc.culture.greece and rec.travel.europe as well as appearing on the web. It is published by
John P. Nordin who is solely responsible for its contents. You may reproduce this material, in whole or in part provided you provide proper acknowledgement of the source, and you don't distort the content.

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