Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

March 2014

I’m pleased to report that this last month has been the most bearable February I have ever known. There have been a few rainy spells, and bouts of cold, but not many, so as a result the wild flowers have gone mad, a sure sign that the Peloponnesian landscape is awakening from its winter sleep. Balmy weather has comforted us all, although it could well be, as my Scottish ancestors might have said, that we will pay for it later. In the meantime, enjoyment is the name of the day, and the locals have got on to spring tasks of ploughing and planting much earlier than usual. Jackets and coats have been shed, and people are readying themselves for Clean Monday, which is the huge celebration and general nosh-up that marks the beginning of Lent.

An Australian friend, a great philhellene, has come to stay, and professes herself mesmerised by the landscape of the Peloponnese, especially that of the Mani, which is easily accessible from where I live. I remind myself, yet again, how fortunate I am to be living in this part of the world. As great Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said, the Peloponnese has always been regarded as the cradle of Hellenism: ‘sacred, fruitful earth, with all the delights of both island and mainland.’ He believed that a journey to Greece must always begin from the Peloponnese, ‘the old mother. Here are the famished, bloodstained roots….Athens, the bloom, the root’s uppermost aspiration, comes later.’

The Mani is a wild mountainous region that is edged by sea, in a most seductive combination: my mother, in her several trips to the region, could not get enough of it. It is also the region of Greece that successfully resisted Ottoman occupation. Ibrahim Pasha attempted an invasion by sea, and was considerably surprised when he was forced to retreat. Somewhat later, in 1825, he tried a land invasion. The Maniotes built a sturdy wall, which is still in place and in good repair, and defended it mightily: the Pasha was surprised once again.

The Maniotes were not converted to Christianity until towards the end of the ninth century. Famous travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, himself an inhabitant of the Outer Mani for many years, and whose book about the area is a seminal work, remarked on the strangeness of the fact that the Maniotes, so close to the Levant and the cradle of Christianity, did not convert until three hundred years after the decisive arrival of St Augustine in faraway Kent. Despite the conversion, the Maniotes carried on a vendetta tradition until early in the twentieth century:  in a desperately poor region, the constant warring was a somewhat drastic method of population control.

There is some thought that the Maniotes are Cretan in origin, and Cretan pirates being what they were, there is probably more than a drop of Cretan blood in local veins. But the Maniotes themselves are really descendants of the ancient Spartans, who lived on the other side of the Taygetus, the mighty mountain range that so impresses visitors to the region. The Mani was also one of the last strongholds of Byzantium, but that is another story, and a long one.

Nikos Kazantzakis was Cretan, and proud of it; he was also proud of what he felt sure was the North African blood that he had inherited at some stage. When in 1937 he was commissioned by the famous Kathimerini newspaper, which has endured many a trial and is still a formidable presence in Greek journalism, to tour the Peloponnese, he did not go to the Mani: instead he wrote up the magnificent site of Monemvassia, which is on the neighbouring eastern peninsula.

But Kazantzakis knew the Mani well. In 1917 he opened a lignite mine in the mountains above Kardamili. His prop and mainstay in the venture was one Georgios Zorbas, whom he later immortalised in his novel Zorba the Greek, which was published in 1946. The lignite mine came to a spectacular and disappointing end, but Nikos Kazantzakis, true to the writer’s credo of making something significant out of dire vicissitudes, penned his novel decades later. He shifted the setting to Crete, and Georgios became Alexis, but the collapse of the mine remained almost unchanged, as did the Zorba character. Nikos considered Zorba one of the main influences in his amazingly protean life. The film, which starred Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, was released in 1964, seven years after Nikos’s death. It took parts of the world by storm: my student world in Melbourne was a case in point.

It could be argued that my children owe their existence to Kazantzakis and Zorba, for the person who became their father taught me Zorba’s dance in a Melbourne street at midnight one night in 1966. The rest, as is said only too often, is history.

Gillian Bouras

 

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