SKOPJE – The grave of a Greek miner who inspired the creation of fictional character Alexis Zorbas, more famously known as “Zorba the Greek,” could be key to thawing relations between Macedonia and Greece, an academic has suggested.
Giorgios Zorbas, whose grave in Skopje was seen in images captured by an epa photojournalist on Friday, could help ease tensions between the two European neighbors, who have been engaged in a long-running dispute over the use of “Macedonia” in the country’s official name, a word that also describes a region in northern Greece.
“The character of Zorba does not generate nationalism, he shines with cosmopolitanism that is really needed at this moment between our countries,” Vladimir Martinovski, a professor at the Faculty of Philology of Sts Cyril and Methodius University, told EFE.
Giorgios, a close friend of Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, served as inspiration for Alexis in “Zorba the Greek” (1946); a story that formed the basis of the 1964 movie by the same name featuring Anthony Quinn.
The soundtrack for the movie, which is known the world over, has become Greece’s unofficial second national anthem.
The real-life Zorba the Greek died of a cardiac arrest in 1941 and is buried in Skopje, where he moved from Greece in 1922, along with his 10-year-old daughter Ekaterina.
During his life, he was known as a “bon vivant,” known to local cafes and bars in the area, historian Danilo Kocevski told EFE.
“He was spending his spare-time with bohemian life style at Skopje’s saloons – an element that the writer Kazantzakis used in order to put an accent on the cheering, dancing and singing character of Zorba,” Kocevski said.
Georgios regularly sent letters to Kazantzakis in which he told him about his life and what it was like living in Skopje, with which the novelist would later use to immortalize his friend.
Georgios, whose body lies in Macedonia, may never have expected to become one of the most famous Greeks in the world, resting in a land with a name disputed by Greece.
Ekaterina married a rich Jewish man called Nikola Jada, and together they had a son called Vangel, who kept the only photo of Georgios that can be seen today hanging above the grave.
Macedonia’s ministry of culture is running an initiative aimed at bringing artisans, musicians and cultural figures from Greece and Macedonia closer together, in a bid to warm ties between the two nations, locked in a dispute over FYROM’s name.
“No doubt there are many personalities, including Zorba, who made their contribution in building the cultural identity of the Balkan region and our countries. We might build bridges using their achievements,” a ministry of culture official said.
Greece considers that Macedonia must change its name before it can join the European Union and NATO, as it considers “Macedonia” to be part of its own heritage and fears its neighbor could stake territorial claims.