The Alexis Zorbas character in “Zorba the Greek” is one of the most memorable in all of film history and the Nikos Kazantzakis book on which it is based is one of the best pieces of modern Greek literature.
Yet it is not widely known that Alexis Zorbas was a real person and not a fictional character. Nor that the real person had never set foot on Crete, or that his first name was actually Giorgos.
When Nikos Kazantzakis met Giorgos Zorbas on Mount Athos in 1915, the man impressed the writer so much that he befriended him and he was later inspired to write a novel based on his carefree personality and lust for life.
Real Zorbas was born in Macedonia
Giorgos Zorbas was born in Livadi, in the Pieria Prefecture of Macedonia in 1865, the son of Fotis and Eugenia Zorbas. As an adult he left his hometown for Halkidiki and settled in the village of Paleochori. He stayed with a friend there and worked as a lumberjack, blacksmith, tinker, stableman, and even once as a miner for a French mining company in Stratoniki.
Zorbas met the manager of the mine, Giannis Kalkounis, and then “stole” and married his daughter Eleni. Giorgos and Eleni settled in Paleochori and had twelve children, but only seven, or possibly eight, of them survived. His wife then died as well and the family lived in a miserable condition for years thereafter.
In 1915 Zorbas left for Mount Athos and became a monk. It was there that he met Kazantzakis and a strong friendship bonded the two men. The two fast friends then moved to Mani, where Kazantzakis was assigned to manage the Prastova mine near Stoupa, a seaside village of the municipality of Lefktro in Messinian Mani.
Zorbas brought with him five of his orphaned children and Kazantzakis made him the chief miner. Living in the beautiful seaside village, away from war, hunger and trouble, the intellectual writer and the restless, peripatetic miner bonded. The two men spent hours every day on the majestic Kalogria Beach, talking about life.
Kazantzakis creates Alexis Zorbas
Those endless hours of conversations with the man, as well as his exuberant personality and behavior, inspired Kazantzakis to create the lovable, near-mythical Alexis Zorbas of the book and later the movie.
Kazantzakis admired the way Zorbas enjoyed life, love, food, motion, and dance to the fullest. He was amazed by the man’s restlessness, his kind heart, his open-mindedness, and his laid-back attitude. Kazantzakis later described Zorbas succinctly as “an excellent eater, drinker, hard worker and a hobo.” A jack of all trades that no four walls could keep in.
In 1920, Zorbas followed Kazantzakis to the Black Sea region, as the writer was appointed an envoy of the Greek state after the Pontian genocide. There Kazantzakis rescued approximately 100,000 Pontians, transporting them to Thessaloniki, according to Greek Foreign Ministry records.
After the end of the Pontus mission, the two friends separated and they never met again. Yet Giorgos Zorbas continued to live and dance and drink and eat and tell jokes and bask in the sun in Kazantzakis’ mind.
Zorbas’ house in Paleochori to become a museum
The house in Paleochori, Halkidiki where Nikos Kazantzakis’ hero, Giorgos Zorbas, lived for 22 years, raising a family and having twelve children, working mainly as a miner, will soon be turned into a real-life and digital museum.
The heirs of the property decided to donate it to the Aristotle municipality. The plan to promote the Zorbas house was presented in 2020 at an event held in Paleochori in the presence of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Theodoros Karaoglou, responsible for Macedonia-Thrace issues.
Speaking at the event, Aristotle mayor Stelios Valianos announced that a financial and technical proposal is already being prepared for the submission and integration of the restoration project and the promotion of “Alexis” Zorbas’ house.
“This is where the miner who later inspired Nikos Kazantzakis lived, after they met on a trip to Mount Athos. This is the place where his personality was shaped and later became a Kazantzakis book translated into 34 languages and a film by Michael Cacoyiannis that won three Oscars, while it was nominated for four more, today reaching the point of being a global brand name,” the mayor stated.
“Here, in this house, in Paleochori, a point of historical reference for Alexis Zorbas, Giorgos Zorbas — as his fellow citizens knew him — will be created,” Valianos declared.
The mayor also stated that the goal is for the museum to become a destination for visitors. It will combine digital technology and folklore exhibits, and will have daily guides. It will be connected by walking routes to other reference points in the area and will provide networking opportunities with other places where Alexis Zorbas visited or stayed.
For his part, the Deputy Minister said that “Alexis Zorbas is a global brand name that has been identified with Greece and the indestructible power of the Greek soul” adding that the museum will become a tourist landmark.
A folklore museum representing the period during which Zorbas lived and worked in Paleochori will be created on the first floor. The second floor will house the main digital museum, with the conversion of rooms into panoramic viewing screens.
With the recruitment of actors and the use of new technologies, Alexis Zorbas will be “revived” once again to welcome visitors and guide them into his life, with references to real historical sources in the work of Nikos Kazantzakis and in the Michael Cacoyiannis film.