Poor Crete, poor Greece

The Vikelaia Municipal Library in Iraklio is the biggest public library on the island of Crete. A mention of its size does little credit to its real significance, however, as it is one of the most important existing arks of memory, a repository of Greek history from the 13th century to the present day.

The Vikelaia’s collections range from the archives of Jacob Tripolo, the first duke of Crete, to those of 15th-century notaries of Handakas. It has documents dating back to the Ottoman occupation and a collection of records kept by the 19th-century Council of Elders. You will also find original 15th-century publications, as well as the personal archives of the library’s benefactor, Dimitris Vikelas, and those of George Seferis, Giorgos Sarantaris and Markos Avgeris. The library also boasts priceless manuscripts, paintings and other artworks, old magazines and newspapers, photographs and etchings, as well as audiovisual testimonials.

The Vikelaia Municipal Library, moreover, not only functions as an ark of history, but also as a propagator of contemporary culture, through its publications and the periodical Palimpsest, which was introduced to us thanks to the renowned intellectual Nikos Yiannadakis.

Over the years, the institution has also helped organize wonderful exhibitions, most notable of which in recent times was the one on the Fayum mummy portraits of Egypt and another on El Greco.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that this ark, this jewel in Crete’s crown, this propagator of history and culture, after waiting 10 years to find a decent home, is once more facing crisis, as the building in which it was finally located on Iraklio’s central Lions Square is to be shared with restaurants and cafes.

The decision to make commercial use of the building, which is the library’s rightful home, was made by Iraklio Mayor Yiannis Kourakis and the municipal counselors, who, allegedly, agreed to the scheme in a telephone vote without discussion and despite the fact that 6,000 residents had signed a petition demanding that the building be given exclusively to the library.

So, on the ground and first floors of the building it will all about raki, meze, frappe, freddo, music, flirting, parking, wi-fi etc, as Vikelaia’s 800-year-old collections of manuscripts and archives will be squeezed into the remaining two-and-a-half floors.

And this despite the fact that Iraklio is already overrun by bars and cafes, like so many other towns in this bankrupt country. Poor Crete, poor Greece.