This Past Week in History: February 17-23

FILE - A chunk of a stone gutter from the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, which was illicitly taken from Greece some 80 years ago, has been voluntarily returned by a German member of the public at the museum of ancient Olympia, in southern Greece. (Greek Culture Ministry via AP)

February 17th:

On this day in 2012 approximately 70 ancient Olympic artifacts were stolen from the Ancient Olympia Museum by armed robbers. The museum is located next to the site where the ancient Olympic games were held – about 200 miles west of Athens. To this day, the museum houses many artifacts connected to the original Games. On the day in question, two robbers wearing hoods broke into the museum early in the morning (around 7:30 AM) before they tied up and gagged the one female employee on duty at the time. The robbers used hammers to smash display cases and took bronze and clay objects as well as a gold ring. The mayor of Olympia at the time, Thymios Kotzias, was quoted saying that the items that were taken were of “incalculable value.” In November of the same year, officials arrested three Greek nationals in association with the robbery. The three men were detained near the city of Patras as they attempted to sell the stolen gold rings to undercover police officers for over 1 million euros. Police eventually found the remainder of the artifacts buried three kilometers away from the museum in ancient Olympia.

February 18th:

On this day in 1883, Nikos Kazantzakis, the prominent Greek author, journalist, statesman, and philosopher, was born in Kandiye, Ottoman Empire (present day Heraklion, Crete).

The bust of Nikos Kazantzakis in Heraklion, Crete. Photo: (cs: Nikos Armutidis, foto George Groutas from Idalion, Cyprus, via Wikimedia Commons)

He studied law in Athens and then continued his studies in Paris. In 1912, he enrolled in the army to serve Greece during the First Balkan War and was assigned to Prime Minister Venizelos’ private office. After the war, Kazantzakis spent most of his life living in and traveling to Germany, the USSR, France, Japan, and Communist China. He was deeply influenced by the writing of Nietzsche and Bergson, as well as the philosophies of Christianity, Marxism, and Buddhism. Kazantzakis attempted to synthesize these different world views in his works. His novels include Zorba the Greek, Report to Greco, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (which is written in verse form – 333,333 verses to be exact), and many others. He also wrote several travel books about Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Morea, Japan, and China. Kazantzakis died in 1957. At the writer’s wish, an inscription on his tomb, which is located in Heraklion, reads: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.” Kazantzakis, who holds the honor of being the most translated Greek author (he was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times), will forever be one of the most influential Greek writers.

February 19th:

On this day in 1962, Georgios Papanikolaou, the Greek doctor and inventor of the revolutionary Pap Test, passed away at the age of 78. Born in Kymi, a small town on the island of Evia, Papanikolaou was the son of a doctor. He eventually moved to Athens where he studied medicine. In 1913, he was persuaded to move the United States where he spent the rest of his life working on scientific research in the medical school of Cornell University (47 years!). Papanikolaou introduced his screening method for the discovery of cancerous cells as early as 1927 but his findings were met with skepticism by the scientific community. It was not until 1941, when, with gynecologist Herbert Traught, he published a paper on the diagnostic value of vaginal smears, that he gained wide recognition by the medical community. Since then, the Pap smear has been the standard method for early detection of cervical cancer that has saved millions of women’s lives. Papanikolaou’s figure was featured on the largest denomination drachma banknote of 10,000 and is rightly regarded as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the 20th century.

February 23rd:

On this day in 1980, a Greek oil tanker (Irene’s Serenade), exploded off the coast of Greece near a town called Pylos, historically also known under its Italian name, Navarino, causing hundreds of tons of oil to spill into the Mediterranean. An oil slick two miles long by half a mile-wide spread from the vessel and both the tanker and surrounding water burned for 14 hours before the tanker sank off Pylos’ harbor, close to Sfakteria Island. All but two crew members were rescued.