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Ionic Center on Chios: 'simply the best place to learn Greek'
Feature article

By David John
Athens Star Staff

The sun slips away behind the Anatolian hills and a small ferry chugs into Chios harbour, carrying a mixed bag of weary tourists back from Turkey, where most of them have been making a snapshot pilgrimage to Ephesus. Despite the $30 round-trip to Cesme, the small Turkish port almost a stone's throw from here, and the six-hour return bus ride, everyone who has made the trek to the ancient capital of Ionic civilization - at one time the largest and richest city in the hellenic world - seems to be a satisfied customer.

Although, in the words of one modern poet, the "precious marble ruins make a virtue of decay", Ephesus' extensive remains still manage to echo magnificently not only the political and financial power of Ionia's rulers but also the intellectual and spiritual aspirations of her people.

Ionia was the birthplace of Homer and Pythagoras; the breeding ground of much of the best of classical art, science and philosophy. Long ages of political struggle and repression have destroyed that potent culture, root and branch, but today the cherished seed seems ready once more to flourish.

One of the strongest young shoots of this southern Aegean renaissance is the Ionic Center on Chios, where Isadoros Kioleoglou, the Center's president, has been nurturing and carefully tending a project which he believes could have far-reaching cultural significance.

As the evening descends on Chios' bustling port, a pleasant breeze cools the courtyard of the Center, and guests and students listen to an informal discussion on art between five members of the distinguished faculty. The renowned psychiatrist, R.D. Laing grapples with the paradoxes of art and life, and offers a view of art as catharsis, while Professor Burkert of Zurich University argues for the importance of freedom and non-functionalism in creative expression.

For some this may seem like heavy stuff, especially before dinner, but for many in the audience - those attending the courses and workshops on art - this is all food for thought as part of their three weeks of intellectual stimulation and refreshment. For others it can be a pleasure in itself to witness the meeting of fine minds: here there are no absolutes, but arguments in the tradition of public debate, lost to this part of the world for centuries.

For Isidoros Kioleoglou the evening is another small step towards his dream of the establishment of an environment where knowledge and views can be exchanged between people of all backgrounds and nationalities, as an approach to helping to resolve what he sees as the "political, technological and spiritual crisis" the world is going through.

Like the project, the man is both ambitious and humble; his vision both idealistic and pragmatic. Now he might tell you that the purpose of the Center is mainly academic: "To re-examine the cultural and philosophical attitudes and assumptions of the past, as well as the religious and scientific questions, and see what is of value today, to present-day humanity." Now he's talking enthusiastically about the potential of alternative energy and health care or the notion of planetary consciousness - all of which have been subjects for seminar courses at the Center.

Such explorations of more esoteric or speculative subjects are tentative new buds of the Center's curriculum, but its solid roots are the regular programs of Greek language study. It is here that many interpreters and translators from embassies, private companies and the European parliament choose to learn and brush up their Greek. Beginners can study through four levels, and then go on to Greek literature, linguistics and translation courses.

The atmosphere engendered at the Center is that of an informal community in which day-to-day experiences and responsibilities are shared by staff and students alike. Those I talked to at this summer's sessions seemed to have developed a strong kinship for each other and a great affection for the place itself. "It's simply the best place to learn Greek," answered a European Union translator when I asked him why he had given up his own time to improve his Greek here.

Many Greek and foreign students are coming back here year after year, and the demand for courses is growing rapidly, so that the Center is now looking forward to spawning centers on other islands such as Samos. Already the idea has spread to America where another Ionic Center has been established, and inevitably courses are now offered in Athens for those who can't tear themselves away from the place. On Chios itself this Fall an ambitious program of studies are being offered free to Greek people, mainly in professional and scientific subjects, providing a much-needed adult education facility for locals.

"Students seem sorry to leave here at the end of their course," says Kioleoglou. "Learning has become a pleasure for them here - maybe for the first time in their lives - and in an atmosphere that is conducive to both personal development and the principle of international understanding and cooperation at many levels."

"One of the things I have learned here and will be taking back with me to my work in the European Union," said another EU professional studying at the Center, "is to think globally and act locally." When applied to the crisis Kioleoglou talks about (though never dwells upon), which he sees as a test for the spirit and ingenuity of humanity, this simple maxim makes a lot of sense.

© David John 1985
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