Nicknamed as the island of the living dead, Spinalonga, lies at the natural harbor of Elounda in the prefecture of Lassithi in Crete. Despite being a small barren island of 85 acres, it carries a long history and holds a special place in the Greeks' hearts, while it preserves its beauty notwithstanding its dark past.
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The history of Spinalonga
A little-known fact is that Spinalonga was not always an island. It is believed that in 1526, the Venetians destroyed part of the peninsula of Elounda to create an island, which was fortified to safeguard the port of ancient Olous. Olous had remained uninhabited until the mid-15th century when it gained commercial value due to its salt-pans. The inhibition of the city, along with the pirate raids and the Turkish threat, made the fortification a necessity and resulted in Spinalonga becoming one of the most powerful sea fortresses in the Mediterranean.
Spinalonga remained under Venetian rule even after the rest of Crete was occupied by the Ottomans. In 1715, however, the Ottomans managed to conquer the small island, banishing the Venetian presence from Crete completely. Eventually, in 1903, the Turkish left the island and it became once again a part of Greece.
Despite its rich heritage that stretches all the way back to antiquity, however, Spinalonga is known across the world as the host of the leper community from 1903 to 1957, and as one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, reaching a number of nearly 400 inhabitants during the outbreak of the illness.
Panoramic photo of Spinalonga - credits: photoff/Shutterstock.com
The Leper Community
Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is a long-term bacterial infection that affects the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes of the patient. The illness causes the deformation of features, especially on the face and the limbs. Although leprosy itself is not lethal, it can ultimately cause death from a condition secondary to the original diagnosis.
During the early 19th century, there was a world of misconception surrounding the disease. At first, it was believed to be hereditary. However, it was soon proved to be infectious, and patients were immediately sent to isolation. In Greece, the isolation center was on the island of Spinalonga.
There are many tales of horror about the island, especially in regard to the early years of its operation as a leper colony. The island had no infrastructure and people were sent there to wait for their death while battling inhumane conditions, with not so much as running water being available in the region. Additionally, it is believed, that due to the ignorance of the doctors at the time, many people were misdiagnosed and were imprisoned in Spinalonga while suffering minor conditions, such as Psoriasis.
In March 1936, however, a young man was about to change the fate of all the island's inhabitants. Epaminondas Remountakis, a third-year student of Athens’ Law School, at the age of 21, was forced to exile, following years of struggle with the disease, which he tried to keep hidden. There, he founded the 'Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga’, in an effort to improve the patient's living conditions and he dedicated his life to this novel cause.
For the first time in years, the houses in Spinalonga were whitewashed, the ring road was opened, a public cleaning service was established, and even a theater and a cinema were constructed, while classical music could be often heard in the streets of the island, coming from a loudspeaker a patient had donated. After a little while, a power-generating machine arrived to light the streets at night.
Slowly but surely, the inhabitants of the islands started forming a community that didn’t focus only on survival. People fell in love and got married, giving birth to children who grew up without ever being infected by the disease. They developed strong bonds with one another and started living life as normally as they could: they exercised, went to school, opened a coffee shop and barbershop, while they had the ability to go to church in St. Panteleimon, operated by the brave Chrysanthos Katsoulogiannakis, a priest that volunteered to live in the island without being a leper himself.
Ruins in Spinalonga - credits: Szymon Kaczmarczyk/Shutterstock.com
Fortunately, the number of patients on the island started to decrease in 1948, due to the first drug against Lepracy being discovered and the last inhabitant left the island in 1962. The stigma around leprosy, however, didn’t end with the evacuation of the island. Lepers weren’t seen as patients but as monsters, and even the reference to the island’s name remained taboo for years to come.
Victoria Hislop’s novel - ‘The Island’
In 2005, Victoria Hislop’s novel titled ‘The Island’ told the story of Spinaloga, bringing light to the life the lepers built for themselves against all odds. The book later became a hit television show in Greece, clearing decades of fallacy surrounding the island.
Today, Spinalonga, the once “grave of the living”, is the second most visited archaeological site of Crete after Knossos, with people from all over the world arriving in Crete only to explore its grounds.
At the entrance of the island, an inscription advises you to leave hope behind, while at the entrance of the cemetery, a small plaque urges respect for the souls that never managed to escape Spinalonga. While the Greek island has been officially renamed to ‘Kalydron’, the past of Spinalonga cannot be erased; it is apparent in every nook and crevice of the island, as well as in the eerie vibe that makes your hair at the back of your neck stand up when you walk down its streets.
Was Spinalonga a leper colony?
Yes. In the first decades of the 20th century, Spinalonga served as a leper colony. Back then, people did not know that most of the population was naturally immune to the disease and the risk of leprosy transmission was very low if the basic hygiene conditions were met. Thus, an island near the shore, for the easy transport of food and supplies, was the ideal solution for isolating patients and supposedly protecting the healthy population. In addition, housing the patients was easy and inexpensive, as there were many empty houses after the departure of its Muslim residents.
The transfer of the lepers, however, served a second hidden purpose: the removal of the last Turkish families from Spinalonga, who refused to leave the control area of the Cretan State. With the installation of lepers on the island, the remaining Muslim inhabitants left it without a second thought. On December 14, 1904, the first 251 lepers from all over Crete were transferred to Spinalonga, which took the name "Agios Panteleimon". Then, after 1913, patients from the rest of Greece were gradually transferred, but also from foreign countries, increasing the number of patients to more than a thousand.
How do you get to Spinalonga?
In order to reach Spinalonga, you need to take the boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda, or Plaka. From Agios Nikolaos the boats depart in the morning and in addition to the transfer to Spinalonga, they offer lunch and swimming on the beaches behind the Kolokytha Peninsula, before returning in the afternoon to Agios Nikolaos.
From the port of Elounda, the boats leave every half hour during the summer months. They take 15-20 minutes to reach the island, while often the sea voyage includes a tour of the Kolokytha peninsula.
Boats also leave the village of Plaka a little north of Elounda. The journey from there is the shortest -approximately 10 minutes- because Plaka is located directly opposite Spinalonga.
When was Spinalonga abandoned?
After many years of research, in 1948 the first drug to treat leprosy was discovered in America. Thus, the patients began to be treated and Spinalonga was gradually emptied of patients until 1957 when the last one left and the leprosarium was permanently closed. The few lepers on the island were in a very bad condition and were transferred to Athens, in an "Infectious Diseases" hospital. Many patients, however, initially refused to leave the island, believing that the stigma of the disease had not yet left them and that they would never again be accepted as equal members of the society.
In the words of Remoundakis, "Walking along the street of Spinalonga, stop and hold your breath. From a haggard around you, you will hear the echo of a mother's sore, a sister’s or a man's sigh. Let the tears drip from your eyes and you will witness the shimmer of the millions of tears that have watered this road before ... "