As the boat drifted toward Spinalonga Island, I closed my eyes to embrace the warm Aegean wind.
As an archaeologist, I’m used to explore ancient ruins. But visiting an island abandoned only in the late 1950’s was new to me. I felt like I was on my way to put flowers on a grandparent’s tomb…
So, what can you tell me about this islet? Kerstin kept asking since we had arrived in Plaka the same morning. I dug deep in my memories, trying to recall what I had learned or read about Spinalonga in my Cretan archaeology books ten years ago.
I think the islet was already fortified during Antiquity, I said. It lies in a natural harbor, so there’s no doubt that they built a wall to protect the ancient city of Olous. But I’m not sure if the ruins of this ancient wall are still visible. They must have been incorporated in the late 16th century Venetian fortifications that we see here.
And since this fortification was one of the best in Crete, I continued – many refugees and rebels came to Spinalonga to seek shelter during the Cretan War in the 17th century. This island was the last part of Crete to surrender to the Ottomans: about 60 years after the invasion of the Ottomans, which is quite long in fact.
When we finally docked, the British man who sat next to us on the boat spread his arms and called out “Welcome to the former Leper Island!” His wife’s face turned red. People died here! she commented.
As we walked through the tunnel that led us to the core of the island, I suddenly remembered the scene from Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island. It was the same tunnel used by the lepers who arrived in Spinalonga, also known as Dante’s Gate. And it was here in the tunnel where the victims of leprosy reached the point of no return. Once on the other side of the passage, there was no going back to normal life. Ever. It was a life sentence to be served. Forevermore. A banishment from daily life, from society and the world.
We resurfaced. A sunlit street unfolded into various ways. Two-story houses and shops lined next to crumbling and roofless stone houses. I stepped inside one of the Ottoman houses with curtained windows and wooden shutters. It actually felt good to walk from the torrid heat into a chilly interior. But the chronicles of Spinalonga displayed on large panels were less pleasant.
For a very long time, people around the world diagnosed with leprosy were stigmatized. In Crete, the victims lived outside of the major cities, and had to wear a bell to warn other people of their approach. This was believed to be sufficient to fight off any contagion.
When Crete became an independent state in 1898, Spinalonga was slowly being abandoned. The Ottoman families, who settled there after 1715, returned to nowadays Turkey, or moved inland. Since the 200 houses on this islet were still in a good condition, the Cretan government decided to turn Spinalonga into a leper colony in 1901.
On 30 May 1903, 250 patients from various parts of Crete were deported to Spinalonga. And 10 years later, when Crete and Greece unified, more lepers from other parts of Greece were sent to the islet.
In the beginning, the living conditions were poor, and the inhabitants didn’t have proper medicinal treatment. But things changed in the early 1930s when Epaminondas Remoundakis, a law student who contracted leprosy, arrived in Spinalonga.
Remoundakis formed the Brotherhood of the Patients of Spinalonga, and managed to convince the other residents of the islet to form a community. Together, they whitewashed the houses, set up an outdoor cleaning service, opened shops, cafés, barber shops, and even a small school. They also built a theatre and a cinema and organized concerts.
Soon, the residents of Spinalonga fell in love and got married, despite their disease and sickness. Some of them even had children, who grew up with the lepers on the island without ever getting sick.
When a cure for leprosy was found, the Leper Hospital on the islet was shut down, and the Greek government closed the colony in 1957. The last patients were sent to Athens, and Spinalonga was then inhabited. The islet was almost forgotten, until it was listed as an archaeological site in the 1960s.
We were struggling up the mountain to the old hospital amid blazing temperatures. I needed a rest and sat down on a pile of boulders, while Kerstin decided to continue to explore the highest point of the islet. From there, I watched the tourists strolling on the main street of the abandoned village: a mother pulling her crying child out of an old house; a woman in her 20s posing on a tower while her boyfriend kept snapping pictures of her, and the British couple we saw on the boat, trying to figure out their selfie stick.
Beyond, the Gulf of Mirabello expanded with its sparkling turquoise waters. And further off, the little town of Plaka. Sitting there, I suddenly realized that the lepers on Spinalonga must have stared at this scenery over and over again. While I may find it mesmerizing, did they too?
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