Spinalonga is a small island in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, with a long and turbulent history that spans from antiquity to modern times. It is best known as the host of one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, where people affected by Hansen’s disease were isolated from 1903 to 1957. But how did this island become a place of exile and suffering for hundreds of people, and what is its legacy today?
The ancient and medieval history of Spinalonga
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 was a prosperous city in antiquity, with its own coinage and a population of 40,000. It remained uninhabited until the mid-15th century, when it gained commercial value due to its salt pans.
The fortification of Spinalonga was a necessity due to the pirate raids and the Turkish threat that plagued Crete at the time. The Venetians built a massive fortress on the island, with bastions, walls, gates, and cannons. Spinalonga became one of the most powerful sea fortresses in the Mediterranean, and resisted several Ottoman sieges. It remained under Venetian rule even after the rest of Crete was occupied by the Ottomans in 1669.
In 1715, however, the Ottomans managed to conquer Spinalonga, after a long and bloody siege that lasted for six months. They expelled the Venetians and settled on the island, transforming it into a Muslim community. They built mosques, baths, houses, and shops, and lived there peacefully until 1903, when they left the island and returned to Turkey.
The leper colony of Spinalonga
In 1903, a leper colony was established on Spinalonga, to isolate people suffering from Hansen’s disease from the healthy population. The cure for leprosy had not yet been discovered, and the contagious disease was regarded with horror. Hansenites, as lepers are known, were quarantined in leper colonies outside towns, living off the charity of passers-by.
Leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which affects the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes of the patient. It 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.
Spinalonga was ideal for isolating lepers because it was close to shore, permitting the easy transfer of patients, food and supplies. There were also many empty houses there after the departure of the Muslim inhabitants. On 30 May 1903, the decision to transform Spinalonga into a leper island was signed, and 250 patients were moved there from various parts of Crete. More came following the unification of Crete with Greece in 1913, while later patients were even brought here from abroad and it was classified as an International Leper Hospital.
The patients of Spinalonga were entitled to a small monthly allowance, which was often not enough to cover their food and medicine. These were hard times, when Greece was rocked by successive wars (Macedonian Struggle, two Balkan Wars, two World Wars, the Civil War), worsening the position of the lepers on Spinalonga.
The island had no infrastructure at first, and people were sent there to wait for their death while battling inhumane conditions. There was no running water or electricity on the island until 1937. It is believed that due to the ignorance of the doctors at the time, many people were misdiagnosed and imprisoned in Spinalonga while suffering minor conditions.
However, despite their misery and isolation, the lepers of Spinalonga did not give up hope or dignity. They organized themselves into a self-governing community, with a mayor, a council, a police force, a court, and a newspaper. They created schools, shops,