Spinalonga: The Greek Island Of The ”living-dead”

Spinalonga is a rocky island at the entrance of the Elounda Bay in Lasithi County in Crete. Some of the darkest pages of human pain and misery in Greece’s recent history were written on its rocky land.

The beginning of the story

The size of this small island is just 85 acres, while its tallest mountain is no more than 53 meters high. In 1715, it was conquered by Turks and in the late 19th century it was estimated that over 200 families lived on the island.

However, in 1903 the character of the island changed dramatically when the High Commissioner of the State of Crete, Prince George, decided to turn it into a leper house, transferring the leper patients who lived in the ‘Meskinia’ area outside Heraklion, because at that time, they were afraid of the disease would put the surrounding areas in danger.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an outbreak of leprosy or Hansen’s disease, and the patients, due to their disfigured marks on their faces and bodies frightened the healthy people, who keep them at bay . To make things even worse, the social isolation also followed the lepers’ families, making many of them ”hiding” from the community and restricting their everyday activities in the whole, fact, which in turn led many people to poverty.  The state care was totally non-existent, and leper patients were even deleted from the state citizen list, living exclusively from the charity of some philanthropists of their communities.

The Leper house

The best solution for isolating the leper patients and minimize the potential danger of the contamination from the disease to the healthy population was to transfer the patients to the small island near the mainland, where the transfer of food and other provisions would be an easy task. What’s more, the housing of the patients in Spinalonga would be easy and cost nothing to the government for there were many empty houses after Muslims left the island.

In the first decades of the 20th century, when the leper house of Spinalonga started operating, people did not know that most of the population had a natural immunity against the disease, and the risk of transmission of leprosy was very small, for as long as they implemented the basic hygiene rules.

On 14 December 1904, the state transferred the first 251 leper patients from the widest region of Crete to the leper house “Saint Pantaleon” in Spinalonga. At that time, Spinalonga was converted into a “National Leper House”, but without having the basic organization that was needed for such a place and that made it look more like hell rather than a recovery place. After 1913, leper patients from all over Greece and abroad were transferred to the island, raising the number of patients living on Spinalonga to more than 1000.

The first reactions

Some years later, many visitors of Spinalonga were frustrated because of the miserable living conditions of the leper patients and protested to the government by sending them numerous letters. One of them was the prefect of Lasithi County, who in 1925 sent a letter to Eleftherios Venizelos emphasizing to the unsuitability of the island as a leper house with the following words,

“This place is quite inadequate to house even the prisoners or the dead. After my visiting on the island, I have the worst impression about it and only the great fantasy of Dante could describe this place. More than 200 miserable human beings of any age, gender, social class and body disfiguration have been abandoned there full in despair, without awareness of moral or written laws…” 

The beginning of the end…

After many years of research, in 1948 scientists in the US discovered the first medicine to treat leprosy, thus the patients were gradually treated and left the island. It is said that, many lepers refused to leave the island initially, mainly because they were afraid of not being accepted back in the society. One of them was the Cretan Antonis Papadakis who was not suffered actually from leprosy, but rather his eccentricity and the strange of his character made him live with the lepers. After the closing down of the leper house, he remained on Spinalonga all alone suffering from severe psychological disorder and eating rough herbs and lizards. When his health deteriorated, the local authorities took away him from the island violently and sent him back home in Crete. By the end of 1957, the last treated inhabitants of Spinaloga left the island and the leper house finally stopped its operation. The few leper patients whose health condition was very bad were conducted to the Hospital for Infectious Diseases Santa Barbara in Aigaleo city, in Athens.

From hell place to tourist attraction…

After the patients’ leaving in 1957, the island remained uninhabited for many years and many of the old buildings were demolished. Today, Spinalonga is characterized as preservable monument and the last years, the government began the reconstruction of the old buildings, roads and the outer wall. During summer months, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the island learning its dark history.

Spinalonga became famous abroad when the British author Victoria Hislop published a book based on the history of Spinalonga under the title “The Island”. The book became quickly a big success. It was translated in 14 languages and sold more than 2 million copies in all over the world. In Greece, the TV channel Mega staged a huge production in 2010 dramatizing the real story of Spinalonga capturing thousand viewers, skyrocketing the ratings and gaining many positive reviews.

Sotia Bella