Spinalonga Greece’s former leper colony breathing new life

The islet of Spinalonga - less than eight kilometres from Aghios Nikalaos - is still a secret that remains to be discovered

To savvy travellers seeking inspiration for holidays in the Mediterranean, Crete needs no introduction. But for many, the islet of Spinalonga – less than eight kilometres from Aghios Nikalaos – is still a secret that remains to be discovered.
Once a forgotten isle, Spinalonga, a barren rock of 85,000 square metres and surrounded by massive walls, is now enjoying a revived historical and contemporary interest.
One of Greece’s most distinguished and internationally recognised artists Costas Tsoklis, has breathed new life into Spinalonga, giving full expression to the adage ‘art imitates life.’ Known as the “island of tears”, a name which alludes to its use as a place of exile for thousands of Greece’s lepers from 1903 to 1957, Tsoklis has turned Spinalonga into an impressive work of art in the hope of reminding the visitor of the gift of good health.
In acceptance of an invitation from Stavros Arnaoutakis the district governor of Crete, Tsoklis in his exhibition titled You, the Last Leper, which opened on June 2, has powerfully brought new life to Spinalonga through his artistic interventions that impact both the islet’s natural appearance as well as the buildings. Driven by a desire to dispel the fears and prejudices that once existed – and still exist – for a disease that is now completely curable, Tsoklis used his creative spirit to transform the area into a contemporary work of art. Tsoklis understands the human need for stories and You, the Last Leper holds the visitor spellbound.
Spinalonga shot to fame after the screening of the television drama series The Island shown on Mega Channel and based on the book of the same name by British author Victoria Hislop. To Nisi, Mega TV’s 26-part series is the most successful in the history of Greek television. Watched by almost three quarters of the population over its six month run, Mega has now sold broadcast rights to the series to Germany, Turkey and Croatia, where broadcasting will begin later in the year.
The Island depicts the lives of the last inhabitants of Spinalonga. These were Cretans suffering from leprosy and exiled there to protect the wider community from the disease which at the time was incurable. A story about love and pain, separation and fear, The Island weaves together fictional characters and events along with documented facts about the history and daily life of Spinalonga. A compelling portrait of the times, it is now a story that has captured not only a Greek audience, but a global one.
According to the island’s guidebook, in 1903 a law designating Spinalonga as a place where lepers could settle heralded a new and important period in the history of Spinalonga. Known as a cemetery for the “living dead”, in 1904 the first 251 lepers settled on Spinalonga, initially with only lepers from Crete being sent there. Others from all over Greece joined them in 1913 when the island was unified with Greece. The Greek state integrated the colony into the national health care plan and established guidelines for its functioning.
In the early days of the colony the lepers lived in the lower parts of the old settlement around the two gates of the fortress where they formed an unusual social grouping with special rules and values. During the early days of their stay in Spinalonga, they lived in the existing houses without even the most basic comforts of life. Hidden away from the outside world and in complete despair, the difficult life of the sufferers who lived there till 1957 has left an indelible mark on Spinalonga as a place of martyrdom and historical memory.
Later in the 1930’s, new buildings were constructed and general living conditions improved. Every leper had his or her own personal space and household. Importantly, much support was offered by the church. The church of the saint and great martyr Panteleimon with its final inscription incorporated into the masonry above the church’s doorway, dates from the time of the leper colony. Saint Panteleimon was the patron saint of lepers, many of whom were very pious and contributed financially to the renovation of churches in the surrounding area. The church was the place for many events including marriages, baptisms and funerals. Although the state banned lepers from marrying, many did and had healthy children who lived on the island with their parents.
The care and treatment received by the sick continued to be minimal with most of the operating expenses of the colony covered by donations. Charitable organisations also sent food and clothing to Spinalonga.
Despite their illness and living without medicine or hope, the patients of Spinalonga did not resign themselves to their fate. Proof of what courage and perseverance in the face of adversity can achieve, they organised themselves into a functioning community with its own rules and even its own parliament. They cared for each other and worked hard to improve their lives. Driven to spend a desolate life on Spinalonga by the fear and ignorance of their relatives and neighbours the lepers defied their fate by setting up a school, a church, a hospital, a cinema, shops, a kafeneon and a market as well as homes they could call their own.
In the latter decades of the colony they demanded better conditions and often held mass demonstrations for their cause. As more and more young people arrived on the island with a better education and more progressive ideas, there was a renewed strength in the peoples’ struggles. As a result, the Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga was created and its fighting spirit led to many improvements in living conditions for the lepers.
A crucial role in the leper organisation was played by Epameinondas Remoundakis, who in 1936, at the age of 21, came to Spinalonga as a patient. A young third year student of the Law School in Athens, he had the skills and passion to lead an organised campaign which ultimately achieved many positive changes in the lives of those in the colony.
The government of Eleftherios Venizelos tried to improve the living conditions and medical care. Reportedly at his own expense, Venizelos sent a doctor to India and The Philippines to learn about the latest methods of treatment and set up a committee of scientists to recommend appropriate measures for the relief of the sufferers.
No substantial improvement in the lepers’ situation was achieved until 1948 when a new drug was dispensed in the United States that cured the disease. With the new treatment sufferers were able to be reintegrated into the wider community with many returning to their former homes and lives while others are buried in Spinalonga’s cemetery in rough graves.
As an artist, Tsoklis challenges the viewer on many levels. With art that addresses the soul, visitors are surprised throughout the site at the constant reminders of their being healthy and able-bodied and of enjoying the gifts of life, freedom and art.
As the boat approaches Spinalonga, the visitor first sees a ten metre high cross constructed entirely of mirrors. In combination with its size, the mirrored effect creates the “larger than life” impression of the importance and cultural value of the island.
“… the cross, a symbol of martyrdom, placed at the entrance of the island, automatically turns it into a monument of worship. The visitor is asked to visit the island with the due respect,” says the artist.
The island had two entrances, one a tunnel once exclusively used by lepers and named Dante’s Gate because those who had developed the illness and were deported to the island, did not know what awaited them. An inscription on the entrance gate is borrowed from Dante’s words on the entrance to Hell, “I lead to the land of grief, I lead to the endless pain, I lead towards the damned soul…leave all hope behind”.
In the disinfection room, a powerful patch of red paint on the floor depicts the pain and suffering of those once housed there. In the tunnel leading to the small port, visitors are able to write their own message on the walls, the artist having inscribed the first message in bright red paint, First Image in Spinalonga.
Tsoklis’ clever use of mirrors throughout the site works to reflect everything that is displayed around them and everyone who looks at them. In this way the surroundings subtly change. Challenging us to acknowledge that the time is always and the place is everywhere, Tsoklis creates the strong impression of new possibilities.
Composer Nikos Xydakis wrote the music which accompanies the visitors throughout their tour of Spinalonga. Not only moving in itself, Xydakis’ music powerfully negotiates a complex and multidimensional narrative, reminding us of the therapeutic function of a community coming together to share its stories in an effort to make sense of a cruel world. Against this musical and artistic background, the eerie silence echoes heavily all over the island, a painful reminder of those who lived there in exile, the death sentence, social ostracism and rejection – words that for decades were synonymous with Spinalonga.
Importantly the exhibition creatively touches on universal themes. For those visitors appreciating the nuances of culture, place and past; Tsoklis manages to reconcile all three. With extraordinary depth and a dominant artistic presence, his work far transcends the boundaries of art. It is the warm, earthly sounds of the human heart – elements that so often set us apart, but occasionally bring us together.
You, the Last Leper continues daily through to October 31 and is already attracting thousands of foreign and Greek visitors. The event is supported by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the District of Crete, the Municipality of Aghios Nikolaos and the Costas Tsoklis Museum of Tinos. The exhibition is being held under the auspices of the Greek National Committee for UNESCO a group of experts currently preparing a submission with the goal of granting Spinalonga the status of a monument in UNESCO’s world cultural heritage list thereby protecting the island’s natural environment as well as its cultural heritage.
Boats to Spinalonga leave frequently on a daily basis from the ports of Elounda, Aghios Nikalaos and Plaka. For visitors wanting to spend hours on the island, the ideal way to travel is to take the boat from Plaka which reaches Spinalonga in just under ten minutes.
The abandonment and desolation of Spinalonga are evident to the visitor, however it feels as if the people who once lived there have left something of their aura behind.
In a trip evoking emotions that will grab you and not let go, it is an experience that is at once incredible and intriguing.
Enjoy the journey.