Spinalónga ... Europe’s last leprosy colony, continued until 1957 (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The “must read” book in Crete this summer – for local people and tourists alike – was The Island by Victoria Hislop. Although it was first published in 2005, the award-winning novel enjoyed renewed popularity in Crete this year because it is being turned into a television drama series and the Greek channel Mega begins airing it on prime-time slots this month.
The book is set on the island of Spinalónga, off the north-east coast of Crete, and tells the fictional story of a family from the coastal village of Pláka and their sad engagement with the life and story of Europe’s last active leprosy colony.
Without spoiling the pleasure of those planning to read the book, let me just say The Island tells the story of Alexis Fielding, an English archaeologist who knows little or nothing about her family’s past and resents her mother’s refusal to share it. She knows only that her mother, Sofia, grew up in Pláka, a small village in Crete, before moving from Greece to London.
On her first visit to Crete, Alexis visits the Minoan ruins at Knossós and then travels on to her mother’s childhood village. There she finds that Pláka looks out onto Spinalónga, and is surprised to learn that the small, deserted island was a leprosy colony for much of the 20th century. In Pláka, she meets her mother’s childhood friend, Fotini, who for the first time tells Alexis the shocking and tragic story that Sofia has concealed: the story of Eleni, her great-grandmother, and of a family torn apart by tragedy, war and passion. She discovers how intimately she is connected with Spinalónga and with the horror and pity of the leprosy colony. She learns too how secrets from the past can change the future.
A visit to the island
Knossós, the beginning of Alexis Fielding’s journey ... Oloús was an early outpost (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
I was back in Crete this summer for the first time in almost a decade. Like Alexis Fielding, I too visited the ruins of the Minoan palace at Knossós outside Iráklion before visiting Spinalónga, which has no inhabitants but it is one of the main tourist attractions in Crete.
Spinalónga (officially Νέα Καλυδών, New Kalidon) is set in the calm Bay of Mirabello, within easy reach of the small fishing ports of Pláka and Eloúnda and directly north of the popular resort of Ayios Nikólaos. Tourist boats leave the harbours of Eloúnda and Ayios Nikólaos every day throughout the holiday months – boats from Eloúnda take about 15 minutes, trips from Ayios Nikólaos can take up to an hour. Greeks love Spinalónga for its clear blue waters and its small pebble beaches. However, as no one lives on the island and there is no place to stay overnight, all tours last only a few hours.
The harbour front at Eloúnda is only 15 minutes from Spinalónga (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
On the morning I arrived in Ayios Nikólaos, the ferry had already left. But a spirited and speedy taxi driver, realising what had happened, ensured I got to Eloúnda in time for the next boat to Spinalónga. Stepping ashore, I soon understood that apart from the abandoned leprosy colony and the Venetian fortress, the island has a centuries-old history dating back to classical times.
It is a story peopled by Arab pirates, Venetian architects, engineers and nobles, Ottoman conquerors, Turkish-speaking merchants and seafarers who became refugees, Greek rebels and freedom fighters, German war-time occupiers, and conscientious and heroic priests and doctors.
The waters around Spinalónga are now known for their blue seas (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli wrote that Spinalónga was not always an island, and that it was once linked with the adjacent peninsula of Kolokytha. Because of its position, the island was fortified at an early stage in its history, protecting the entrance to the ancient but now submerged port of Oloús, one of the 100 cities of Crete mentioned by Homer. Oloús, south east of Eloúnda, may have been a Minoan port, providing the city and palace of Knossós with an important trading link with the island of Rhodes.
The sites of two Christian churches at Oloús date from the fifth century. But the menacing presence of Arab pirate raiders in the eastern Mediterranean from the mid-seventh century forced people to withdraw in large numbers from the area, abandoning the city and migrating inland. Oloús was deserted throughout the Second Byzantine period (961-1204), until the mid-15th century.
After taking Crete from Byzantium in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Venetians began building salt-pans in the shallow and salty waters of the bay, and fortifying strategic points along the northern coast of Crete.
According to Vincenzo Coronelli, the Venetian mapmaker, the island was formed in 1526 when the Venetian Republic severed a portion of the peninsula. It is a tale not accepted by historians. But Venetian documents tell us that the popular name of the island comes from the Greek phrase στην Ελούντα (“to Eloúnda”). The Venetians could not understand the words, and so they adapted it to their own language, and called it spina (thorn) longa (long), which in turn was adapted by local people as the Greek Σπιναλόγκα (Spinalónga). Interestingly, the island of Giudecca in Venice was once known as Spinalónga too.
Spinalónga has fine beaches and clear blue waters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
As the region acquired new commercial importance with the Venetians, people returned to live around the Bay of Mirabello. But the new commercial life of Crete also attracted the attention of the rapidly expanding Turkish empire, and the Venetians were forced to fortify Spinalónga following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the face of the Turkish capacity to use gunpowder.
In 1578, the Venetians put the engineer Genese Bressani in charge of fortifying Spinalónga. He built blockhouses at the highest points of the northern and southern side of the island, and a fortification ring along the coast that closed off any hostile landings. A new fortress was built on the ruins of the acropolis on Spinalónga, and in 1579 the Provveditore of Crete, Luca Michiel, laid the foundation stone of the new fortifications. Two surviving inscriptions mark this event: one at the main gate of the castle, the other on the base of the rampart at the north side of the castle.
The Venetian fortifications guarded the entrance to the Bay of Mirabello (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
However, the Venetians soon realised the coastal fortifications were not strong enough to repel an attack from the nearby hills. The Venetian military governor of Crete, Latino Orsini, was severely critical of the buildings when he visited the island in 1584, and the defences were then strengthened in the hope of making Spinalónga an impregnable sea fortress and one of the most important of Venetian defences in the Mediterranean.
A lone priest remained on Spinalónga for five years after the last priests left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Venetians kept control of the island long after they lost the rest of Crete to the Ottoman Turks. Following the Turkish invasion of Crete in 1645 and its capture in 1669, the Venetians signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire on 16 September 1669, leaving only the fortresses of Spinalónga, Gramvoúsa and Soúdha in Venetian hands. These three fortresses continued to defend Venetian trade routes in the Eastern Mediterranean.
As well as serving as a military camp, Spinalónga became an important place for Cretan refugees to settle, and seven separate neighbourhoods, each with its own church, developed on the small island. By 1699, it was the only Venetian naval base in the region. But in 1715, the Ottoman Turks besieged and captured the island. The Venetian garrison withdrew in safety, but over 700 Greek men, women and children were taken captive, with many then sold in the slave markets. A mosque was built where the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Barbara had been razed to the ground.
As Ottoman rule in Crete began to crumble in the mid-19th century, Spinalónga became a haven for Turkish-speaking families seeking refuge, many of them Cretan Muslims whose ancestors had converted to Islam. After the Cretan revolution of 1866, they were joined by more families from the towns and villages around the Bay of Mirabello. In 1881, the 1,112 Turks on Spinalónga formed their own community. But most of them abandoned the island in 1897, moving to the west coast of Anatolia.
The last leprosy colony
Former Turkish houses became the homes of the patients on Spinalónga (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
After the last 272 remaining Turks left, Spinalónga was transformed into a leprosy colony in 1903. Until then, Crete’s leprosy patients had often lived in caves or were banished to areas known as meskinies, away from their families and civilisation, without appropriate or adequate medical care.
At his own personal expense, the Prime Minister, Eleftheríos Venizélos, sent a doctor to India and the Philippines to learn about the latest methods of treating leprosy, but subsequent governments did little to change the conditions of the inhabitants.
Entering “Dante’s Gate” … fretful patients did not know what fate awaited them (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
There were two entrances to Spinalónga: the “lepers’ entrance” was a tunnel known as “Dante’s Gate” because fretful patients did not know what would happen to them after their arrival. Once on the island, they received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. But they were forbidden family visits, fishing was prohibited, and letters were callously disinfected before being posted. The residents ran their own shops, cafés and bazaar, but they were forbidden to marry, and children born on the island were soon separated from their parents.
Little was done to change those conditions even when the discovery of a new drug in America in 1948 offered the hope of a cure. Spinalónga remained a leprosy colony for nine more years, although these advances in medicine meant isolation was no longer appropriate, and care remained rudimentary. The priests who lived with the people were often their most vocal advocates, and the Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalónga led to many of their demands being met.
A colony closes
Saint Panteleímon ... the patron saint of leprosy patients (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The colony finally closed in 1957. The last inhabitant to leave the island was a priest – he had stayed on until 1962 to continue the traditions and rites of the Greek Orthodox Church, in which a dead person is commemorated at intervals of 40 days, six months, a year, three years and five years after death.
11, The Church of Saint Panteleímon is visited by the families of former patients, who pray and leave their votive offerings (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Three of the Venetian-era churches survive to this day: Ayios Nikólaos, Ayios Geórgios and Ayios Panteleímon. Ayios Nikólaos served both Venetian Catholic and Greek Orthodox needs. Saint Panteleímon was the patron saint of leprosy patients, and the island’s inhabitants restored the church in 1953. To this day it is visited by the families of former patients, who pray there and leave behind their votive offerings.
Back in Ayios Nikólaos, there were many lingering questions (Photogaph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
There are no souvenir shops on the island, no trinkets to buy and take away. But back in Ayios Nikólaos, over lunch beside “the bottomless lake,” I had many questions: Who do we isolate in cruel ways today? Who do we cast outside our community, pretending they pose the risk of contamination? Who, like the priests of Spinalónga are going to speak out for them in the Church today, and to stay with them long after death?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the October edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine(Cashel and Ossory).