I booked a boat trip for myself on Tuesday, the trip to the Island Spinalonga. I believed that being alone would give me the headspace necessary to handle the emotions that would very likely be provoked by this heart-trending story. I preferred not to be interrupted when going through this absorbing process. If you´ve read the book The Island ( “Øya” in Norwegian) by Victoria Hislop, you might, like me, have made some deep reflections on the lost souls on Spinalonga. The whole story is set in the island.
The island has a long and turbulent history, however, it´s probably most well-known for being a leprosy colony from 1903 to 1957 after the gripping novel of Victoria Hislop became an international success. Despite being fictional, the story has brought a vital part of Cretan history to life.
In 1903, all leprosy patients who lived in the settlements near Crete were sent to Spinalonga, an island located in the Gulf of Elouda in north-eastern Crete, next to the town of Plaka. Spinalonga became a leprosy colony and for the leprosy sufferers, it was the beginning of a painful and isolated life. Many of the patients would never see their families again. In the early years, the lives of the new residents were miserable without any forms of care and medication treatment. Medical care was only provided to those who were severely ill. Spinalonga was seen as a vast slum, a cemetery for the leprosy patients. According to cretanbeaches.com, until 1936, the patients on the island were totally neglected, and many of them died in terrible pain.
The living conditions improved after 1936, and the leprosy hospital was upgraded. The Cretan State issued a monthly benefit to each patient so that they could buy essential food supplies. This provided the residents with a certain degree of financial independence.
Following the path that led me to the tragic life of the leprosy patients, I was overwhelmed by sadness. The first place I noticed was the graveyard. I was told that because of limited space, 3 or 4 bodies were buried in the same grave. I was expecting to hear the sighs, the whispers. It was all quiet.
I didn’t realise this small building in a rather bad condition was a church in the first place. However, the decorations inside were well preserved.
Despite the limited space of the island, two churches were built for the residents. This church was larger than the previous one, and made of heavy stones. Both churches were closed for service.
Food supplies were delivered several times a week by a small boat from Plaka, the island on the other side. Standing on the port, the leprosy patients could clearly see Plaka, where their families lived. They must be longing to see their children or parents. They might be hoping desperately to get a glimpse of their loved ones. It was so close, but so distant and unreachable.
A third year law student, Epameinondas Remoundakis, who suffered from Leprosy himself played a decisive role in the improvement of living conditions for the leprosy patients on the island. He was the founder of “The Fraternity of Patients of Spinalonga” and demanded human living conditions on behalf of the residents. The situation improved, life for many patients began to be more like the one they had left behind.
Some pictures with explanatory texts were hanging on the walls in a small museum on the island. Everyday life of the patients was governed by the regulatory decrees passed by The Cretan Autonomous Government and the Greek State. The patients lived independently in their own private spaces and were responsible for running their own lives. Neither the restrictions imposed by the regulations nor their wrenched conditions weakened their will to live a normal life. They organised their living space, spent time cultivating the land, fell in love and had children. The residents took care of each other, and ran their own cafes and shops.
From 1948 onwards, the cure for leprosy disease had been developed, and the patients were gradually moved to the leprosy hospital in Athens for treatment.
This note shows the date when the last patient left the island on 19 June 1957.
I made to the top of the island, here I had the view of the sea and islands on the opposite side.
I want to end this post with a quotation from Epaminondas Remoundakis, the former leprosy patient and a strong figure in the leprosy community:
“When walking the path of Spinalonga, stop and hold your breath. From a hovel around, you will hear a dirge from a mother or a sister, or a man sigh. Leave two tears from your eyes and you will see million tears having watered that road twinkling.”
(The tunnel to the main entrance)