A few years ago, during my first trip to Crete, one of my yogi friends recommended me to read the book The Island by Victoria Hislop. I got hooked and read it in no time! Then bought it in Greek for another friend and keep recommending it to friends who travel to Crete. At last it took me 3 years to go and visit Spinalonga or we should call it the Ghost island given its dramatic past.
I was lucky enough as there were not many tourists that day, so the walk around the islet was enjoyable with the turquoise waters. I had a strange feeling given its dramatic past though. It was hard to see it in real after how I had pictured it when reading the book.
A bit of history
The islet was used as a Venetian defence as it offers a panoramic view over the gulf and opposite coasts. Its name most likely derives from the Greek phrase “stin Elounda” and in old Venetian documents it was referred to as “Stinelonda”. But the Venetians modified the word to fit their language to Spinalonga.
A fortified islet
A fortress was built in antiquity but only ruins remained. During the Venetian Rule, it was decided to rebuild ramparts and towers from 1579. Construction presented some issues and lasted for over half a century. In 1630 it was fitted with cannons only because of the Ottoman threat. Despite the Turkish control over Crete since 1669, the islet remained in Venetian hands until 1715. During the Ottoman Rule, Spinalonga became a safe urban centre thanks to its strong fortifications with permanent residents up until the beginning of the 20th century.
The Leper Colony
Spinalonga became a leper colony for all the lepers of Crete from 1903 until 1954. During that time inhabitants were able to restart “normal” lives on the island like any other community on the main island. Houses left by the last Turkish residents were rebuilt and created a water supply system based on the Venetian one (collected rainwater transported to wells on top of the hill). Although most of their supplies come from the hinterland, they were able to cultivate small gardens and raise chickens and goats. There were shops, a hairdresser, a barber and tavernas (dancing was possible in one of them) and even a theatre group was created. Spinalonga has remained abandoned since the colony closed its doors, putting an end to human pain and the fight against it.
Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area and interested about the history of the island.
“What happened to me? What is it I’ve got?
Why am I tired?” he thought, and desperately groped the whole of his face to his neck. His whole mug was swollen, but it didn’t hurt. Only f-his eyes stung and the tears had started to flow.
“I have to see, to see, I want to know!” he thought. He took the little mirror out from his belt, crouched down, lit a lantern and looked… Inside the jumping flames he could see his face and het let our a cry. His whole face fad peeled, his eyes had become two small beads, his nose had snuck into the swollen cheeks and his mouth had become a hole. This was not the face of a human, it was a fleshy snout, inhuman, sickly. As though it wasn’t his own meat. A foreign meat had stuck onto his, his face had disappeared. “My God, not leprosy?” suddenly came to his head, and he slumped to the floor.
Extract from the novel Christ Recrucified (1948) by Nikos Kazantzakis
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