A crossroads of different cultures over the centuries, a symbol of isolation and human suffering, but also a unique example of stamina and determination for life and progress. Spinalonga is a location that holds a special place both in Greek and world history. The request for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site enjoys the full support of the Committee "Greece 2021"
"June 19, 1957. The last [sick] leper Wednesday." In these ten fainted words, which she wrote on the old pharmacy door with the help of an unsharpened pencil, the last resident of Spinalonga managed to fit a story of unspeakable pain. A story of social rejection, isolation, and prejudice that lasted for more than 50 years. Families were separated by force, loved ones were lost forever, people were sentenced to a particular type of prison to save their neighbors from the disease. Living beings experienced a "descent into Hell"...
And yet, Spinalonga is not just another symbol of human despair. It is a unique manifestation of meaningful and universal values that seem more relevant nowadays during the pandemic than ever. The love for freedom, the tenacity, the resilience, and the realistic belief that, under any circumstances, man can and must rise above the condition of simply living and collectively pursue the living-well.
“"Gianna Aggelopoulou-Daskalaki: "The Committee's obligation is to highlight our history, everything sacred that has happened in these 200 years, and to talk about the values that this course bestowed upon us, with 1821 as the starting point. These are the values we discover in Spinalonga. Love for freedom, love for life, resilience, bravery, the stamina shown by all the people who found themselves here once.
People from very different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds lived on this small and barren rock. Between the 16th and the 20th century, Spinalonga's population composition changed three times. From a Venetian fortress between 1579 and 1715 to an Ottoman fortress and settlement between 1715 and 1898 to a leper colony between 1904 to 1957. The physical remains of the human activity in the area have composed a unique palimpsest, where the brilliant creations of the Venetian fortification architecture of the 16th century coexist with the enchanting ruins of an Ottoman settlement of the 18th and 19th centuries and the buildings of the 20th century. Spinalonga receives about 380,000 visitors each year. During June, July, and August, more than 4,000 visitors a day disembark on the rocky island, making Spinalonga the second most visited archaeological site in Crete after Knossos.
Spinalonga and the 200 years since the Greek Revolution
The Committee "Greece 2021," in the context of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution, considers it a special duty to remember the fight of Spinalonga's patients for equality, for dignity, for human rights, for these same values the Greeks have defended many times in their historical course and to highlight the worldwide significance of the island, a meeting place of so many cultures.
"The Committee "Greece 2021," fully aware of its role to highlight the unique history of our country, is here today respectfully and emotionally moved" the President of the Committee "Greece 2021", Gianna Aggelopoulou-Daskalaki said during her visit to the island, on July 9, 2020. She pledged that both she and the Committee would dynamically support the candidacy folder submitted to UNESCO so that Spinalonga can be designated a World Heritage Site.
"Spinalonga is a universal monument. You will ask me how does this relate to the Committee's work? The Committee's obligation is to highlight our history, everything sacred that has happened in these 200 years, and discuss the values that this course, with 1821 as its starting point, has bequeathed to us. These are the values we discover in Spinalonga. Love for freedom, love for life, resilience, bravery, the stamina shown by all the people who found themselves here once. These must be emphasized through the designation of Spinalonga as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We want to advocate for the island and be proud that, on the event of the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, we did something that will remain a legacy for the future," she mentioned.
Stories from the island
Epameinondas Remoundakis was only 21 years old when the authorities arrested him in Athens. The signs of leprosy were now beginning to become evident on his body. A third-year law student in 1936, he felt his life come to an end before he could even dream about his future. A few months later, he asked to be transferred to Spinalonga, where his sister resided, also struck by Hansen's disease. He was a man with an open mind, a visionary, and he never gave up.
In the 20 years he remained in Spinalonga, his willingness to live inspired and encouraged the inhabitants of the island to claim better living conditions. Through the establishment of the "Brotherhood of Spinalonga Patients", the Hanseatic patients began to believe in their strength again. They whitewashed their homes, started cleaning the streets, created a theater, a cinema, maintenance services, and lit the streets with electricity. Horror gave way to solidarity, mutual care, and self-confidence in their collective demands. "Since my life is lost, I will give it all to fight for the lepers of Spinalonga," Remoundakis once told the French-Swiss philhellene architect and ethnologist Maurice Born, who became associated with the study of the history of Spinalonga. Maurice Born sadly died before he was able to see his emblematic book entitled "Vies et morts d' un Crétois lépreux" ("Lives and deaths of a Cretan leper") translated into Greek.
Many, like Remoundakis himself, got married on the island and had a family. There were many children born in Spinalonga who never had the disease. The people left in 1957, but at some point, many felt the need to return. There are hundreds of stories of people who came back. One of them was narrated by archaeologist Mrs. Georgia Moschovi of the Lassithi Antiquities Ephorate. While she and some of her colleagues were in one of the buildings on the island, a woman suddenly entered the space, exhibiting a somewhat strange "confidence" and unfounded "familiarity". When asked by the people present on the reasons for her visit, the answer was unexpected: "I came back home." She had left the island at the age of 20.
But slowly, even art began to recognize and connect with the tragedy and struggle of the island inhabitants. Galateia Kazantzaki, Nikos Kazantzakis' first wife, was the first writer to use Spinalonga as the place of development for the narrative plot of a book. In 1914, using the pen name Petroula Psiloritis, she published the novel "Sick State", describing the lives of the people in this strict imposed isolation. A work by Themos Kornaros followed, but it was Victoria Hislop's book that changed Spinalonga's circumstances in popular culture. Through the narrative of a love story in Spinalonga, the British writer managed to convey a sense of empathy for what happened on the island.
In fact, in one particular case, art seems to have provided some solace to the patients. On the second floor of a house located in the old Ottoman quarter and re-inhabited by Hanseatic patients, archaeologists discovered traces of a painting. It included flowers, some doors as well as a small... hydroplane. The "mystery" didn't take long to solve. In 1936, Elounda was used as a landing strip for the seaplanes owned by the company Imperial of England. Stranded on the island, the "seaplane painter" saw from afar a world that lived and progressed without him.
*Our warmest thanks to archaeologist Mrs. Georgia Moschovi of the Lassithi Antiquities Ephorate, for the invaluable information on the history of Spinalonga she shared with us.