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Published 2021-09-17
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Was Spinalonga The Leper Island A Terrifying Colony Of Real Zombies?

Just 20 km from Crete, in the picturesque bay of Mirabello, lies the tiny island of Spinalonga, which is now an extremely popular tourist attraction. This rocky patch of land has a rich but terrifying history, full of suffering and tears. It was here that the last leper colony in Europe once existed, seemingly a nice paradise for the sick, but in fact, it turned out to be hell for them. Some historians have called Spinalonga a concentration camp, and the island of the living dead, but what exactly happened many years ago? How were lepers ruthlessly treated? Why were they condemned to a slow death in agony away from their families? What had to happen for this horror to end? Make sure to read until the very end to find out the history of this interesting place.

Spinalonga - The History

Spinalonga used to be part of Crete, but a huge earthquake pulled it away from the largest Greek island. In the 16th century, a fortress was built on a small piece of land that was created in this way, and it was nicknamed invincible for a reason. When Turkish troops conquered Crete in 1669, Greek troops in Spinalonga successfully resisted the invaders for the next several decades. It was only in 1715 that the island was attacked and until 1903 it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks finally managed to regain it, but it ceased to fulfill its military function.

Spinalonga - A Laprosarium

The authorities of Crete decided that due to its location, it would be perfect as a leprosarium, a secluded settlement for lepers. It was the last camp of this type established in Europe and for over 50 years of operation, it became a home for thousands of patients. It was supposed to be a quiet place where the infected would be treated, qualified medical personnel would watch over their fate, and even a chance to create a real community of people affected by leprosy. However, it soon turned out that Spinaloanga was nothing more than a prison from which there was no escape.

Spinalonga - Start Of The Colony

But let's go back to Spinalonga. From the moment the colony was opened in 1903, there were several hundred people in a small area. Those were the times when there was no cure for leprosy, and the sick were persecuted and thrown out of the social margin. The cause of the infection was unknown, and it was even believed that the disease was nothing more than a biblical punishment for their sins. Such beliefs were born as early as the Middle Ages when lepers lost almost all rights. They were called the living dead, forced to leave their families and wear rags to cover their bodies, on which there were visible signs of disease. A characteristic symptom of the infection were ulcers that healed with difficulty, deformation of limbs and facial features, as well as blindness.

Leprosy - The Causes

It is known today that leprosy, also known as lepra or Hansen's disease, is caused by a bacterial infection, namely Mycobacterium leprae attacking the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. The infection occurs most often through droplets, and the infection is mainly exposed to people with a weak immune system and those living in areas where there is no access to clean water or medical help, which causes the disease to spread quickly. Even in the mid-1980s, leprosy suffered as many as 12 million people a year, worldwide, and nowadays infections are much less common thanks to medications and medical treatments recommended by the World Health Organization.

Spinalonga - The History

Spinalonga - Living Conditions

However, before the causes of the disease were known more closely and the cures for leprosy were discovered, the disease was widely disgusted and dreaded. The sick were isolated to the outskirts of towns and villages and placed in leprosariums, such as in Spinalonga. The sick were sent to the island to leave this world in agony. They were brought in handcuffs like prisoners and under the escort of the Crete police. In addition, people with minor diseases, such as psoriasis, were also sent there, because the doctors of that time misdiagnosed them with leprosy. The sick had inhuman conditions on the island, steep slopes and numerous stairs made it impossible for people with deformed limbs to move. For this reason, most of them were unable to reach the spacious houses located deep in Spinalonga and therefore crowded into small buildings closer to the coast. The island had no electricity or even running water, and its only source was old cisterns, dirty and full of germs.

Spinalonga - The Reality Of The Island

The colony lacked basic medications, painkillers, or disinfectants. Moreover, there were no doctors who were theoretically supposed to live in Spinalonga, but in practice, they came by ships from the mainland to occasionally visit the sick. Suppliers of food and goods decided to travel to the colony only for a high fee, otherwise, no one would risk their health. Even the families of the infected rarely came to visit because of the terrifying stories circulating about the island. The only healthy inhabitants were therefore the guards, and since they were usually recruited from among convicts and ex-criminals, there was more than one instance of persecution and abuse of the sick.

Spinalonga - Things Only Slightly Improved

This ultimately contributed to the rebellion of the inhabitants, thanks to which the brutal guards were removed by the authorities of the leprosarium. With time, even more, sick people from various parts of Greece began to reach the camp, but because among them there were, among others, the educated and wealthy people of Athens, the island was slowly changing. The possibility of opening shops and cafes was fought, the conditions in residential houses were improved, and the first temples were even built. The first primitive hospital with staff was established in 1937, over 30 years after the colony was established. Over time, the inhabitants created their own community, whose members even got married, but one of the most dramatic practices was taking their children from them as soon as it turned out that they were born healthy. Journalists reaching the island quickly discovered that its inhabitants, despite the introduced amenities, still could only count on a bit of normality. Many patients still had no access to medical care, there was no shortage of neglect, and the dead were buried in nameless graves. Food was scarce and crops were hard to come by on the sandy soils.

The End of Spinalonga

Spinalonga also went through a tragic period of World War II. Although the Germans occupying Crete did not dare to enter its territory, fearing the plague, the inhabitants paid for this time with hunger. All deliveries were suspended, water was scarce, and doctors did not reach the sick for months. The occupants guarded the shores of the island from a distance and shot anyone who dared to flee Spinalonga, hoping that this would save themself from starvation. When the war ended, the first cure for leprosy was discovered in America, but unfortunately, it was not a guarantee of leaving Spinalonga. The authorities did not know what to do with the convalescents, and even some inhabitants refused to leave the island themselves, fearing that they would never be accepted in society. However, over time, the place was getting emptied more and more. Those least affected may have moved to Crete, and lepers in a very poor condition, suffering from body deformities and blindness, were placed in the Greek hospital in Agia Varvara.

Spinalonga - The Popular Tourist Destination

The leper colony on Spinalonda finally closed in 1957. Nobody has lived on the island since then, and now it is an extremely popular tourist attraction in that part of the world. The stories about the camp became an inspiration for a novel titled "The Island" by Victoria Hislop and the filming of the documentary "Last Words" by Werner Herzog. In addition, only a few preserved historical sources tell about the suffering history of Spinalonga - the cursed leper island from which it was impossible to get out alive.

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