Question: Where in the world is this “island of the living dead” where 400 outcasts were forced to live in the early 20th century?
Answer: Spinalonga, Greece
While bathed in sunshine and surrounded by crystalline waters, for decades, the Greek island of Spinalonga was anything but paradise. The island has a tragic history as one of the last active Leper communities in Europe where those inflicted with leprosy were exiled to from the years of 1903 to 1957.
Leprosy, which causes debilitating skin sores and nerve damage, has long carried a negative stigma. Individuals with the infectious disease were shunned from and mistreated by their families, their communities, and even medical professionals. In Greece, once diagnosed, victims had their property and finances seized and their citizenship revoked. They were deported to the island of Spinalonga, to live out the rest of their lives. Though not always fatal, leprosy has been nicknamed as “death before death” since ancient days.
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On the island, victims rarely received medical treatment but lived in fear and isolation. There are many tales of horror from the island, especially from the years when there was little infrastructure and inhumane conditions. Sometimes people were misdiagnosed and sent to Spinalonga for minor conditions like psoriasis. At its peak, about 400 people lived on the island with no contact from the outside world.
It wasn’t until 1936 when Epaminondas Remountakis arrived on the island that life began to change. He was a third-year law student at Athens’ Law School and only 21 years old when he was cast into exile. When he arrived on the island, he founded the Brotherhood of the Sick of Spinalonga and dedicated his life to improving the living conditions of the colony. To begin, one of the first rules was a ban on mirrors—because no one wished to see themselves.
They lobbied the Greek government for the right to marry and operate businesses, slowly turning the island of fear into a true community. Theaters, cinemas, barbershops, cafes, churches, and stores were all opened up around the island, providing the residents with a more comfortable life. People married and children were born without leprosy.
Fortunately, the number of patients on the island started to decline by the 1948 due to a new drug treatment. However, the stigma of the illness remained and its patients were seen as monsters, not humans, when they left the island. For years to come, reference to the island remained taboo. Today, there are small plaques throughout the island which pay respect to those who never managed to leave.
A Few More Facts about Spinalonga:
- Before it was a leper community, the island was a Venetian and Ottoman military stronghold.
- After its closure, the government was anxious to erase any trace of the colony’s existence. They burned all of the files, and many surviving inhabitants refused to speak about their experiences.
- Later, the island was renamed to Kalydron due to Spinalonga’s controversial history.
- In 2005, Victoria Hislop’s novel titled “The Island” told the story of Spinalonga and the life the lepers built for themselves. It later became a hit television show in Greece, but some say the series was a rose-colored portrayal of the colony.
- Today, Spinalonga is second most visited archeological site in Crete.