The island of Spinalonga (Greek: Σπιναλόγκα), officially known as Kalydon (Καλυδών), is located in the Gulf of Elounda in north-eastern Crete, in Lasithi, next to the town of Elounda. The island is further assigned to the area of Kalydon. It is near the Spinalonga peninsula (“large Spinalonga”) – which often causes confusion as the same name is used for both. The official Greek name of the island today is Kalydon.
Originally, Spinalonga was not an island, it was part of the island of Crete. During Venetian occupation the island was carved out of the coast for defense purposes and a fort was built there.
During Venetian rule, salt was harvested from salt pans around the island. The island has also been used as a leper colony. Spinalonga has appeared in novels, television series, and a short film.
Origin Of The Name
According to Venetian documents, the name of the island originated in the Greek expression στην Ελούντα stin Elounda (meaning “to Elounda”). The Venetians could not understand the expression so they familiarized it using their own language, and called it spina “thorn” lunga “long”, an expression that was also maintained by the locals. The Venetians were inspired for this expression by the name of an island near Venice called by the same name and which is known today as the island of Giudecca.
The Venetian cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli reports that Spinalonga was not always an island, but was once linked with the adjacent Peninsula Spinalonga. He mentions that in 1526, the Venetians cut down a portion of the peninsula and thus created the island. Because of its position the island was fortified from its earliest years in order to protect the entranceway of the port of Ancient Olous.
Olous, and accordingly the wider region, were depopulated at the middle of the 7th century because of the raids of the Arab pirates in the Mediterranean. Olous remained deserted until the mid-15th century when the Venetians began to construct salt-pans in the shallow and salty waters of the gulf. Subsequently, the region acquired commercial value and became inhabited. This fact, in combination with the emergent Turkish threat, particularly after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the continuous pirate raids, forced the Venetians to fortify the island.
In 1578 the Venetians charged the engineer Genese Bressani to plan the island’s fortifications. He created blockhouses at the highest points of the northern and southern side of the island, as well as a fortification ring along the coast that closed out any hostile disembarkation. In 1579, the Provveditore Generale of Crete, Luca Michiel, put the foundation stone of the fortifications, built over the ruins of an acropolis. There are two inscriptions that cite this event, one on the transom of the main gate of the castle and the other on the base of the rampart at the north side of the castle. In 1584, the Venetians, realising that the coastal fortifications were easy to conquer by the enemies attacking from the nearby hills, decided to strengthen their defence by constructing new fortifications at the top of the hill. The Venetian fire would thus have bigger range, rendering Spinalonga an impregnable sea fortress, one of the most important in the Mediterranean basin.
Spinalonga, along with Gramvousa and Souda, remained in Venetian hands even after the rest of Crete fell to the Ottomans in the Cretan War (1645–1669) and until 1715, when they fell to the Ottomans during the last Ottoman–Venetian War. These three forts defended Venetian trade routes and were also useful bases in the event of a new Venetian-Turkish war for Crete. Many Christians found refuge in these fortresses to escape persecution from the Ottoman Turks.
In 1715, the Ottoman Turks captured Spinalonga taking over the last remaining Venetian fortress and removing the last trace of Venetian military presence from the island of Crete.
At the end of the Turkish occupation the island, together with the fort at Ierapetra, was the refuge of many Ottoman families that feared Christian reprisals. After the revolution of 1866 other Ottoman families came to the island from all the region of Mirabello. During the Cretan revolt of 1878, only Spinalonga and the fortress at Ierapetra were not taken by the Christian Cretan insurgents. In 1881 the 1112 Ottomans formed their own community and later, in 1903, the last Turks left the island.
20th Century Leper Colony
The island was subsequently used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957. It is notable for being one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. The last inhabitant, a priest, left the island in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated at following intervals of 40 days; 6 months; 1 year; 3 years; and 5 years, after their death. Other leper colonies that have survived Spinalonga include Tichileşti in Eastern Romania, Fontilles in Spain and Talsi in Latvia. As of 2002, few lazarettos remain in Europe.
There were two entrances to Spinalonga, one being the lepers’ entrance, a tunnel known as “Dante’s Gate”. This was so named because the patients did not know what was going to happen to them once they arrived. However, once on the island they received food, water, medical attention and social security payments. Previously, such amenities had been unavailable to Crete’s leprosy patients, as they mostly lived in the area’s caves, away from civilization.
Today, the uninhabited island is a popular tourist attraction in Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the fortress, Spinalonga is known for its small pebble beaches and shallow waters. The island can easily be accessed from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart from both towns on a daily basis. There is no accommodation on Spinalonga, meaning all tours last only a few hours. Boat trips from Elounda take approximately fifteen minutes while trips departing Aghios Nikolaos can take almost an hour.