Spinalonga : Venetians, Ottomans, Lepers

Spinalonga is a tiny island off Crete, next to a much larger peninsula, also (confusingly) called Spinalonga. It (the little island) was one of the really interesting places we visited on my recent trip to Greece. It was a beautiful day when we went there, as you can see from the image below, taken from the boat.Spinalonga, off Crete, from sea

The island has a long history and was strategically important during the wars between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires. The Seventh (and last) of the Ottoman Venetian Wars was in 1714-1718. That was when Venice finally lost Spinalonga to the Ottoman Empire.

Strategic importance?

Map of Greece, Crete, SpinalongaThis is where Spinalonga lies (circled in red on north-east of Crete in this map of Greece and the Adriatic):

The island was part of Venice’s extensive fortifications against the Ottoman Empire. They acquired Crete after the Fourth Crusade in 1204. They began fortifying Spinalonga in 1578, with blockhouses at the highest points and a ring of fortifications. This map shows their work.Spinalonga, Venetian fortifications

One of the huge bastions (highlighted yellow in the early Venetian map above) is named after Luca Michiel, the engineer who planned it in 1579. It has seven cannon ports. The half-moon-shaped (mezzaluna) Bastion Michiel is still impressive, both from the landward side and from the sea. Definitely not the place to attempt a hostile landing.

Spinalonga, Basion Michiel, land side Spinalonga, Bastion Michiel, from sea

The Venetians circled the island with a defensive wall as shown in the map below. The areas coloured dark red are from the Venetian occupation until 1715; the pink areas are buildings from the Ottoman period until the end of the 19th century; the pale green areas are from the 20th century when the island was a leper colony. [Click to enlarge. The Legend, right, might just be legible.]

Spinalonga map

It’s interesting that it took so long for the Ottomans to take Spinalonga. They took Crete itself much earlier, during the Fifth War, which ended in 1669. The tiny island of Spinalonga remained Venetian for another 40+ years.

Living on Spinalonga was difficult

As you can see from the map, there aren’t many Venetian buildings. It wasn’t really an island of settlements; it was mainly a fortress, for soldiers, though the saltworks in the Elounda bay (between Spinalonga and Crete) were the most important source of salt in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1581, there were 45 saltworks in Spinalonga, exporting to Venice. The image below shows more modern salt harvesting there.

Yet it’s clear from the amount of pink on the map that the Ottomans lived there in considerable numbers, for nearly two centuries. And when there were uprisings on Crete in the 19th century, many Ottoman families fled to Spinalonga for safety. At its height, the Ottoman community numbered over 1,100. And that’s on an island that you can walk round in about 15 minutes. It really is tiny.

What’s more, the island didn’t have a water supply. No rivers or springs. Nothing.
Water depended on collecting, and husbanding, rain water.

The Ottoman cisterns are shown in my annotated map below. We were told they held enough water for a year (though I imagine the inhabitants were not profligate with it).Spinalonga map, cisterns, gates, mosque

The Ottoman inhabitants clearly liked living on Spinalonga, in spite of the difficulties. They felt safer there. Their houses were small, but adequate. The images show one street which has been restored and one of the restored shops with accommodation above:

Spinalonga, street exterior, houses       Spinalonga, restored shop house

Clearly, the Ottomans had a community, with houses and shops. There was a mosque to support their religious life. In terms of work, life revolved around the Elounda bay area. The production of salt fell after the Venetians left, but there was fishing and the export of agricultural produce from Crete (mainly olive oil, carob beans and almonds).

When and why did the Ottomans leave?

Spinalonga ruinsThe why depends on who you ask.

The Wikipedia article doesn’t actually say why they left. It does say that, after various 19th century uprisings over the issue of Crete becoming part of Greece, the Great Powers created a Cretan State in 1898 as an autonomous region under Ottoman suzerainty. Later in 1898, after the Candia Massacre, the Great Powers expelled all Ottoman troops and administrators. Crete was granted autonomy but was still not part of Greece. (That legal change happened in 1913.)

Spinalong ruins steep stepsThe Ottoman troops had left but the Ottoman community remained.
For a while.

According to my guide on Spinalonga, the Cretans wanted the Ottomans to leave.
So Crete turned Spinalonga into a leper colony in 1903.

And the Ottomans left.

Brutal but effective?

Spinalonga, leper colony

Spinalonga southern gateLeprosy was still much feared in the first half of the 20th century. And in Crete it was prevalent. In 1903, the Cretan State government decreed that all lepers would be compulsorily confined on Spinalonga.

The lepers entered through a dark gate (the Southern Gate annotated on the map). It was approached through high walls and a very small tunnel entrance.

It must have been terrifying for the lepers. What awaited them on the far side?

Spinalonga, Southern or Dante's Gate

Southern or Dante’s Gate by Robin & Bazylek – originally posted to Flickr as Dante’s Gate, CC BY 2.0, Link

Life in the Leper Colony

In the early years, life for the lepers was dire. They were isolated from their families. There was a state stipend for each patient but they had to shift for themselves, buying food and working if they could (which included cultivating the land). Medical care was extremely basic. Women were employed to provide it, but only for the most infirm. The display below (apologies for the reflections) shows items used in treatment, including ampoules and syringes.

The Ottoman mosque became a leper hospital. It’s marked on my annotated map. You can also see it in this image, taken from the sea. The figures standing outside the main gate give you some idea of the scale of the walls and buildings.Spinalonga main gate and leper hospital from seaAfter World War II, new medications began to be administered and lepers recovered. Those cured were allowed to leave Spinalonga. The last to leave was the Spinalonga priest, in 1957, when the leper colony closed. Since then, the island has been uninhabited, though much restoration has been done in recent years. Nowadays, most visitors are tourists (and archaeologists).

Spinalonga main gate with sea beyond

Spinalonga main gate, looking towards the sea. And escape?

And, having recently spent over 2 weeks in isolation with Covid, I developed even more sympathy for those poor lepers, confined on a tiny island, possibly for decades, with no hope of cure or escape. Eventually, cure and escape did come, for those who had survived long enough. Some of them must have been very strong.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


10 thoughts on “Spinalonga : Venetians, Ottomans, Lepers

  1. Sophie

    I find this utterly fascinating, Joanna. Thank you. Right out in the far west of Europe, I think we Brits seriously underestimate the influence of the Ottoman Empire. Hardly remember a mention of it in our history lessons, though Venice got a fair amount of air time.

    And hope you’re feeling better and venturing out into the world again after your bout of Covid + isolation.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for the good wishes. Yes, I’m fine now though I’ll admit that, for over two weeks, everything smelt and tasted of burnt rubber. Horrid.
      Agree about the Ottoman Empire about which I learned precious little at school. Ditto Venice. Shall be reading up on them soon.

  2. Liz Fielding

    As Sophie says, the dominance of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean feels so far away from us – I think my only school mention of it was when I learned Lepanto — but had such a huge effect for centuries. I actually went to a leper colony in Zambia for a fund-raising fete. Thank heavens for modern medicine.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I hope the Zambian leper colony is now a thing of the past? But pre-20th century, it was such a terrifying disease. The non-leprous women on Spinalonga used to do the chores that required fire, like cooking and laundry, because lepers so often had no feeling in hands and feet and could easily burn themselves badly. Add to that the horrible disfigurement… Ghastly.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Fascinating piece of history. Extraordinary what one tiny island can tell you about past societies – several, in this case. Lepers were unfortunate everywhere, according to various dramatic interludes in films and series I’ve seen. I well remember there were lepers in Africa, but I don’t recall seeing any. I imagine the Ottoman Empire is a feature of any Arab schooling, don’t you? I learned a lot about it watching a Turkish series on Netflix about the father of Osman, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Ertugrul was his name. Fabulous historical drama, very long and complex.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, I recently read John Julius Norwich’s book on Byzantium. It’s a doorstep and it leaves your head in a whirl since there are so many emperors and assassinations and so on. Haven’t got to the Ottomans yet but am soon to read about Venice so that will bring the Ottomans in, since the two fought so many wars over so many centuries.

  4. Sarah Mallory

    What a fascinating and informative post, Joanna, thank you. one tends to think of leper colonies as being something from the distant past, so sad to think that this colony was still around in “modern times”.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree. I’ve always thought of leprosy as something from the medieval period. I too was shocked to discover how prevalent it was in the 20th century. Before they were confined on Spinalonga, the Cretan lepers apparently lived alone in caves on the island. Can’t imagine how they subsisted.

  5. Christina Hollis

    What a fascinating post – I started John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium, but to my shame and disappointment never finished it. Your blog post makes me want to try again! It’s good to hear you are feeling better. I hope the improvement continues.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks so much, Christina. And I agree that JJN’s Byzantium is a bit of a challenge. The message I took from it was that the European powers wanted the Byzantine Empire to continue as a bulwark against the Ottoman invaders but were never prepared to vote the necessary means. European powers kept undermining it, fighting it and helping it to fail. And then they wrung their hands when the Ottomans finally took over.


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