It is the 16th of June. The heat is oppressive. I am walking along a dirt track, breathing in hot air, among the exposed beams, crumbling concrete, and assorted architectural remnants of Spinalonga, a tiny island off the coast of Crete. I point my camera at layers of civilization consigned to dust.
The island, which is little more than an outcrop of rock only 8 hectares in area, is an accretion of layered histories. Spinalonga was a Venetian garrison until 1715, when it became a Muslim settlement, housing (among others) the women of the sultan’s harem. In 1904 the island’s houses, already ruins, became home to a leper colony, first for Crete alone, and later for the whole of Greece. The leper colony closed its doors in 1957 when the island’s 250 or so inhabitants were evicted: some of them cured and allowed to assimilate back into healthy society, others moved to a medical compound on the outskirts of Athens. Today, Venetian cisterns nestle alongside Ottoman built market houses with their inscriptions in Arabic, and the rusting remnants of the disinfection chambers and hospital outbuildings dating from the 1930s and 40s.
The 2015 tourist information brochure, given out by the Ministry of Culture and Sports to all visitors to the island, reads (in English):
…After the leper colony closed in 1957, the islet remained desolate and uninhabited. Spinalonga’s use as a place of confinement for lepers, who experienced the reality of death in isolation and desertion, had stigmatized it. The name ‘Spinalonga’ became synonymous with suffering and acquired symbolic meaning.
After centuries of settlement and re-settlement, use and reuse, Spinalonga was all used up. The islet lay desolate, like furniture covered in a dust-cloth, new visitors put off by the aura of death surrounding it. Its walkways began to crumble, its cisterns ran dry; the abandoned city was a settlement in death throws, and perhaps long past them; an ailing geography – a geographical outcast, like the patients it had once housed.
Recent developments have resulted in the island’s rehabilitation. Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island, which is largely set on Spinalonga and became a bestseller in Greece, has caused a resurgence of interest in the island’s history, and the plight of the lepers who made their lives there. To Nisi, the 2010 Greek language television series that brought Hislop’s novel, and with it Spinalonga, to every home in Greece, has changed attitudes to the desolate place. The series is the most expensive in Greek television history, with production values far outstripping anything that preceded it.
Episode one opens with a night-time boat trip, a dinghy ferrying a sick woman to her place of incarceration. It is understood that she has come to the leper colony to die there. A ghostly figure in a hooded cape, back-lit against the moon, she is a lone passenger in the ferryman’s boat. The visual reference to Charon and Hades is unmistakable and deliberate. Yet the story that follows is one of re-birth, in time and space. After this sequence, and the opening titles, the story proper can begin. In present day London, we follow a young woman in her mid twenties, Alexis. She makes a trip to Crete where her maternal family is from, to find out more about the obscure past of her ancestors. Armed with only a photograph and a road-map of the Greek island, she visits Plaka, a tiny village on Crete proper, separated from Spinalonga by a thin lick of sea. Here she meets her mother’s childhood friend Fotini, who, using the photograph as a starting point, begins to piece together a new picture of the past for Alexis. We explore the island in flashback, as narrated by Fotini. The present-day road atlas Alexis has brought with her is useless. Instead, the black and white image acts as a road-map through a harrowing past. Spinalonga is not portrayed as the Hell the healthy inhabitants of Crete had always imagined it to be. Fotini shows Alexis, and by extension the viewer, that it was never a place of isolation, but a community, just another settlement where people came together, divided up their space, cultivated land, and generally engaged in living, in spite of their affliction.
While much of the action was shot on sets in Plaka, some scenes, notably arrivals on the island, were filmed on Spinalonga itself, inscribing fictional journeys onto the real spaces of the island; the island’s geography was thus the scene of a re-enactment, it’s spaces metaphorically and literally rewritten, in order to make them useable again. Now, five years after the filming of To Nisi, trips to Spinalonga are re-enacted by powerboats, bringing hundreds of tourists to explore the secluded spot each summer. Spinalonga is beginning to wake up, and shake off its stigma, its aura of suffering; it is becoming a viable tourist destination; a healthy space for healthy people, with a healthy economy. Sadly, perhaps, a space that has borne witness, is beginning to forget.
History shows itself here for what it really is. A dense knot of connections, mediations, and re-appropriations. Edifices built by and inhabited by conquerors, came to house the sick and dying, and later the actors mediating their experiences. Concrete structures from the 1930s and broken glass now nestle in with wood and stones and the tools of workmen, resurfacing, preserving, and rebuilding the ruins. Some remnants are obliterated, others kept intact. There is no real way to tell (with the naked eye) which period the island’s many refurbishments belong to, or if they belong to the historical period that is none at all, and are merely the result of imaginative curation, replication, fiction.
James Irby recalls the famous childhood memory of Jorge Luis Borges, who spoke of his father’s analogy of memory as a pile of coins. Spinalonga is a geographical pile of coins , of replicas of replicas, remnants of spaces where time has gathered like so much dust. There are constantly swirling periods, epochs, minutes, and seconds, real and false, all eddying about each other and jostling for space in the now.