Spinalonga: Space and Memory

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 [1], 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.

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[1] James E. Irby, ‘Borges and the Idea of Utopia’, http://www2.ups.edu/faculty/velez/FL380/Borirby.htm, Accessed 14 July 2015.


Our recent blog posts on the Spinalonga island off the Greek coast got me thinking about other deserted cities that are tourist destinations. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is Pompeii, in southern Italy. After its burial under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city was not properly rediscovered until 1748. As soon as excavations started Pompeii became a tourist site, and it currently attracts around 2.6 million visitors every year. The main appeal of the city is seeing a world frozen in time, as everything is so perfectly preserved. What can we learn from this fascination with the permanent and enduring, and how does this interest in the city reflect on changing views of what is worth remembering, over time?
The appeal of Pompeii is in the quotidien, ‘the loaves of bread and hair pins’ as cultural historians Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul put it. [1]  But it is precisely its ordinariness that makes it so extraordinary today. Normally cities disappear gradually, they crumble away and then they are gone. Pompeii is the opposite of that, and the fact that it has been naturally preserved for so long makes it now all the more important not to allow any type of decay to impact on it. When the House of Gladiators collapsed in 2010, the general response was that Italy as a nation had failed to protect the city. [2]The city is no longer seen as a living, developing thing, but instead as something that must be preserved exactly as it was, forever.
This is directly at odds with how tourism to Pompeii has developed. Soon after the initial excavations started in the mid-18th century, Pompeii became established as part of the Grand Tour; aristocratic gentlemen from England visited the city on their longer journeys across Europe. The Tour was supposed to give the young men a solid grounding in culture, and an acquaintance with classical culture was part of that. When rail travel made tourism accessible the middle-classes were also able to visit Pompeii, and its popularity has not flagged since. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy today. The modern town of Pompei (with one ‘i’) was founded in 1891 and now provides the train station and hotels for all the visitors. The site is struggling with balancing its need for preservation with the increasing number of tourists, and the income that they bring. Large parts of the city which had been open to tourists in the 1960s, have since been closed off. At the same time a restaurant and cafe have now been constructed in the centre of the town, to cater for  the tourists. Previously, there were no amenities in the old city. So while the social function of Pompeii lies precisely in its status as unchanging city, the fact of its popularity has forced it to adapt, both for commercial and archaeological reasons. Additionally, some of the wall paintings, such as the one of the God of Fertility Priapus, are locked away from public view or put on display, depending on the morals of the age.
So when we visit Pompeii and believe ourselves to experience what it was like to live in a Roman city, we must remind ourselves that this is a myth. The city is as much a product of our own times as it is of the Pax Romana. Its very existence today is a reflection of what we value as history, what we think of as important to preserve, and of the apparent belief that a city should be kept static. The derelict, abandoned city is an empty canvas on which beliefs can be projected.

[1] Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 2.
[2]  See ‘House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii’ BBC News, accessed 5/8/15 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11704720

Shackleton in the City: Exploring Disused Urban Space

Last month saw the release of Mad Max: Fury Road – a remake of the cult seventies blockbuster [1] featuring a post-apocalyptic, dystopian desert landscape. Cinema has always had a love affair with the end times, with cities turned into dust. And in this particular incarnation, dystopian imaginings meet the classic Hollywood road movie. In a sense, such films invite us to explore the ruins of our contemporary culture, sandblasted by time (and the set designers). They invite us to explore our fallen cities.
Myths of lost cities are certainly nothing new; the story of Atlantis is curiously perennial and has captured the imagination of explorers, filmmakers, and students of literature alike. The tree of life is deciduous – and we seem to enjoy revelling in the ephemeral nature of our urban structures, the transience of life in the spaces of the city. Perhaps there is something forbidden about watching the end. Do we relish imagining the passing of social structures and spaces that constrain us? The myriad reasons for this ultimately morbid fascination are beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting to observe, however, is one particular recent expression of this obsession with fallen cities: Urban Exploration (rather wonderfully termed ‘Reality Hacking’ by one website[2]), the practice of visiting, and documenting on social media and online forums, the skeletal remains of urban structures, fallen into disrepair not in bygone millennia, but in more recent years and in some cases months; a kind of archaeology of the now. One such forum is called (demonstrating the link between fallen cities and cinema) 28 Days Later – Urban Exploration. The website can be found here: http://www.28dayslater.co.uk.  The site’s subpages collect thousands of images, videos, and other ephemera, all documenting (sometimes mapping) abandoned buildings in cities around the UK. The most striking categories include ‘Cinemas and Theatres’, ‘Asylums’, and a page named, rather tantalisingly, ‘Underground’.
The site self-effacingly informs visitors that it is ‘a meeting-place for like-minded people’ [3] keen to share their experiences of urban space. Yet, what is really being created here is an exhaustive atlas of the re-appropriation of disused city space – usually where the state or industry has pulled out, and people have been drawn in, like animals returning to a once polluted area. The website is careful not to condone illegal or dangerous behaviour. And rightly so. However, while the practice of exploring structures that have been abandoned (usually with good reason) is undoubtedly risky, these urban explorers are taking part in the philosophically commendable exercise of urban renewal – in its most literal sense. By exploring disused city spaces, they are making the city anew. Historically, explorers, usually in the pay of the sovereign or head of state, have visited uncharted territories and produced maps, making the unknown familiar. The urban explorer has a related but inverted role: she submits the familiar forms of the city to an anthropological, documenting gaze that renders them alien and unknown.
Like nature photographers, these new explorers keep records of buildings, focusing on those on the brink of extinction. Such online visual documents of endangered architectural species are a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps one day, society will thank these Shackletons of the city for their annotated digital notebooks on our ephemeral urban ecosystem.

[1] There were three Mad Max films made between 1979 and 1985. The first film was released in 1979.
[2] http://www.forbidden-places.net/, accessed 01/06/15
[3] http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/, accessed 01/06/15