Spinalonga island Crete.


The port of Spinalonga is situated on the northwest side of the gulf of Mirabello. On the entrance of the port, close to the Spinalonga peninsula, is where the skerry of the same name is located, entirely surrounded by a fort.

The port of Spinalonga is situated on the northwest side of the gulf of Mirabello. On the entrance of the port, close to the Spinalonga peninsula, is where the skerry of the same name is located, entirely surrounded by a fort.

During the ancient times, the port of Spinalongs was part of the Olounda city prefecture, but after the destruction of the city, the area started declining. The ancient name of the island was Kalydon. Unconfirmed information point to the island of Spinalongs being a refuge and a nucleus of resistance during the island’s Arabocracy (827 – 961).

When the emperor of Constantinople Aleksios IV Angelos gave Crete to Bonifacio I del Monferrato in 1203, and he later proceeded to sell it to the Venetians on 1204, Venice wasn’t immediately able to conquer its new acquisition. Crete was pillaged by pirates from Genova, headed by Enrico Pescatore, count of Malta. The venetians, did not remain idle, and they tried and finally achieved through fierce fights to oust Pescatore from Crete. An event from those operations that took place in autumn 1206, referencing the name “Spinalongs”,is mentioned by chronographer Martino da Canal.

More specifically, the chronographer mentions that the Duke of Venice Piero Giano organized and dispatched a fleet of 31 warships, commanded by Renier Dandolo and Rugier Premarin, with the aim to restore order in some domains of Venice, and which afterwards turned towards Crete. This was due to the captains information of the existence of Genovese ships in the port “Stinalonde”, as the text says, and they proceeded to capture the enemy ships.

In another chronographic text of the 15th century, there is mention of the same events in the area “I’ stina longa”.

The aforementioned variations of the toponym led to the wording of the correct etymology of the toponym Spinalonga from the corruption of the saying “S tin Elounta” (In Elounda), according to the habit of the Latins to use Greek names along with their articles. The incomprehensible for the Venetians name Stinalonga was turned into the more familiar to them Spinalonga, a toponym that was accepted and held up in Crete. This Italian placename, when pronounced as a separate word, means “long thorn”.

Later, when Crete was passed to Turks (1669), we can find names like Ispirlongs or Isporlonga.

The port and the island of Spinalonga during 1571-1579

The port of Spinalonga was not of such particular interest to the Venetian authorities, as to mind for the fortification of the area. It was after all common belief, that enemy threats would be expressed in other, more important places, especially close to the island’s cities. The port of Spinalonga was safe, but was secluded from the area of Mirabello.

The loss of Cyprus (1571) to the Turks, shifted the political scene in the Mediterranean, and this had a great impact on Venice. So, in October 11 1571, the Venetial Council of Elders voted for the construction of forts on the three most important ports in Crete. According to this decision, the three main ports in Crete would have to be fortified with small forts. This is how, in 1574, although Spinalonga was considered of lesser importance, the commander of the Army Sforza Pallavicini reopened the matter of Spinalonga, causing a series of debates around this matter. In the same year, while on a trip, proveditore Marin di Cavalli inspected the port of Spinalonga and concluded that the area was not suitable for a modern fortification to be built. The reasons were that the area did not offer drinkable water, and that it was not suitable for the encampment of a military force.

Finally, after a long series of clashing opinions on the necessity or not of the fortification of Spinalonga, the decision was made to begin with the works. The Council of Elders in Venice issued a command for the fortification of Spinalonga, in response to the requests of the Venetian authorities in Handakas on that matter. The text of the decision, ordering the construction of a fort in Spanalonga, is dated August 4 1578.

The official command of August the 4th arrived in Crete on March 1579. On arrival of the engineer Genese Bressani to Crete, various preparatory works began, and councils were held to decide on the way to fortify the island. There were two options for the fortifications: either a surrounding wall on the ruins of the old courtyard, or a small fort on the top of the island. Finally the surrounding wall was chosen, as it was considered more effective. The laying of the foundations was made with pomp and circumstance on June 15, 1579. The proveditore Luca Michiel laid the forst stone, carrying the date and the name of Duke Nicolò da Ponte.

This is how the first period of the works began (June 1579 – June 1580), under the supervision of Luca Michiel. The construction began very carefully and with extreme planning. Michiel ordered for the transportation of a large military force from Handakas, to protect in the event of pirate attack.

On the opposite shore of the Kolokitha peninsula, there were kilns to produce the necessary lime. The villagers on duty, aided by the galleons’ crew, transported 38 tons of lime to the island.

During the first phase of the construction, boulder removals were the main part of the works. The miners proved extremely valuable, because without their cooperation the construction would delay for a long time. The workforce wasn’t large. On a daily basis, 100 people were on duty, as well as the galleons’ crew.

On the team of officers that worked there, during the construction of the fort, under the supervision of Michiel, were: the military commander of Crete Moretto Calavrese, ο Genese Bressani as the engineer in charge, , ο Zuanne Bembo as captain of the shore patrol, the captains of the galleons Steffano Magno and G.B. Falier, ο Giovanni Barbarigo in charge of financial matters and Giulio Grisogono as commander of the military force that was on duty on the skerry.

In order for the construction works to continue uninterrupted, timber was needed. Alas, the shipments of timber from Venice were delayed, causing disruptions to the infrastructure. Michiel, having been on 22 months’ duty and had asked permission to return to Venice, wrote to the Council of Elders asking for materials, money and artillery. His report was accepted from Venice, and his efforts were praised. He was given the promise that materials would be sent, nevertheless this promise wasn’t immediately fulfilled.

Due to some problems the works were delayed, while the expenses spiked dramatically. The budget that had been submitted to Venice, along with the fortifications layout, was as follows: the fortifications would need 30.000 ducats and the infrastructure 5.000. So it was understood that such a project, whatever its significance might be, was expensive and time consuming.

Military commander Rangone substituted Michiel in his supervision of the project during November 1579, when Michiel returned to Handakas. During his stay at the capital, Michiel designated a temporary overseer for the fortress, until the one designated by the Council of elders was sent. The Council appointed commander would be Virgilio Belloni da Piombino.

So, from March 1579 to June 1580, the fortification of Spinalonga had been completed, following superhuman efforts.

The fortification of Spinalonga, in contrast to rural forts parts of the expenses of which were covered by the inhabitants’ contributions, was solely financed by Venice. There were always difficulties in the works. The construction was frequently disrupted due to non smooth financing.

The original budget was of 25.000 ducats, which were partially obtained. Of course, the final cost surpassed the initial forecasts, and amounted to about 38.000 ducats. Information on the expenses of the construction of the fort are also available in the well known ledger of Petros Kastrofylakas of 1583. Many errors can be pointed out in his calculations though, so his account is considered as unreliable.

The Cretan War era (1645 – 1669)

In the end of 1645, the fort of Spinalonga was inspected by Camillo Gonzaga, and immediately after, by engineer Dognani. After many conferences in Handakas, it was decided that it was not possible for any further works to take place. An opinion was expressed, that the works that had advanced, should be completed. So embankment fills were executed, and the walls were raised.

During the war efforts of the Turks in the area of Mirabello in 1647, the Venetians feared an attack on Spinalonga, which was under doubt for the possibility of withstanding such an attack. In 1649, when the area was blockaded by Turkish war ships, the fort had some hard times until naval communication was restored by two Venetian galleons.

Proveditore Giacomo Barbaro remained in the fort for some time in the summer of 1650, following some information that the Turks would attack Siteia. The French general, Baron de Speraiter, who was accompanying him, claimed that the fort was not in any danger of naval attacks, because a large numbered fleet would be required.

Insode the fort, things were extremely difficult for the members of the guard. In 1651 a serious mutiny took place from the men of the military forces, with an attempt to assassinate proveditore Gieronimo Marini, something that disturbed the Venetian authorities. This particular event pointed out the harsh conditions and the deprivations that the guard had to suffer, due to the problems in resupplying and in payroll. For this reason, many Cretan families wishing to escape Turkish tyranny were accepted in the fort. The men helped with the fort’s defense, and dashing out of it, they developed an important war effort against the Turks as rebels (Khainides).

In the winter of 1650, damages were reported in the building due to rough seas, that caused serious damages to the walls on the west side. The island’s barracks were deserted, and many men lived in the countryside.

Because communication of the fort of Spinalonga with Handakas was very difficult, due to the presence of Turkish troops in the area, the Venetians decided to intervene. The temporary proveditore G.B. Barbaro arrived from Handakas with two galleons. The attack efforts were aided by the two venetian ships patrolling the port. This attack attempt of the Venetians lasted for three days, with no casualties on their side. So the Turks withdrew from the area. The island was freed, and normally resupplied.

In 1657, Hussein Pasa was preparing for an attack against the fort, but at the last time he decided not to take such a risk. In the spring of 1659, the Turkish fleet appeared in the waters of Spinalonga, although no invasion was attempted.

But, in 1669, the tables turned decisively to the Turks side. Chief general Francesco Morosini began negotiating with the Turks, in order to surrender Handakas to them. The treaty was signed on September 6 1669, with specific clauses that Venice would retain control of the forts of Souda, Gramvoussa and Spinalonga. Following the departure of the Venetians, Francesco Morosini inspected the three forts, starting with Spinalonga. He reinforced the guards, and gave specific commands and instructions.

With Crete under their control, the Turks ceased their efforts to establish their presence in the central Mediterranean area. The Venetian presence was reduced to Tinos and the three forts in Crete.

The Turkish Rule Era (1715-1897)

The island of Spinalonga, after repeated fierce attacks of the Turks that lasted many years, surrendered with a treaty that was signed on October 4 1715. The island’s guard, along with the Venetian officials departed. The inhabitants that remained, were either hanged, or sold as slaves in Handakas, despite the assurances that were given by the Turk side.

During the Turkish rule, the Spinalonga fort was home to a horde of vile Turks, who used it as their base to attack throughout the entire area to pillage and perform various violent acts. During the 1821 revolution, the Turkish residents of Mirabello, would often find refuge on the island of Spinalonga. The area was also used by the Turkish authorities as a place of seclusion or displacement. Around the middle of the 19th century, the Turkish community of the island was performing naval and commercial activities. The population amounted to 80 families.

During the 1866 revolution, the commanders of the Mirabello province isolated the Turkish guard inside the fort, while some small scale battles took place (May 1867 – January 1868).

During the 1878 revolution, battles took place once again around Spinalonga, with the inclusion of captains from the villages of Latsida and Voulismeni, who attacked the fort from the surrounding hills. During the operations of the 1897 revolution, the fort of Spinalonga was besieged by the force of Aristotelis Korakas. The intervention of the Great Powers of the era prevented the fall of the fort.

After the division of Crete into zones of influence by the Great Powers, the Mirabello province was a part of the French zone. So the island was under French protection during the years 1897-1899. A band of 100 Franch sailors, commanded by lieutenant Dupourqué was transferred there on April 1897 to act as guard.

Beginning January 1898, the island was a central prison for those convicted by the Militry Council. Three military officers were charged with supervising the island on August 1898.

Dupourqué and his sailors realized the opening of the canal in Poros. The project started on December 15 1897, and the canal was open on May 10 1898.

Spinalonga was evacuated by the Turkish guard and the largest part of the population on November 1 1898. During next year’s April, the French departed.

Spinalonga in the 20th century.

When Crete became autonomous, three doctors studied in 1900 the problem of leprosy being an endemic illness in Crete, and suggested that the patients be transferred in a special secluded place. So, Spinalonga was selected, with a special commandment of the Cretan State in 1903. On October 13 1904, the first 251 patients from Crete were transferred under the authorities supervision. Their maintenance was on the State’s account.

During 1926-1933, many buildings were added and infrastructure was improved, under the personal interest of Eleftherios Venizelos. Nevertheless, many parts of the fortifications were destroyed and brought down, and other buildings from the Venetian era were demolished.

During the occupation of the Italian – German forces, the conquerors wouldn’t dare release the patients, and were obliged to supply them themselves, since the opposing village of Plaka had been evacuated by them, and the residents had been disbanded to other villages, while at the same time the entire coastal area was fortified with machine guns, underground tunnels and mines, for fear of English invasion of the spot. No Italian or German had ever entered the island, and that is why illegal radio stations operated there, and the Doctor Grammatikakis copied the London and Cairo news and distributed them to the inhabitants.

The tragic story of the island came to an end in 1957, following the transfer of the last patients in Agia Varvara in Attica, and the abolition of the island. For many years the island was submerged in silence. The surrounding areas’ inhabitants removed much of the construction materials for their own use.

In 1972, the 13th council of Byzantine Antiquities efforts prevented the island from becoming a naval base., which would only add to the damage brought on by the leprocomy installation.

Spinalonga in our days

Due to the expressed and intense interest of the numerous tourists, a systematic renovation and repairs of the old buildings, fortifications of the venetian walls, old houses, streets etc has started taking place. Thousands of visitors visit every year this beautiful island on boats that depart every hour from Agios Nikolaos, Elounta and Plaka, which is on the exact opposite shore side, and is about 800 meters from Spinalonga.


Spinalonga today is not just a pile of stones, rocks and ruins. Whoever has read Victoria Hillshop’s best-seller “The island”, is sure to have formed a perfect image of the island. It is a place soaked in blood and tears. And even though Victoria Hillshop made Spinalonga famous worldwide (the book has sold one million copies in 25 languages), there are others who make efforts for an organized interest to salvage the island.

There is no doubt that Spinalonga is unique. It is a mosaic of history. Venetian castle and walls, Ottoman settlement, the shadow of leprosy, the ex colony, the seclusion, the history of Medicine, all make for the image of an island with turbulent history, that once visited, makes you a bearer of the troubled past, and enables you to fully realize the futility of the hu



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