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Fortress of Spinalonga

Date of Submission: 16/01/2014
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Greece to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Region of Crete, Regional Unit of Lasithi
Ref.: 5866
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party

Description

Spinalonga is a barren, arid rocky islet, with an area of 85,000 sq. m., lying in the mouth of the natural harbour of Elounda in Lasithi Prefecture, Crete. The islet was fortified in antiquity, to protect the ancient city of Olous. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Venetians, as part of their great fortification works to defend Crete, built on Spinalonga one of the most important bastion-type seaward fortresses of the Mediterranean, designed according to the bastion system of fortification by Genese Bressani and Latino Orsini. At strategic points in the fortifications are set the Michel and Moceniga or Barbariga demilunes, major works of fortification architecture.

During the Cretan War (1645-1669), refugees sought shelter on the islet, as did rebels (“Chainides”) who used it as a base to harrass the Ottomans. Under the terms of the treaty for the surrender of Chandax (Heraklion) in 1669, Spinalonga remained a Venetian possession. In 1715, following a siege, the islet was surrendered to the Ottomans, the Venetian garrison left and the remaining 600 inhabitants were taken captive.

From 1715 onwards, Spinalonga was settled by Muslims, who built their houses on the foundations of the Venetian buildings. The village flourished after the mid-19th century, until by 1881 it housed a population of 1,112 and was the largest Muslim commercial centre of Merabello Bay.

The village houses were arranged in a stepped pattern across the west and south sides of the islet. At the end of the 19th century it is estimated that there were approximately 200 homes and 25 shops or workshops on Spinalonga. Today many well-built two-storey houses and shops remain; their morphology and symmetrical proportions are indicative of the principles of local and Balkan architectural tradition.

In 1904, during the period of the Cretan State, Spinalonga was chosen as the site of a Leper Hospital. Sufferers who were sent to live on the island survived on State funding and charitable donations. Their hard, wretched life did not weaken their will to live. They organised their home, fell in love, married, had children.

After the Leper Hospital was shut down in 1957, the islet remained deserted and uninhabited. In 1976 it was designated an archaeological site. Today it is an organised archaeological site with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

What makes Spinalonga a monument of outstanding universal value is the fact that architectural remains of different historical periods and cultural influences coexist and converse on the island. Moreover, due to the leper hospital, Spinalonga is a monument to human pain. It symbolizes the concept of incarceration and is synonymous with torment. It is a source of inspiration for authors, film directors, artists and musicians.

Criterion (i): The fortified islet of Spinalonga is a masterpiece of human ingenuity. The fortification architecture that was implemented and evolved on Spinalonga is an innovative application by the human mind of theory in practice.

Criterion (ii): It demonstrates human values over a long period of time, as regards developments in urban planning, the fortification of the islet and the use of space.

Criterion  (iv) : It is an important example of a seaward bastion-type fortress that portrays important phases of human history.

Criterion (vi) : The use of Spinalonga as a leper colony, the most tragic part of its history, emphasizes the unique character of the island.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The fortress complex is in a very good state of preservation due to its solid construction and use of quality materials. Large parts of the village on the island have also remained authentic. The streets, the paths, the houses with their pebble courtyards, the walls with several layers of whitewash, the traces of games on the house doorsteps, are all imbued with the aura of the people who lived here. The island is a fascinating monumental and historical palimpsest.

The integrity of the site is protected given that the islet is a designated archaeological site. The restoration work carried out in recent years is under the Ministry’s control and has helped preserve and promote the archaeological and architectural riches of Spinalonga. 

Comparison with other similar properties

Spinalonga is an excellent and unique example of the use of a historical monument as a leper colony without alterations of its appearance. The monuments cited below, to which Spinalonga could be compared, do not combine both these characteristics.

As regards the fortifications alone, Spinalonga presents similarities to the fortification complex on the Suomenlinna group of islands off Helsinki (Finland, 18th c.), a World Heritage Property. However, the fortifications of Spinalonga are earlier in date (late 16th c.), and the planning of its fortified enceinte is striking for its successful adaptation to a natural terrain with great variations in altitude, which clearly poses a greater architectural challenge. Of roughly similar date to Spinalonga are the fortresses of S. Andrea and S. Felice in the Venetian lagoon, which form part of the full World Heritage List inscription of Venice. The former is an emblematic Renaissance fortress, although its seaward defences have a simple layout (a central demilune forming a bent arc), while the design of the latter is extremely simple compared to that of Spinalonga.

Compared to other fortified islets around the world, such as Suda (Greece), Forte S. Nicolò (Šibenik, Croatia), Chateau d’If (Marseille), Fort National, Fort Petit Bé and Fort de la Conchée (S. Malo, France), Fort Guesclin, Fort Bloqué, Fort Chapus (Charente Maritime, France), Cornet Castle (Guernsey, UK), Vaxholm (Stockholm, Sweden) and Vyborg (St Petersburg, Russia), the islet of Spinalonga stands out as the only example of an advanced asymmetric layout of the main fortification element, the seaward Michiel demilune, ensuring its perfect adaption to the natural terrain and the defensive requirements of Spinalonga island and the port of the same name.

As regards the operation of Spinalonga as a leper colony, it may be compared to Robben Island, South Africa, which is recorded on the World Heritage List as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, freedom and democracy over oppression, and was used as a prison and as a hospital for sufferers from leprosy and chronic and mental conditions. The same applies to the islands of Chacachacare (Trinidad and Tobago), Sorok (South Korea), Fantome (Australia), Quail (New Zealand) and Culion (Philippines).