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The gates of the colony
Although a sense of melancholy surrounds many abandoned institutions, the atmosphere that permeates this one, on the Greek island of Chios, is mixed. The word leprosy may evoke immediate feelings of horror and disgust; even today, centuries of superstition and prejudice have clouded our understanding of the condition. Notwithstanding, this deserted leper colony, surrounded by nature, has been a scene of death and catastrophe but also spirituality.
Bedding piled up in an abandoned room
With a history dating back to the 14th century, this now-abandoned health institution was the first of its kind in Greece. Closed in 1957, the leper colony has now long since fallen into ruin. Doors have come off their hinges, furniture is jumbled up and rusting, and here and there lie the scattered personal effects of the long-departed occupants. When walking around the empty rooms, visitors also need to be wary of falling through the rotting floorboards.
A narrow alley
“The ruins that are left of the ancient buildings, the result of acts of vandalism, make this place look like a scene from a movie thriller,” says one explorer. Still, a lot of the artifacts left behind are poignant rather than scary. In one cupboard, there are children’s notebooks and medicines lie scattered about. The empty open tombs, meanwhile, offer a more macabre sight.
Even in the location’s current state, it’s easy to see that an effort was made to make the colony a pleasant place.
During the Middle Ages, leper colonies sprang up all over the world, especially in India and Europe. “Lovokomeio,” as this colony was called, was the first such leprosarium in Greece. It opened its doors back in 1378, when Chios was part of the Genoese Republic. The rise of leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) was blamed on Asian prisoners and immigrants, but others thought the disease was a result of eating salty fish during Christian fasting periods.
Rusted ovens built into the walls at the colony
Thanks to the myths and fears surrounding leprosy during the early days of the disease, lepers were shunned from society and forced to live in quarantined colonies. These settlements were often in isolated places such as mountains or islands. Sometimes, though, they were more accessible – to ensure that they received a steady stream of donations for their upkeep, as others saw the effects of the illness.
A broken door
Besides the issue of being separated from friends and family, life wasn’t always more difficult in these colonies. Lepers could speak to the similarly afflicted and would not have to face prejudice on a daily basis. Some colonies even had their own currencies to minimize their contact with the non-infected. Seeing some of the deformities that afflicted lepers must have struck terror and panic into the hearts of those who came into contact with them.
An old mattress props open a door.
In those days, the disease hadn’t even been properly diagnosed, and not all so-called lepers even had leprosy. The term was used for a wide range of skin conditions and diseases. And some of the residents here at Chios may have had fungal infections, or possibly even psoriasis, rather than actual leprosy.
A broken wood lattice
Yet regardless of whether or not the individuals had actual leprosy, all of them faced the same sort of stigma, with their condition, at the time, considered a punishment from God. Perhaps it was this assumed religious connection that drew monks to the care of lepers in the Middle Ages and beyond. There’s even a church on the property dedicated to St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers.
An abandoned room with broken floorboards
In the 19th century, tragedy struck the island of Chios. By March 1822, the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire was in full swing. And although Chios had remained largely neutral during the uprising, a number of Greeks landed on Chios and began fighting the Turks on the island. The people of Chios got involved in the struggle. Yet in response, more Ottoman soldiers landed on the island and massacred around 20,000 Chians, while also forcing another 23,000 into exile.
Beds left to rust
Almost everyone on the island was a target, as Ottoman soldiers were ordered to slaughter all children under three, all women over 40 (unless they converted to Islam) and all boys over the age of 12. Following the massacre, the island of Chios, including the leper colony, was practically deserted.
An external view of the colony
In 1914, a 24-year-old man suffering from leprosy arrived at the Chios leprosarium. His name was Nicholas and he had escaped from a leper colony on the island of Spinaloga when he was 16. Since then, Nicholas had been living as a barber in Egypt, but his leprosy soon became too obvious to hide, and he turned to the Chios facility for refuge.
A lone window lets light into a dark, empty room.
These days, the leprosarium on Chios is a crumbling, deserted relic. With its long past and status as the first health institution of its kind in Greece, it has been described as a historical monument. In other parts of the world, leper colonies are still functioning. In India, as late as 2008, there were 630 such colonies – and even those who have been cured are forced to live in them because of the prevailing superstition surrounding the disease. Hopefully, in the future, a vaccine will be developed, and leprosy will join the ranks of smallpox as a disease only found in history books.
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