Behind the Gates of Chios's Abandoned Leper Colony

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  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    Peering into a gloomy room

    Even after Greece won its independence in May 1832, Chios’ troubles were far from over. In 1881, an earthquake struck the island, killing 7,866 people and destroying villages all over Chios. The leprosarium was also severely damaged and would only be repaired early in the next century.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    A broken wall reveals a small room.

    The newly-rebuilt leper colony was much more modern. The complex had plumbing and drainage and was designed to withstand future earthquakes; and the improved leprosarium also boasted two churches, a laundry, fountains, an administration office, and a restaurant. At the time, the facility accommodated 250 residents. Surrounded by a pine forest, the colony must have been as pleasant as any such institution could be.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    A rustic-looking sign at the leprosarium

    Within two years of arriving on Chios, Nicholas was ordained by Father Anthimos, who was in charge of the colony. Anthimos, who has since been sainted, made many positive changes to the leprosarium, and in the process he created what has been described as being as much a spiritual center as a leper colony. Despite his own disfiguring illness, Father Nikephoros, as Nicholas was now called, continued his work until the colony closed down in 1957. He was canonized after his death and is known today as St. Nikephoros the Leper.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    More rusty beds

    In 1873, Norwegian doctor G. H. Armauer Hansen (after whom Hansen’s disease is named) discovered that leprosy is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. However, until the 1940s, treatment continued to consist of painful and generally ineffective injections of chaulmoogra nut oil.

    In 1941, a new drug called Promin was developed. Leprosy treatment with Promin proved successful, although it was still administered through a course of nasty injections. Then in the 1950s, Dapsone pills were used to treat patients. The method was less painful and more effective, but unfortunately the leprosy bacterium began to develop resistance.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    Graffiti suggests that the colony has had some more recent visitors.

    In the 1970s, a multi-drug treatment (MDT) was devised to successfully combat leprosy. This method involved the administration of a combination of three drugs, and it is still used today. It can effectively cure the disease within six months, but it can take over a year for patients to get better when there is a severe infection.

  • Image: Kelly Katsarou

    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.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History
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