Posted on 14 November 2023 in anthropology, bulletin, fieldwork

Lerian Palimpsests: On Surprising Layers In Ethnographic Research

In this contribution to Bulletin 28, former ISRF Fellow Ilay Romain Ors reflects on her fieldwork experience on the Greek island of Leros through the concept of palimpsest.

Ilay Romain Ors

ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2019-22

Image in public domain by
August Politis (via Unsplash).

Anthropological fieldwork, like any type of research, is full of surprises. I know of no scholarly project where the researcher has not encountered the unexpected, whether this meant that the experience was shocking, disappointing, exhilarating, or all of the above. 

My ISRF research on Aegean migrations was no exception. I set out to understand overlapping waves of migration that took place between the eastern and western shores of the Aegean sea over the last hundred years or so, taking into account post-WWI displacements, including the forced exchange of populations that took place between Greece and Turkey in accordance with the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923, as well as the more recent wave of migrants from primarily the Middle East into Europe, which intensified after 2015 into what was coded as a refugee crisis. The southeastern island of Leros was going to be one of my field sites in this project, yet to my most pleasant surprise, it grew on me and eventually became something much more than a place of temporary visit. I decided to live in and focus on Leros much more than initially planned, while it proved itself to be an exceptional site for exploring one of the key concepts of my research, that of palimpsest, which I had long contemplated for exemplifying the notion of layered thinking about Aegean mobilities and beyond. This article revisits various uses of the term ‘palimpsest’ as it may be adopted to think about historically overlapping migratory waves in the Aegean as they manifest themselves in the case of Leros.

Palimpsestous Leros

Leros is a mid-sized Greek island of 55km2 located in the Southeastern Aegean, in the Dodecanese island cluster, about 200 nautical miles away from Athens and only 20 from the opposing Turkish shore of Bodrum. Today, Leros is home to circa 8500 residents, and boasts schools, hospitals, an airport for domestic flights, as well as other facilities that make it a modest yet self-sufficient island, with its population mainly working in the public sector or in small-scale enterprises in retail and tourism.

In its long and eventful history with continuous settlement since the neolithic period, Leros has seen consecutive eras of Carian, Lelegian, Phoenician, Minoan, Dorian, Ionian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, St. John Knights, Ottoman, Greek, again Ottoman, Italian, German, and British rule, until it became part of Greece in 1948. Yet it is its more recent history in the 20th century that makes Leros infamously unique. During the interwar years, this little island became an important naval centre in Mussolini’s Empire with a base around the bay of Lakki, the biggest natural harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean. To house the military personnel whose numbers added up to tens of thousands, a brand new planned model port-town of Portolago was built, complete with a public market, a grand cinema, a modernist church, a clock tower, administrative buildings, two schools, and more. Today, Lakki still boasts some of the finest examples of interwar architecture, which is variously designated as bauhaus, artdeco, rationalist or internationalist, which while rundown remains intact, setting Leros apart from other Greek islands. The large and impressive buildings that were erected for military purposes by the Italian navy mostly fell into disuse after 1943, when the German Nazi forces took over the island following the infamous Battle of Leros, the last victory of the Nazis in WWII, which involved heavy bombing of the island by the Luftwaffe for 52 days. The German rule lasted until the end of the war, upon which the British took over the administration of the island before the Dodecanese ultimately joined Greece in 1948. Thereafter, Leros would become subjected to multiple waves of incomers of people who were unwanted elsewhere in the country, writing a painful story of nationalisation through incorporating the nation’s excluded others.

First came the orphans. The post-war years saw a repurposing of the building complex in Lakki, first as the Royal Technical Schools (1949-64) that functioned as an orphanage for children who lost their parents during WWII and the Greek civil war, where they not only inherited the know-how of the Italian engineers and architects, but were also indoctrinated with national values in support of the royal establishment. 

Then came the psychiatric patients. What the subsequent years of war and famine created in Greece were, in addition to orphans, many people with mental health problems and disabilities, who nobody was able or willing to care for. In 1957, the state sent them to Leros, where they were placed in Lakki. This so-called ‘Colony of Psychopaths’, later renamed the Leros Psychiatric Hospital, was to become infamous when its horrific pictures made it to the headlines in European press by late 1980s. Though now reformed and deinstitutionalised, in the eyes of the Greeks the psychiatric unit still remains an icon that stereotypes and stigmatises the island of Leros.

In the meantime, there came the prisoners. During the 1967–74 dictatorship, left-wing citizens were exiled in Leros as political prisoners. Among the famous communists was also the poet Yannis Ritsos, who together with some 8000 comrades became part of Leros’s fame as the island of exile.

Flash forward into the 21st century, there are the refugees. My primary decision to choose Leros as my field site was due to its being one of the five islands that were designated as hotspots, EU-led facilities built in response to the culminating refugee flows in 2015 in order to house refugees while processing their paperwork related to security screenings or asylum applications. These sites of border policing became notorious for their long processing times that kept the refugees in limbo for months and years, in tents or containers under inhuman, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions. The Leros hotspot was placed in Lakki, in the older and deteriorating buildings that previously housed the fascist naval complex, the royal technical schools, political prisons, and the psychiatric hospital. As of 2022, these camps were replaced by a new-built complex called the Closed Controlled Access Centers, again in Lakki. 

All in all, this recent history showcases a dramatic overlapping of migratory waves that involves tens of thousands of people who were exiled, detained, and surveilled in Leros, being serviced, policed, and confined by a series of institutions that employed the local population. Though I argue in my broader work that this period forms only one part in the longue durée of Leros’s central position within diverse and crisscrossing routes of Aegean mobilities, here I would like to address this last portion of its traumatic and violent past that finds prevalence in scholarly and public discourses by employing the concept of palimpsest.

Senses of Palimpsest

Leros evokes a poetic sense of palimpsest. The Lerian-Australian poet, Dimitris Tsaloumas, has given the name “Palimpsest” to one of his poems set in Leros, where he describes the Aegean as “an ancient sea far as the haze of Anatolia,” that he finds timeless “because the palimpsest records another chronicle where time begins.”[1] This re-inscribing of palimpsestous experience reveals the close connection between memory and commemoration, a major preoccupation in Tsaloumas’s thought and art, which brings together the historical layers of his life that started in Asia Minor, continued in Leros under Italian, German, British, and Greek periods until 1952, when he left for Australia, where he would live until his death in 2016. 

Leros evokes a visual sense of palimpsest. In her review of Lerian artist Alexis Vasilikos’s exhibit titled Grids, Eva Galatsanou writes that “the overlaying of layers is like a palimpsest, full of traces and fragments. And if some of them are partially erased, buried or difficult to see, they always leave an imprint which remains present next to the new recordings,”[2] leaving one to wonder the extent to which Vasilikos was inspired by the multilayered cultural history of his home island in Leros.

Leros evokes an architectural sense of palimpsest. In her analysis of the aeronautical base Gianni Rossetti, which she co-authored with Amalia Kotsaki, Georgia Gkratsou argues that the “successive transformations of the complex from military quarters to technical school orphanage, asylum and prison constitute a palimpsest with temporal connections to the concept of institutionalism.”[3]

Leros evokes a historical sense of palimpsest. Palimpsest is the name given to the first in a series of historical books, which is an edited volume on Leros. The prologue offered by the publisher explains the choice of the label with this quote: “Leros is a place where multiple histories are imprinted; yet while scratching the surface of each one, we not only go deeper in there, but discover other, older histories.”[4] Yet from among these palimpsestous historical layers, it is primarily the recent past for which Leros became an object of interdisciplinary analysis. Historian Danai Karydaki, the editor of the volume, writes about Leros in the 20th century, when consecutive eras of institutionalization have led to it becoming an island that is a space of exclusion, brainwashing, exile, inhumanity, and confinement. 

Leros evokes an anthropological sense of palimpsest. An emerging body of scholarship on Leros is advancing this view of overlapping historical layers with a focus on the recent past by juxtaposing it upon the architectural, artistic, textual, sensory, and philosophical dimensions, often adopting a similar theoretical approach inspired by scholars like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. Eirini Avromopoulou, one of the contributors in the abovementioned edited volume, further explores the concept of palimpsest in another article dedicated to Leros. Writing about how the layering of histories genealogically imprint themselves on people as violent spiritual or psychological experiences, she uses the notion of palimpsest within the framework of a postcolonial epistemology, “focusing on past and present history, the processes of memorialization and erasure, and space architecture that haunt the atmosphere and the relations formed on this island,” illustrating Leros as “an embroidered fabric of interrelated histories of dispossession and confinement,” where “a layering of histories, intertextual narratives, and painfully dissonant affective dispositions” depict “history as a violent and repeated palimpsestous play of dominations and forces.”[5] A similar theoretical perspective informs the work of another anthropologist, Neni Panourgia, whose rich monograph on Leros is a study of the grammar of confinement, where she recognises the traces of the multilayered histories of pain on the very structures in which they were experienced. “Palimpsest,” she writes next to a picture of a dilapidated wall, explaining it as a “colored layered writing of the Caserma Sommergibili building” that first housed the Italian administration for the submarine personnel, then the pupils and teachers of the Royal Technical Schools, then the political exiles, and finally the refugees.[6] The photo of a corner with torn wallpaper and faded layers of red, blue, and yellow paint is shown as having witnessed the many phases during which waves of people passed through the spaces surrounded by these very walls, and with that, telling the violent story of Leros as an island of confinement.

Complementary Palimpsests

Leros is a stigmatised island because of its recent past and due to the uses of the repurposed buildings in Lakki during that past. Focusing on this particular point in time and space tells a particular story of Leros and Lerians as a state of exception for confining, disciplining, or isolating the excluded, victimised, marginalised, and pacified outcast populations. This strong and convincing framework, on the other hand, arguably overshadows alternative readings of the island’s many different histories as they condition the cultural diversities and mobilities embedded in its present. Leaving aside the competing representations of Leros to my forthcoming book on the subject, I wish to focus the discussion on the adaptability of the concept of palimpsest in a less metaphorical and more literal sense. With this, a much-needed complementary angle towards developing an understanding of Leros beyond being a stigmatised island may come into focus. To this end, I present in the remainder of this piece two palimpsestous manifestations taken from my ongoing ethnographic study of Leros. 

Leros, like the other Dodecanese islands, is full with eucalyptus trees—a rather unusual occurrence as they are not part of the local flora. The eucalyptus were planted by the Italians in order to drain the swamps, upon which they built with tons of concrete that they imported from Italy. This act of crude modernisation, however, is largely detested today because these trees dry out the valuable underground water resources of the islands. More than eighty years later, there are still many eucalyptus trees, some of which can be found outside the police station in the Lakki harbour, the point of first reception and registration for the massive flow of refugees who arrived in 2015. While waiting outside the building, refugees carved out their names, dates, and doodles on those trees. One can see the writings on the trunks, in Arabic and English, carved on top of another, leaving behind a timeline of those who were there in passing. Through the naturally peeling off layers of the bark with time, the eucalyptus tree became a surface literally objectifying the palimpsest of migratory waves in Leros (see Figures 1 and 2).

Another representation of palimpsest is found on the surface of large table, which was located in the transit hall of the harbour building and was used during the process of registration. This process required refugees to put their signatures and fingerprints in documents and books, which left behind a network of stains and smears with blotches from ink pads and rollers on the tabletop. After a while, when the table was about to be discarded, an NGO called ECHO100Plus wanted to keep it. With their help, the artist Klaus Mosettig took pictures and made big plates from the shots, which were converted into an art installation that was exhibited in Germany. The booklet from the exhibition describes the table as a witness that “registers the registration process” that reveals “the white noise of an overwhelmed and overheating bureaucracy,”[7] of which the artistic imagery remained as a powerful presentation of the refugee experiences in Leros, and a literally palimpsestous one at that (see Figure 3).

Palimpsestous Conclusions

According to its dictionary definition, palimpsest is a textual material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. This literal meaning is often replaced by the use of palimpsest as a metaphor in relation to structures, experiences, memories, landscapes, functions, or records that are juxtaposed in such a way that earlier ones are still recognisable. Yet not everything that has various levels or diverse purposes is palimpsestous; the term needs to be differentiated from the notions of intertextual or multilayered. This is an important distinction for the case of Leros, as the ways in which the concept of palimpsest is used may correspond to contested ways in which the island is represented.

As much as the notion of palimpsest is metaphorically applied to layers that may be sensorial, historical, cultural, social, and spatial, what interests me more in the Lerian context is how literal palimpsests occur when layers that are physical either pile up or scrape off to reveal human traces that may have been recorded along different phases in passing time. Perhaps I find this to be more appropriate because the former use of palimpsest as an extended metaphor—with its emphasis on dehumanising and violently terrorising landscapes and structures—leaves less room for the recognition of agency, while the more literal interpretation of palimpsest involves an imagination of the creative processes—such as writing, fingerprinting, or indeed migrating—of cultural traces recorded in each historical layer. Perhaps I like the notion of palimpsest in thinking and rethinking about Leros because it reveals the complexities involved in the overlapping traces of multilayered pasts and presents in its contested representations with shifting and complementary meanings, thereby retaining the element of surprise involved in any research project, and no less in this anthropological fieldwork in Leros.

Figure 1: A eucalyptus tree on Leros with the names of refugees scratched into its bark (image by author)

Figure 2 (image by author)

Figure 3: Plates of fingerprints of refugees on a tabletop in Leros (artwork by Klaus Mosettig). Reproduced from Kahane (ed.), Leros, with permission of the editor.


[1] Dimitris Tsaloumas, ‘Palimpsest’, in: Falcon Drinking: The English Poems (Brisbane 1988: University of Queensland Press), 81.

[2] Eva Galatsanou, ‘Grids by Alexis Vasilikos’,

[3] Georgia Gkratsou and Amalia Kotsaki, ‘The Aeronautical Base Gianni Rossetti of the Italian regime in Leros: A study on the palimpsest of institutionalism’, in: Kay Bea Jones and Stephanie Pilat (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Italian Fascist Architecture: Reception and Legacy (Abingdon 2020: Routledge): 142–153, 142.

[4] Antonis Chatzis, ‘Πρόλογος της “Ιστορικής σειράς Παλίμψηστο”’, in: Danai Karydaki (ed.), Η Λέρος στοεπίκεντρο και το περιθώριο (Thessaloniki 2020: Psifides): 11-16, 14.

[5] Eirini Avramopoulou, ‘Decolonizing the refugee crisis: Palimpsestous writing, being-in-waiting, and spaces of refuge on the Greek Island of Leros’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 38, no. 2 (2020): 533-562, 536, 539, 558.

[6] Neni Panourgia, Λέρος: Η γραμματική του εγκλεισμού (Athens 2020: Ekdoseis Nefeli), 144.

[7] Catharina Kahane, “Reading Traces: Klaus Mosettig’s Work Series HandwritingNegative Handwriting, and Planes” in: Klaus Mosettig, Catharina Kahane (eds.), Leros: Hand Writing, Negative Handwriting, Planes (Vienna 2018: Schlebrugge).

Ilay Romain Ors

Ilay Romain Ors is an Associate Professor in Social Anthropology. She holds a Joint PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. Currently based in Athens as a faculty member at the American College of Greece, Deree College, she is conducting her research in Leros as an ISRF Independent Scholar in affiliation with the University of Oxford. Her forthcoming book manuscript is under contract with Berghahn Publishers, Oxford. The author would like to thank Lars Cornelissen from ISRF and Catharina Kahane from ECHO100

ISRF Ilay Ors