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CORFU HISTORY AND MYTHOLOGY

Corfu’s long and turbulent history has contributed to the island’s intriguing, charming and somewhat mystifying character. 

Corfu History

Corfu was not always an island. During the Paleolithic era, Corfu was part of Greece’s mainland; the geographical separation took place during the Neolithic era (10.000-8.000 BC) when the ice melted and the level of the sea rose creating an independent island. Traces from that era can be found in Sidari. On the northwest side of the island, in Kefali, Afionas and Ermones, archeological excavations uncovered few Bronze Age settlements from the 2nd century BC.

Prehistoric and Ancient times

Corfu has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
At that time it was part of the mainland and the sea that today separates it from the mainland was only a small lake, it became an island after the rising of the sea at the end of the Ice Age in about 10.000-8000 BC,

Evidence of Paleolithic occupation have been found near the village of Agios Mattheos at southwest and a Neolithic occupation near the village of Sidari.
The Greek name of Kerkyra came from a mythological Nymph called Corcyra, a daughter of the river god Asopos, Corcyra was kidnapped by the god of sea Poseidon who brought her here and gave her name to the island.
Corcyra became Kerkyra later in the Doric dialect.

The first residents in the 12th century BC were the Phaecians, the first founder was Phaeks and his son was Nafsithoos who was the father of the Homeric king Alkinoos, known from the Odyssey.
King Alkinoos and his daughter Nausikaa helped Odysseus to return to Ithaca.
In this point mythology gets muddled with history, and we do not know the exact origin of the Phaecians who according to Homer had some relationship with the Mycenaens, although archaeological investigations have failed to find a link with any Mycenaean remains.
Later more immigrants came from Illyria, Sicily, Crete, Mycenae and the Aegean islands.

The First Colonizers

The first Greek settlers of the island were Eretrians from Evia Island, around 775-750 BC. A few years later, the Eretrians were joined by political refuges from Corinth who brought with them their highly developed political outlook and founded the ancient city of Palaiopolis. Under Heriscrates leadership, Corfu became an important commercial center with a strong naval force, independent from Corinth. The strong political power however divided the island into two; the Democrats and the Oligarchs.

The Democrats and Oligarchs cohabited Corfu peacefully for 300years, before falling into conflict over a jointly-held colony, Epidamnos (Durres). Corfu requested support from the Athenians, giving rise to the well-known Peloponnesian wars. Corfu’s alliance with Athens lasted a century until 338 BC, when the Macedonians under King Philip II dissolved the alliance and took control. King Philip II domination was followed by the Spartans, the Syracusians, the Illyrians and finally the Romans in 229 B.C.

Roman Rule

After the Peloponnesian war internal political conflicts resulted in the disintegration of the alliance.
The island then was captured by Illyrian pirates for a very sort period and the Romans exploited this opportunity and captured the island in 229 BC.
Romans gave autonomy to the Corfiots provided they were allowed to use it as a naval base.

Corfu followed the fate of all other Greek city-states, they accepted the sovereignty and protection of Rome from the various invaders and intruders of that era.

During first century AD. Christianity arrived, brought by two disciples of St Paul, Jason and Sosipatros.

After the death of emperor Constantine at 337AD the Roman empire divided into three sections- the north (Spain, France, England), east (Konstantinople and Asia Minor) and the west which included Greece, Italy and Rome’s African territories.

Corfu then was included in the so called west empire.

Early Byzantine period (379 AD– 562 AD)

At the time of emperor Theodosius (339 AD) the Roman empire was re-divided into east and west, Corfu then belonged to the east empire and this period known as early Byzantine lasted for about three centuries.

During this period the whole island was exposed to frequent barbarian raids and pirate invasions.

Middle Ages and Byzantine period

East Roman empire (Byzantine empire)

At the time of emperor Theodosius (339 AD) the Roman empire was re-divided into east and west.
Corfu then belonged to the east and this lasted for about three centuries.

During this period the whole island was exposed to frequent barbarian raids and pirate invasions.
In 562 AD during one of these raids the Goths destroyed the ancient city of Corfu, leaving the ruins that today are called Paleopolis.
This was the end of the ancient City and the beginning of medieval age for the island, the old city`s remaining inhabitants abandoned the location.
They fled further north to the natural promontory of land which later became the old fortress, and from there the city expanded until it covered the area where it is today.

The period from 562 AD until 1267 AD, when Corfu was occupied by the Angevins, is known as Byzantine period.
It was a very difficult period for Corfu which as the westernmost corner of the empire was very vulnerable to the constant pirate attacks and the various appetites of their neighbors.
The multicultural Byzantine Empire was trying to protect it in any way moving here several mercenary guards of various races and peoples.
Guards consisted of Greeks from Syria, Bulgarians, Byzantines soldiers (stradioti) scattered in outposts began from the northeast of the island and reached up to the southwest, the border guards were slowly merged with the local population.

This was the era when most fortresses scattered throughout the island were build, the redesigning and strengthening of the old Corfu fortress in the city happened then, Angelokastro fortress in northwestern Corfu, the fortress at Kassiopi, the fortress in Gardiki at southwest and other smaller ones were constructed.

Τhe turbulent years after the Fourth Crusade (1204 AD – 1214 AD)

At 1204 AD Corfu was captured by the Normands of the 4rth crusade and they were followed by the Venetians for a short period until 1214 AD.

The Despotate of Epirus (1214 AD – 1267 AD)

From 1214 -1259 AD, Corfu became part of the Byzantine domain of Epirus (called Despotate of Epirus) and at this time the fortress of Angelokastro was built an the northwest part of the island north of Paleokastritsa by the Despot Duke Michael-Angelos Komnenos the second.

Period of Sicilian rulers

Another turbulent period followed from 1259 to 1267 with various Sicilian rulers attempting to claim Corfu, some kings and admirals, first Manfred of Sicily followed by his Francocypriot admiral Philip Cinardo, then Garnerio brothers and finally Thomas Alamano.(Alamanos today is a very common surname in Corfu)

The House of Anjou (1267 AD – 1386 AD)

At 1267 the Angevin King of Sicily Charles of the house of Anjou, conquered the island.
The island was divided into four departments-regions, called Gyrou, Orous, Mesis and Lefkimi respectively – names still heard today.
That was the era when large numbers of Jewish people, mainly from Spain, settled in Corfu and created the Corfiot Jewish community.

Charles of Anjou attempted to erase the Orthodox Christian faith by changing all Orthodox churches into Roman Catholic and persecuting all the Orthodox, this attempt failed and stopped later when the Venetians returned to the island.

Corfu was inhabited for several centuries after by the Byzantine Orthodox, the Normans, and the Franks before falling under the Venetian rule.

Venetian Domination

Be sure to visit Fortezza or Old Fort. More info in our SIGHTSEEING CORFU GUIDE

The Venetian domination in Corfu 1386 – 1797 AD

The Council of Corfu and especially the overwhelming majority of nobility were friendly with the Venetians.
They did not expect protection from the collapsing Byzantine Empire, and because of the ever-present Turkish threat, they asked at 1386 AD for the protection of the Republic of Saint Mark.

Venetians knew that Corfu was a key strategic location to guard their naval interests in the region, and also a very fertile island for agriculture, therefore they bought the island from the kingdom of Naples, paying an amount of 30,000 gold ducats.
Then disembarked their forces in Corfu led by the “Admiral of the Gulf,” Giovanni Miani.

In that turbulent era, where there was no national awareness, strange events happened, so that while the Venetians occupied the Old Fortress without resistance and secured their dominance over most of the island, in the north the fortresses of Angelokastro and Cassiope were still controlled by some Angevins who did not agreed with the sale of the island, strangely many locals were supporting them and fought along the Angevins against the Venetians. Corfu history – medieval CorfuThe Venetians sent army to capture the two forts, and while Aggelokastro surrendered almost immediately, the Angevins and Corfiots of Kassiope resisted furiously, the Venetians got angry to such an extent that after the conquest of the castle they destroyed it completely and for this reason there are now only remnants of that fort.

Thus started the second long period of Venetian rule in Corfu that lasted more than 400 years, actually 411 years, 11 months and 11 days precisely.
Venetians established the feudalistic system to rule, There were three social classes, the nobility of aristocrats, the citizens (civili) and the poor people (popolari).

In the next painting we see a typical snapshot of medieval Corfu, currently called Nikiforos Theotokis street, apart from the costumes have not changed much since then.
Agriculture had developed with the planting of many olive trees, Arts and Science were also evolving now that Corfu had links with one of the great empires..

The Venetian era left indelible marks on Corfu in all areas such as art, musical tradition, culture, the singing pronunciation of language, Corfiot cuisine and most noticeably the architecture of the city and the villages.

The constitution during Venetian domination

The constitution in Corfu, and in all the Ionian islands during the Venetian occupation was exclusive, all political power was in the hands of the nobility, the only Venetians were the General Proveditor of the Sea who wielded the greatest political power, and his Judiciary flanked by Vailos and his two consultants.
All the rest were local nobles whose names were written in the Golden book (libro d`Oro).

Centuries later during the era of the second Ionian state, only the people whose names appeared on this list were allowed to take their coffee on the Liston area! In early editions of the Libro d`Oro the names all the noble of Byzantine origin, also Byzantine soldiers and large landowners were written, but later many wealthy civilians who were able to offer financial support to the Treasury of the state, were added too.
If we look at the names in the libro d`Oro, we see, with surprise that most names known in the city of Corfu today are written there, but few of the common village names.

The migration flow from the Turkish-occupied Greece

The Venetians did well to protect the city of Corfu, but despite their military measures in the first centuries they failed to protect the island’s countryside which saw many tragedies and often paid a heavy toll in barbarian raids.

It also suffered from pirate attacks, especially during the first two major Turkish raids, one in 1537 and the second in 1571.

In 1537 AD the Turks invaded and seized 20.000 men from the countryside to sell as slaves in Konstantinople and Egypt,.
The countryside was devastated, so many Greeks from Peloponnese, Epirus and Crete came as migrant workers to the island, and later became part of the resident population.
More recently especially under the British rule, many immigrants came from the small Mediterranean island of Malta, the original home of many, mainly Roman Catholic, Corfiots.

Following the raids of 1537 Corfu was almost deserted, and a few years later, in 1571 the Venetians lost Peloponnese, Crete and Cyprus, all three islands were conquered by the Turks,.
This created the inevitable large wave of refugees from these areas looking for new home, and the Ionian Islands was the ideal destination, so by this coincidence the Turks both depopulated and helped repopulate Corfu.

The Venetians also gave impetus to this migration stream for at least two additional reasons, firstly to revive the dead countryside, and secondly to encourage people with great spiritual, military, technical and economic potential to leave the Turkish dominated land- which would also weaken the Ottoman occupiers, and at the same time strengthen Venice.

A large group of refugees came from Nafplio and Monemvasia, half of them settled in the area of ​​Lefkimi and build Anaplades village, the others scattered on the northeast coast, from Pyrgi up to Kassiopi.

Their leader was the chieftain Barbatis, and the area south of Nissaki is called Barbati after him.
There is a suburb north of the city called Stratia, formerly known as Anaplitochori.

Another group from the Peloponnese built the village of Moraitika, took over the deserted village of korakiana,and spread to other villages such as Benitses
Across the island there are many families with the surname Moraitis and also many whose last name ends with the Peloponnesian suffix. . “opoulos”

The largest group of all was from Crete, many settled in Garitsa, just south of the city, and the most prosperous new arrivals moved into the city itself.
Others built the village of Saint Markos in the north above Ipsos, whilst in the south of Corfu the villages of Stroggyli, Messonghi, Argyrades and Kritika were also established by Cretans.

All these populations introduced elements of their tradition and culture to Corfu, especially the Cretans who contributed much to the formation of the Corfu idiom which anyway was constantly evolving, the prefix “chi” instead of “tis” is pronounced like this only in Crete and the Ionian Islands.

After a time the Corfiot culture proved too strong, and all these people were absorbed into the local community and within a few years became regular Corfiot
Later on around 1800, a large group of refugees from Souli, after its destruction by Ali Pasha, fled to Corfu and most of them settled in Benitses, their descendants today constitute about 70% of the Benitses population.

The Venetian fortifications and the frequent Turkish raids

The Venetians tried to convert the population to Catholicism, but they did not succeed, and later for political reasons, as they had come into conflict with the Vatican and especially after the loss of Cyprus in 1571, they abandoned any such effort, and justified this religious tolerance with the famous saying “Siamo prima Veneziani e poi Cristiani”, which means, we are first Venetians and then Christians.

Indeed to be liked by both faiths they organized and established many common religious events in which both faiths took part , some of these events are still observed today.

The failure of the Venetians to protect the countryside and suburbs of the town from Turkish incursions roused wide public discontent.
Moreover, especially after the loss of Crete and Cyprus, Corfu was the most important possession after Venice herself, and therefore they decided to increase the island’s defences.

The Venetians made the most ambitious defense plans, by constructing the largest and most modern fortifications of the age for Corfu..
From 1576 to 1588 they built a new fortress on the hill of San Markos in the west of the town, then cleared the open space in front of the old fortress to make the vast Esplanade Square.

They joined the two fortresses with a wall that protected the whole city from the west, with powerful defensive systems like the bastions of Raimondos, St. Athanasius and the bastion of Sarantaris, also they built four main city gates for residents and two more gates for military purposes.

The four main gates of the city were the Porta Reala, the Porta Raymonda, the gate of Spilia and the gate of Saint Nicholas.
Porta Reala was of unique beauty and was demolished without reason in 1895 creating an international outcry.

These defensive plans were made by the engineers Michele Sanmicheli from Verona and Ferante Vitelli.
Fortifications were constantly enhanced and later in the 17th century another wall was added outside the existing one, designed by the engineer F. Verneda, following the third great Turkish siege in 1716 which was successfully repulsed by the Prussian Marshal Johann Mattias Von Schulenburg, who then had responsibiliy for the defense of Corfu.

The Turkish siege of 1716

The 1716 siege had begun on July 8th when the Turks landed in Ipsos and Gouvia and ended after many cruel and deadly battles on Saturday August 22th after an unprecedented storm that scattered the Turkish ships and drowned many Turkish soldiers and sailors.
This storm and the salvation of the city, was attributed by the common people to a miraculous intervention by St. Spyridon, and ever since then there has been a litany, and a procession of Saint Spiridon on 11th August.

During the battles over 15,000 Turks and about 1700 Christians were killed.
Fighting alongside Corfiots were Venetians, Germans, Italians, 4 Maltese ships, 4 Papal galleys, 2 galleys from Genoa, 3 galleys from Tuscan, 5 Spanish galleys and even Portuguese forces who also participated before the end of the siege.

The Jews of the city showed great courage in fighting, equipped at the expense of the Corfiot Jewish community and under the leadership of the son of Rabbi himself.
General Proveditor of Corfu was Antrea Pizanis who had the leadership of the light fleet and adjutant of Marshal Schulenburg was the Corfiot Lieutenant Dimitrios Stratigos.

Marshal Schulenburg was honored for his determination and bravery to life pension from the Senate of Venice and his statue can still be seen at the entrance of the Old Fortress, also everyone who showed bravery during the fighting was honoured.

Τhe repulse of the Turkish invasion of 1716 has been very important event for Western Europe at that era but has not been given the proper historical attention, it was celebrated with impressive events in Europe, who knows that the oratorio Juditha triumphans by Antonio Vivaldi was written because of this event.
This was the last of many Turkish attempts to expand their empire into Europe.

After the Turkish invasion of 1716, Venetians fortified the island of Vido too, and the hills of Avrami and Saint Sotiros, they also built a fortification for the area of San Rocco (today Saroko).

The period of Venetian rule left many positive elements in the culture and civilization, but was also marked by many dark spots, there were numerous popular uprisings, mainly in the villages due to the authoritarian rule of the Venetians and the arbitrariness and lawlessness of the ruling class of nobles,.
Relations between people and nobility was like relations between slaves and master, and there were many bloody uprisings.
Corfu was very important to Venice, and remained an integral territory of the State until the fall of Venice to the French.

French Regime

In 1797, Venice surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire and Corfu became part of the French state. The ideology of the French Revolution inspired the locals who began dreaming of their own independence; the Tree of Freedom was planted in Esplanade square, the ‘Libro d’ Oro’ book burnt and emblems of Venetian rule destroyed. In 1890 the Palace of Empress Sissy was built as a refuge from the conspiracies of the Hapsburg court. The palace then became the setting of the Bella Venezia Hotel, a beautiful hotel often compared to the Grand Bretagne of Athens.

The Ionian State (Septinsular Republic) 1800-1807 United states of Ionian islands 1815-1864

The Venetian period was followed by the first French occupation in 1797, It was the end of the feudal system, and the people burned the book of Gold (libro d` oro) where all Aristocrats were listed.

In a symbolic gesture the libro d`oro was burned in all Ionian islands.
The initial euphoria after the arrival of French, who were welcomed as liberators, quickly turned to severe distress due to French arrogance towards the locals and the heavy taxation.

Followed by a period of instability, people were divided, the Nobles began to exploit the popular discontent against the French, and began to plot for the occupation of Corfu by the Russians.

They finally succeeded in 1799 when a strange alliance of Russians and Turks occupied Corfu.
The Russian admiral Ousakof, of aristocratic origin, immediately restored the privileges of the nobility and later on 21st of March 1800, at the instigation of Ioannis Kapodistrias, then foreign minister of Russia, founded the Ionian State, also known as Septinsular Republic, this was the first independent Greek state, something that Kapodistrias envisioned as a harbinger of the rebirth of a Greek state.
It was a federation of the seven larger island states, Corfu, Kefalonia, Zakynthos(Zante), Paxos, Lefkada, Ithaka and Kythyra, also included all other smaller Ionian islands, the capital was Corfu.

This state remained until 1807 when the French under Napoleon returned and stayed until 1814.
It was the time when the two buildings which today are the famous Liston were built by the French for use as military barracks.

In 1815 Corfu went under British rule, the seven Ionian island state declared its independence under British protection with Greek as the official language and Corfu town as the capital.
The first “Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands” was Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Maitland.

The state`s govertment had 29 members, 7 members from Corfu, 7 from Kefalonia and 7 from Zante, 4 were elected from Lefkada.
Paxos, Ithaka and kythyra elected 1 each plus a second member which was elected in rotation by the three.

The official name of the new protectorate was: “United states of Ionian islands”, During this period the Ionian Academy, the Reading Society and the public library were established.
Under British rule the local economy was well developed, the palace of Saint Michael and George was built and also the road network of the island was expanded as well as the construction of the aqueduct that supplied Corfu town with water from the hills around Benitses.

Power plants too were built in Corfu, which however after the union with Greece were moved to Piraeus.
Many other projects and significant improvements to the island’s infrastructure were made during this period.

Modern Times, union with Greece

On 21 May 1864 after the London treaty and the positive vote of Ionian parliament, Corfu and all Ionian islands united with Greece.
It was one of the most important turning points in the history of Corfu, the turbulent historical past of the island ended, so ends the prominence of Corfu as capital of the Ionian state, the emergent Greek state could not afford the existence of two centres of economic and cultural strength, so in the battle with Athens Corfu lost its university, its fame, its cultural lead and after just 40 years became a Greek provincial town.

But the memories of the glorious past remain and this is what makes Corfu unique, a Greek island which does not look like the others.

Be sure to check the Anniversary of the Union event in WHEN SHOULD I VISIT CORFU? guide.

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