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History of Corfu

Corfu, historyCorfu is mentioned frequently in Greek mythology . The modern Greek name Kerkyra comes from the nymph who was the daughter of the river-god Asopos . Posideon, the god of the sea fell in love with her and made love to her on the island, giving birth to the race of the Phaeacians. The name is also possibly linked to the demonic deity Gorgyra or Gorgo, whose image was found on a pediment of the Archaic Artemis temple. The more recent name Corfu is a corruption of koryphi, which means peak, after the summit on which the Byzantines began building a castle early in the 7th century, and where the main town was later re-established. The name Kerkyra is only used in Greece; to the rest of the world the island is known as Corfu, though the town is universally called Kérkyra by preference. In The Odyssey , the shipwrecked hero Odysseus is washed ashore with the help of the goddess Athena and awakens to the laughter of princess Nausikaa and her friends washing clothes in a nearby stream (widely thought to be somewhere on the northwest coast, possibly at modern Érmones). They bring him to the Phaeacian Palace and after revealing his identity to King Alkinoös he is given a ship to take him safely back to Ithaka. However during the return trip the Phaeacian ship is turned to stone by Posideon, still enraged because Odysseus’ men had blinded Poseidon’s son the Cylcops, in revenge for the Phaeacians helping Odysseus .

Artifacts from the Paleolithic period (40,000 to 30,000 BC) have been found in a cave at Gardíki in the southwestern part of the island. There is also evidence of habitation during the Mesolithic period and several Neolithic ( 6000–2600 BC) settlements have been found including an important one near Sidári . During the Geometric period, sometime before the 8th Century BC, the Illyrians (ancestors of the modern Albanians) inhabited the island . The Greeks did not arrive until around 750 BC, when the Euobean city of Eretria established a colony here. In 734 BC the Eretrians were driven out by the Corinthians, who brought great wealth and culture to the island, and used it as a stepping-stone west for such ventures at the colonization of Kroton in southern Italy. But in 665 BC Corfu fought with Corinth , in what Thucydides described as the first sea battle in Greek history. It was not the last battle between the two cities , who remained at odds for centuries more . Corfu, now effectively independent, prospered with trade and by the 6th Century was minting its own coins, had constructed a fine Archaic temple of Artemis (source of the famous Gorgon pediment) and had a population of over 10,000 people. During the Persian Wars of the fifth century, Corfu had a fleet second only to that of Athens . They sent a fleet of 60 ships to the Battle of Salamis but according to Herodotos they took their time about getting there to avoid the battle and were criticized by the Athenians. In 433 BC , Corfu’s treaty of alliance with Athens against Sparta and Corinth set off the Peloponnesian Wars, which engulfed all of the Greek city-states, who were obliged to take the side of either Athens or Sparta. The island lost half its population in these wars and eventually fell to the Spartans. In 229 BC, the republican Romans showed up and seized the island from Illyrian pirates, and for the next five-and-a-half centuries Corfu was a privileged Roman naval base. Nero, Tiberius, Cato, Cicero, Octavian (later Augustus) and Mark Anthony all visited the island, and many wealthy Romans had estates here. From 395 AD to 1267 Corfu was part of the Byzantine Empire and suffered raids by the Vandals and Ostrogoths, which prompted the gradual abandonment of the ancient capital at the site now known as Paleópolis . Starting in 1080, Norman raiders from Sicily attacked (and briefly held) Corfu several times, and when the forces of the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, Corfu was nominally ceded to Venice. However, they failed to occupy the island, which by 1214 had passed to Mihaïl Angelos Komnenos II, head of the free Byzantine Despotate of Epiros, based a Árta in western mainland Greece. During his tenure, the previously existing fortresses at Angelókastro and Gardíki were refurbished to defend against pirates or Latin invaders approaching from the west. In 1259, Corfu was given to King Manfred of Sicily as the partial dowry of Helena, daughter of Mihaïl Komnenos. Just 8 years later, the island was formally annexed by Charles d’Anjou, the new King of Sicily and Naples, whose Angevin dynasty then ruled Corfu for over a century. They established Roman Catholicism as the official religion, displacing the Byzantine Orthodox clergy.

In 1386, viewing Angevin decline (and increasing pirate raids) with alarm, the island notables essentially invited the Venetians to assume control of Corfu, which they did until 1797 . This was probably the most important period for the island, not only because of the economic progress – primarily the introduction of over 3 million olive trees – and the ongoing program of urban and military construction, but also because it was during this period that the rest of Greece fell under the domination of the Ottoman Turks. The main town became a fortress and an important base for the Venetian fleet, while Corfu overall served as a place of refuge for many Greek scholars and artists escaping Ottoman-conquered territory, in particular Crete after the mid-17th century, making the island one of the most culturally developed regions in the eastern Mediterranean .

In 1537 Hayreddin Barbarossa, a pirate-admiral in the service of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, laid siege to the town with artillery and 20,000 troops. The Corfiots managed to repel Barbarossa, but not before he carried off nearly half the population to be sold as slaves . After this, the Venetians decided to build the New Fortress, and dug a channel (the Contrafossa) to effectively make the Old Fortress an island . These all came in handy in summer 1716 when the Ottomans made their most determined effort yet to take Corfu, with a force of 30,000 poised to overwhelm just 8,000 defenders under the command of German mercenary Johan Matthias von der Schulenberg (whose statue now stands near the gate of the Old Fortress). The Ottomans suddenly abandoned their siege on 11 August, after an apparition of island patron saint Spyridon, and a ferocious storm (supposedly conjured by him) – the date is one of Spyridon’s several annual local celebrations .

When the Napoleonic French occupied the island in 1797, the Corfiots initially welcomed them with enthusiasm, believing that French revolutionary principles meant that the lower classes would be treated better than under Venetian rule . But this was not the case. The French imposed heavy taxes on the people, though they did introduce a system of primary education and a printing house. But two years later a combined Russian and Turkish fleet captured the island after four months of fighting, and Corfu became the capital of the puppet Septinsular Republic which included all the Ionian islands. Then in 1807 when Russia and France signed the Treaty of Tilsit, Corfu and the other Ionian islands once again reverted to Napoleon . This time around the French took more of an interest in local development, establishing the first Ionian Academy, importing printing presses and introducing new crops like potatoes and tomatoes.

When Napoleon fell in 1814 Corfu was placed under the protection of the British. The Corfiot Ioannis Kapodistrias, long a diplomat in the service of Russia (and an important figure in the Septinsular Republic ), submitted a proposal at the Congress of Vienna for an independent Ionian state, but Britain, Austria and Prussia vetoed it. But the 1815 Congress of Paris did set up a United States of the Ionian Islands with Corfu as its capital, administered under a British High Commissioner. Kapodistrias became the first president of independent Greece in 1827, though he was assassinated in 1831. In 1824 the second Ionian Academy, essentially the first Greek university, was established. After years of autocratic British rule, 1848 saw a revised local constitution that granted freedom of the press, recognized Greek as the official language and introduced educational reform. Despite ongoing tension between British administrators and the Corfiots – the first high commissioner, Tom Maitland, was nicknamed “The Abortion” locally for his rudeness to petitioners and refusal to wash – status as a British colony was responsible for the building of the roads and the creation of the island's water supply.The Ionian islands did not become a part of Greece until 1864, as a primary condition for George I (born the young Danish prince William Glucksberg) to ascend the Greek throne .

Early years as a Greek province were uneventful for Corfu, other than being a favourite resort for European royalty such as Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Although royalist Greece was neutral during the first three years of World War I, Corfu declared for the Venizelist Republicans in the civil war which effectively divided the country from 1916 onwards. Early that year, the exiled government of Serbia and its retreating army, having been driven into Albania by the Bulgarians and Austrians, found shelter on the island, the beginning of a long love affair between Serbia and Greece; within several months, 130,000 Serbian solders were well enough to be sent on British and French ships to fight the Bulgarians and Germans on the Salonika Front, but almost 20,000 more died of wounds or disease on the island, or stayed to marry local women. Corfu was bombarded and briefly occupied by the Italians in September 1923, in reprisal for the Greek murder of an Italian general on the Greek-Albanian frontier; the Italians returned as occupiers during World War II, until displaced in September 1943 by the Germans, who not only bombed much of Kérkyra Town flat in the process, but deported most of the 1900 local Jews to their deaths in June 1944 before the Allied victory in Greece four months later.

Modern tourism began with the opening of a Club Med premises near Ýpsos in 1952, followed by the arrival of the first charters from overseas in 1972 – and the construction of the first mega-hotels by those with good connections in the ruling military junta. Tourism, and more recently real estate sales, have long displaced agriculture as the main economic activity, though both are suffering sharply (and having to adapt) in the current world crisis. All-inclusive resorts for eastern Europeans are on the rise, with numbers of Brits, Italians and Germans in decline. It’s currently a buyer’s market for property which is simply not moving in prevailing conditions.  

For more on Greek History see www.ahistoryofgreece.com

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