History of Corfu

In Greek is Kerkyra, in Latin is Corcyra and in Italian is Corfù.
Corfu is the 2nd largest of the Ionian islands.

Its northern part lies off the coast of Sarandë, Albania, from which it is separated by straits varying in breadth from 3 to 23 km (2 to 15 mi), including one near ancient Butrint, while its southern part lies off the coast of Thesprotia, Greece.

The island is part of the Corfu Prefecture and includes twelve of the sixteen municipalities or communes in the prefecture and communities of Ereikoussa, Mathraki, Othonoi, and Municipality of Paxoi, which are all separate islands.

The principal town (pop. 28,185) of the island is also named Corfu, or Kérkyra in Greek, as is its municipality (pop. 39,487). Corfu is home to the Ionian University.

Ancient Corfu.


The island of Corfu, known to the Greeks as Kerkyra, took its name from Corkyra who, so legend tells, was a mistress of Poseidon, God of the Sea. Corkyra bore Poseidon a son called Phaeax who became head of the Phaeacean people on Corfu. The Phaeacians were made famous in Homer’s Odyssey for helping Odysseus when he was washed ashore after being shipwrecked and helping him to return home. Scheria is the name he fictionally gave the island.

There is still evidence of the most ancient of settlements on Corfu dating back as far as 10,000 years. The most famous site is at Sidari.Corfu was colonised by the Corinthians, around 730BC, who founded the ancient city of Paliapolis; the modern site is called Analypsis.

During this period, Corfu thrived as a trading centre but also suffered under growing political unrest; Corfiots started to make their own policies which lead to Corinth sending their troops in. The Corfiot fleet defeated that of the Corinthians in the first recorded sea battle around Greece, in 640BC. Corinth and Corfu remained on friendly terms until the Corinthians sent troops to Epidamnus, a colony of Corfu, to fight against the Corfiots. Corfu was then defeated and forced out. Corfu’s fleet once again defeated that of Corinth in a huge sea battle. The Corfiots then allied themselves with Athens for protection. The third to the fifth century BC saw Athens and the Penepolese in a long, drawn out scrap, culminating in the Peleponese war which spanned the fifth century. Corfu joined Athens at the breakout of war, as one of the causes of the war had been the previous alliance between Athens and Corfu.


Roman and Byzantine Corfu.


The Romans were invited to take control of Corfu in 230BC. The wars in the Peleponese and subsequent attacks from the Spartans had greatly weakened Corfu. From here the Romans expanded to take over the other Ionian islands.

This was a relatively peaceful time until infighting amongst the Romans broke out, with islands joining in on one side or the other – with disastrous consequences for some. Emperor Nero even visited the island during his rule. The Romans were to control the island until the empire split into two, following the death of the Emperor Constantine.

The Empire was fatally weakened at this point, although Corfu was lead by the Eastern camp until 455AD.


Norman and Venetian Corfu.


Roman rule eventually came to an end with a Gothic invasion. Again, the island was used as a base from which to attack the other islands and the mainland. They were to rule over Corfu, and most of the Ionian Islands for nearly 600 years. Throughout this period, the island suffered greatly from the attacks of pirates around the coast. The survivors of the Byzantine invasion built a new, more secure town at Corypho, which is the origin of the island’s more modern name.

Corypho literally means Two Peaks. In the eighth century the town was fortified but this did not hold back the Normans, with their famous leader, Robert Guiscard, in their invasion of 1081. The Emperor of the Byzantine Empire sent a fleet, allied to that of the Venetians, to take back the island from the Normans. The Normans had already proved themselves to be a serious thorn in his side as they expanded out of their kingdom. So unsuccessful were the initial sieges that the Emperor himself came to the island the following year to lead his troops.

He managed to dislodge the Normans after weakening their position by causing disquiet and subversion amongst them. The Normans finally left the island in 1147. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Crusaders in 1204, the Venetians made their claim on Corfu. The Corfiots, however, stood up to their new rulers and, although the Venetians occupied all the forts on the island, the islanders aligned themselves with the Orthodox State of Epirus and by 1214, Corfu was under their control. The ruins at Angelokasto, near to the modern day town of Paleokastritsa, were once a great fortress that was built at this time.

Corfu came into the possession of the King of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, when his son married the Princess of Villehardouin, bestowed upon him by the Pope. He ruled with an intolerant hand for over 120 years until the islanders turned to Venice in 1386, begging for the protection of the Republic. Corfu was then to come under Venetian rule for some four hundred years. Venice had profound influences upon the Ionian; from architecture to education, fashions, art, music, health system, food etc. It was the Venetians who brought the tomato to the island and they who instigated a huge programme of olive planting. Walking around Corfu Town today, it is impossible not to notice the Italian influences.


Ottoman Corfu.


As so many before them, the Turks had had their eye on Corfu for some time as a base from which to attack the surrounding islands, Italy and on to the west. The Ottoman Turks, under Suleiman the Magnificent, had bought cover for their planned attack in the form of a peace treaty with Venice so that their attempts to invade would come as a surprise. In 1537, the Turkish fleet landed at Igoumenitsa, on the mainland of Greece.

The Corfiots realised what was in store for them only a few days before the attack and tore down their houses to repair the fortress and in order to leave nothing for the Turks, were their invasion to prove successful. The pirate Admiral Barabarossa then landed on the island and set to a heavy siege. He suffered heavy losses but so did the Corfiots, thousands of whom had been caught outside the fortress and, locked out by their fellow islanders, took the brunt of the attack. Few of these Corfiots escaped and those that were not killed were taken to Constantinople and sold as slaves. Suleiman then withdrew his attack on the island. Corfu, unlike much of Greece, never fell to the Turks.

This is not to say that Corfu’s trouble ended with the departure of Barabarossa. The Turks made numerous devastating attacks. There were two more major attacks on the island in 1571 and 1573. On these occasions they took no prisoners, only burned the towns and massacred the population. Nine tenths of Corfu’s population was killed in the three major Turkish offences of the sixteenth century! Not surprisingly, the Corfiots were keen to continue with the improvements in their fortifications that had begun in 1560, but had been halted by invasion.

In 1576 the Venetians and Corfiots begun to build the Fortezza Nuova and other fortifications that were legendary in their day. When the Turks attacked once again in 1716, they fought unsuccessfully for a month at the gates of the fort. Legend has it that they were finally dispersed by a great storm sent by St. Spiridon, the patron saint of Corfu.


French and British Corfu.


By the latter part of the eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonepart had defeated the Venetians in many battles around Europe and had set his sights on the Ionian. Napoleon captured the island in 1789. The Corfiots were, by this time, all too happy to say goodbye to the Venetians and planted trees of liberty in the main town squares of the island.

The French occupied Corfu for only a year before a Russian-Turkish fleet took the island, leaving the Russians in control and declaring the island part of the Eftanisos State – the State of the Seven Islands. In the meantime, the French were at war with the British and determined to take back the Ionian.

They did so successfully in 1803 and since France was at war with Britain, this brought the British into the area. By 1811 they had taken control of the Ionian islands of Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca and Lefkas. Corfu, however had extremely good fortifications so, although the British did blockade Corfu for over six years, they never attacked. Napoleon abdicated in 1812 and, following a meeting of the great powers of the day – Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria – responsibility for running the administration of the Ionian Islands was granted to Britain.

Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, who was from Corfu, was a persuasive force in this decision, asking the British military to protect the island. Kapodistria was, at that time, working for the Russians but he went on to become the first president of Greece. Corfu underwent a rapid period of change with the British, who instigated a programme of building (just take a look around Corfu Town!), road building, improvements in drainage (including the sewage system!) and encouraged new and revolutionary farming techniques.

Also opened on Corfu during this time was the Ionian Islands’ first university – The Ionian Academy. The British also pulled down the Venetian fortresses of the island and reconstructed them, at great expense to the Ionian government. When they eventually pulled out of Corfu, they demanded that they demolish the fortifications that they had laboured over! The ruins can still be seen around Corfu today.


Independence and Modern Corfu.


The Independence movement had been gathering momentum and support both on the mainland and on the islands of the Ionian. After many years of the Greek War of Independence, the British left the Ionian and the islands were united with mainland Greece in 1864. Corfiots had officially declared a position of neutrality in the First World War.

However, in 1923, Mussolini attacked and occupied Corfu after the murder of an Italian delegate to the Greek-Albanian border discussions – discussions that still rage today. The Italians held the island for one short year before being expelled, ending the Corfu Incident, as it became known. Corfu was occupied by both Italian soldiers and the Nazis during the Second World War. The Italians were given administrative control in 1941 but this was seized back again in 1943 with an almighty bloodshed as Italian soldiers sided with Greek freedom fighters. Liberation came with the advance of the Allied Forces in 1944.

Corfu was not badly hit by the earthquake that shook the other Ionian isles of Zakynthos, Kefalonia and Ithaca to ruins in 1953. Walking around Corfu Town and other of the major towns on the island, you will still see the glorious arches and colonnaded walkways of the Venetian era. Throughout the twentieth century, Corfu has been a popular holiday destination. The Empress Elizabeth of Austria was so regular a visitor to the island that she had a palace built; it was called the Achilleion, after Homer’s hero and was infamous for its hideous ostentation. Today the Achilleion serves as Corfu’s only casino.

The Greek royal family had a summer home here at Mon Repos, where Britain’s Prince Phillip was born. Corfu was the first Ionian island to experience mass package tourism but do not think that this has entirely altered the island. Although some of the resort towns offer what is far from a Greek holiday and the environment here has suffered greatly, most of Corfu is still untouched by tourism and is still tied to its wealth of cultural heritage.

Suggested Tour

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Sokraki Village

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Sidari Village

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