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Corfu

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Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO)

 

The History of Corfu

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Early History

According to the local tradition Corcyra (Κόρκυρα) was the Homeric island of Scheria (Σχερία), and its earliest inhabitants the Phaeacians (Φαίακες). At a date no doubt previous to the foundation of Syracuse it was peopled by settlers from Corinth, but it appears to have previously received a stream of emigrants from Eretria. The splendid commercial position of Corcyra on the highway between Greece and the West favoured its rapid growth and, influenced perhaps by the presence of non-Corinthian settlers, its people, quite contrary to the usual practice of Corinthian colonies, maintained an independent and even hostile attitude towards the mother city. This opposition came to a head in the early part of the 7th century, when their fleets fought the first naval battle recorded in Greek history (about 664 BC). These hostilities ended in the conquest of Corcyra by the Corinthian tyrant Periander (Περίανδρος) who induced his new subjects to join in the colonization of Apollonia and Anactorium. The island soon regained its independence and henceforth devoted itself to a purely mercantile policy. During the Persian invasion of 480 BC it manned the second largest Greek fleet (60 ships), but took no active part in the war. In 435 BC it was again involved in a quarrel with Corinth and sought assistance from Athens (see Battle of Sybota). This new alliance was one of the chief immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra was of considerable use to the Athenians as a naval station, but did not render much assistance with its fleet. The island was nearly lost to Athens by two attempts of the oligarchic faction to effect a revolution; on each occasion the popular party ultimately won the day and took a most bloody revenge on its opponents (427 BC and 425 BC). During the Sicilian campaigns of Athens Corcyra served as a supply base; after a third abortive rising of the oligarchs in 410 BC it practically withdrew from the war. In 375 BC it again joined the Athenian alliance; two years later it was besieged by a Lacedaemonian force, but in spite of the devastation of its flourishing countryside held out successfully until relieved. In the Hellenistic period Corcyra was exposed to attack from several sides.

In 303 BC after a vain siege by Cassander, the island was occupied for a short time by the Lacedaemonian general Cleonymos, then regained its independence and later it was attacked and conquered by Agathocles. He offered Corfu as dowry to his daughter Lanassa on her marriage to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus. The island then became a member of the Epirotic alliance. It was then perhaps that the settlement of Cassiope was founded to serve as a base for the King of Epirus' expeditions. The island remained in the Epirotic alliance until 255 BC when it became independent after the death of Alexander, last King of Epirus. It subsequently fell into the hands of Illyrian corsairs, until in 229 BC it was delivered by the Romans, who retained it as a naval station and gave it the rank of a free state. In 31 BC it served Octavian (Augustus) as a base against Mark Antony.

Medieval History

Eclipsed by the foundation of Nicopolis, Kerkyra for a long time passed out of notice. With the rise of the Norman kingdom in Sicily and the Italian naval powers, it again became a frequent object of attack. In 1081-1085 it was held by Robert Guiscard, in 1147-1154 by Roger II of Sicily. During the break-up of the Later Roman Empire it was occupied by Genoese privateers (1197-1207) who in turn were expelled by the Venetians. In 1214-1259 it passed to the Greek despots of Epirus, and in 1267 became a possession of the Neapolitan house of Anjou. Under the latter's weak rule the island suffered considerably from the inroads of various adventurers; hence in 1386 it placed itself under the protection of Venice, which in 1401 acquired formal sovereignty over it.

Turks at the Gates of the City

Kerkyra remained in Venetian hands till 1797, though several times assailed by Turkish naval and land forces and subjected to four notable sieges in 1537, 1571, 1573 and 1716, in which the great natural strength of the city and its defenders asserted itself time after time. The effectiveness of the Venetian fortifications of the island as well as the strength of the Byzantine fortifications of Angelokastro, Kassiopi, Gardiki and others, was another great factor that enabled Corfu to remain the last bastion of free, uninterrupted Greek civilization after the fall of Constantinople.

Early contact

There were many attempts by the Turks to take the island starting as early as 1431 when Turkish troops under Ali Bey landed on the island, tried to take the castle and raided the surrounding area, but were repulsed.

The Siege of 1537

This was the first great siege by the Turks. It started on the 29th August 1537 with 25,000 soldiers from the Turkish fleet landing and pillaging the island and taking 20,000 hostages as slaves. Despite the destruction wrought on the countryside, the city castle held out in spite of repeated attempts over twelve days to take it, and the Turks left the island unsuccessful because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks.

The Siege of 1571

Thirty four years later in August of 1571 the Turks returned for yet another attempt at conquering the island. Having seized Parga and Mourtos from the Greek mainland side they attacked the Paxi islands, killing, looting and burning. Subsequently they landed on Corfu's southeast shore and established a large beachhead all the way from the southern tip of the island at Lefkimi to Ipsos in Corfu's eastern midsection. These areas were thoroughly pillaged and burnt as in past encounters. Nevertheless the city castle stood firm again, a testament to Corfiot-Venetian steadfastness as well as the Venetian castle-building engineering skills. It is also worth mentioning that another castle, Angelokastro (Greek: Αγγελόκαστρο meaning Angelo's Castle and named for its Byzantine owner Angelos Komnenos), situated on the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa (Greek: Παλαιοκαστρίτσα meaning Old Castle place) and located on particularly steep and rocky terrain, a tourist attraction today, also held out.
These Turkish defeats in the East and the West of the island proved decisive and the Turks abandoned their siege and departed.

The Siege of 1573

Two years later the Turks repeated their attempt. Coming from Africa after a victorious campaign, they landed in Corfu and wreaked havoc on the countryside yet again. Their troops however were not particularly noted for their discipline, so after a counterattack by the Venetian-Corfiot forces they were forced to leave the city by way of the sea.

The Siege of 1716

This is the second great siege of Corfu which took place in 1716. At that time the Turkish army and naval force led by the great Sultan Achmet III appeared in Butrinto opposite Corfu. On the 8th of July the Turkish fleet carrying 33,000 men sailed to Corfu from Butrinto and established a beachhead in Ipsos. The same day the Venetian fleet encountered the Turkish fleet off the channel of Corfu and defeated it in the ensuing naval battle. On the 19th of July the Turkish army reached the hills of the town and laid siege to the city. After repeated failed attempts and heavy fighting, the Turks were forced to raise the siege which had lasted 22 days. The 5000 Venetians and other nationals and 3000 Corfiotes under the leadership of Count Schulenburg who commanded the defence of the island against the Turks loomed tall and victorious once again. Venetian castle engineering had prevailed once more against considerable odds. It can be said that at the time Corfu was the most heavily fortified city in the whole of Europe and provided the model to the rest of Europe, time after time, on how to stem the Ottoman tide. This role that Corfu played as a bastion of Western civilization during Medieval times and beyond is often relatively unknown or ignored. The successful Venetian-Corfiote collaboration under the leadership of Austrian Count Schulenburg provides an early example of multi-ethnic cooperation in Europe.

Venetian policies

The Venetian feudal families pursued a mild but somewhat enervating policy towards the natives, who began to merge their nationality in that of the Latins and adopted for the island the new name of Corfu. The Corfiotes were encouraged to enrich themselves by the cultivation of the olive, but were debarred from entering into commercial competition with Venice. The island served as a refuge for Greek scholars, and in 1732 became the home of the first academy of modern Greece, but no serious impulse to Greek thought came from this quarter.

19th century

By the Treaty of Campo Formio, Corfu was ceded to the French, who occupied it for two years, until they were expelled by the Russian squadron under Admiral Ushakov. For a short time it became the capital of a self-governing federation of the Hephtanesos ("Seven Islands"); in 1807 its faction-ridden government was again replaced by a French administration, and in 1809 it was vainly besieged by a British fleet. When, by the Treaty of Paris of November 5, 1815, the Ionian Islands became a protectorate of the United Kingdom, Corfu became the seat of the British high commissioner. The British commissioners, who were practically autocrats in spite of the retention of the native senate and assembly, introduced a strict method of government which brought about a decided improvement in the material prosperity of the island, but by its very strictness displeased the natives. In 1864 it was, with the other Ionian Islands, ceded to the kingdom of Greece, in accordance with the fervent wishes of the Corfiotes.

World War I

During the First World War, the island served as a refuge for the Serbian army that retreated there by the allied forces ships from the homeland occupied by the Austrians and Bulgarians. During their stay, a large portion of Serbian soldiers died from exhaustion, food shortage, and different diseases. Most of their remains were buried at sea near the island of Vido, a small island at the mouth of Corfu port, and a monument of thanks to the Greek Nation has been erected at Vido by the grateful Serbs; consequently, the waters around Vido island are known by the Serbian people as the Blue Graveyard (in Serbian, Plava Grobnica), after a poem written by Milutin Bojic after WWI.

World War II and Resistance

Student protests and German bombardments

During the Second World War the 10th infantry regiment of the Greek Army, comprised mainly of Corfiot soldiers, was assigned with the task of defending Corfu. The regiment took part in Operation Latzides, which was a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stem the forces of the Axis. After Greece's surrender to the Germans, the Italians dispatched an occupying force to the island. On the first Sunday of November 1941, High School students from all over Corfu took part in student protests against the occupying Italian army. The student protests of Corfu were the first act of overt popular Resistance in occupied Greece and a rare phenomenon even by wartime European standards. Subsequently many Corfiots escaped to Epirus in mainland Greece and enlisted as partisans in ELAS and EDES in order to join the Resistance Movement of the mainland. On 14th September 1943 Corfu was bombarded by Luftwaffe using napalm-type incendiary bombs. The incendiary bombs destroyed churches, homes, whole city blocks, especially in the Jewish quarter Evraiki, and many important buildings such as the Ionian Parliament, the Municipal Theatre, the Municipal Library and others. The Germans eventually departed from Corfu on 9th October 1944, but not before sending about 2000 Jewish Corfiots to concentration camps such as Auschwitz.

Italian bombardments and the Nazi occupation

The Italian Army also bombarded the city during the Second World War, devastating most of the area. After the Battle of Greece was over, Corfu came under Italian control. Upon the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis took control of the island. Corfu's mayor at the time, Kollas, was a known collaborator and various anti-semitic laws were passed by the Nazis that now formed the occupation government of the island. In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the Normandy landings, the Gestapo rounded up the Jews of the city, temporarily incarcerated them at the old fort (Palaio Frourio), and on the 10th of June sent them to Auschwitz where very few survived. Approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1900 escaped. Many among the local population at the time provided shelter and refuge to those 200 Jews that managed to escape the Nazis. A prominent section of the old town is to this day called Evraiki (Εβραική, meaning Jewish quarter) in recognition of the Jewish contribution and continued presence in Corfu city. An active Synagogue (Συναγωγή) with about 65 members is an integral part of Evraiki currently.

Liberation

Corfu was liberated by British troops, specifically the 40th Royal Marine Commando, landing in Corfu on 14 October 1944 and this landing caused the evacuation of the Germans. Corfu then became a place for rest and refit for the British forces, during the tail end of the war. The Royal Navy swept the Corfu Channel for mines in 1944 and 1945, and found it to be free of mines. A large minefield was laid there shortly afterwards by the newly-communist Albania.

Archaeology and architecture

An architectural overview: From classical to modern

Corfu contains a few very important remains of antiquity. The site of the ancient city of Corcyra (Kerkyra) is well ascertained, about 1½ miles (2 km) to the south-east of Corfu, upon the narrow piece of ground between the sea-lake of Halikiopoulo and the Bay of Castrades, in each of which it had a port. The circular tomb of Menekrates, with its well-known inscription, is on the Bay of Castrades. Under the hill of Ascension are the remains of a temple, popularly called of Poseidon, a very simple dome structure, which still in its mutilated state presents some peculiarities of architecture. Of Cassiope, the only other city of ancient importance, the name is still preserved by the village of Cassiopi, and there are some rude remains of building on the site; but the temple of Zeus Cassius for which it was celebrated has totally disappeared. Throughout the island there are numerous monasteries and other buildings of Venetian erection, of which the best known are Paleokastritsa, San Salvador and Peleka. The Achilleion is a palace commissioned by Elisabeth of Austria and purchased in 1907 by Wilhelm II of Germany; it is now a popular tourist attraction.

Corfu Town is famous for its Italianate architecture, most notably the Liston, an arched colonnade lined with cafes on the edge of the Spianada (Esplanade), the vast main plaza and park which incorporates a cricket field and several pavilions. Also notable are the Venetian-Roman style City Hall, the Old and New castles, the recently restored Palace of Sts. Michael and George, formerly the residence of the British governor and the seat of the Ionian Senate, and the summer Palace of Mon Repos, formerly the property of the Greek royal family and birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh. The Park of Mon Repos is adjacent to the Palaiopolis of Kerkyra, where excavations were conducted by the Greek Archaeological Service in collaboration with the University of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium and Brown University in the United States.

Examples of the finds can be found in the Museum of the Palace of Mon Repos.

Architectural catastrophies of WWII

During the second world war the island was bombed by the German airforce which resulted in the destruction of most of the buildings in the town including the market (αγορά) and the Hotel Bella Venezia. The worst architectural losses due to the bombardment of Hitler's Luftwaffe were the splendid buildings of the Ionian Academy (Ιόνιος Ακαδημία) that used to house the Ionian Islands' Parliament and Library and the famous Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo, the Roman style Theatre (Θέατρον) of the city that was later replaced by a nondescript modern box-type building. There have been discussions and plans at the local government level (on and off) about demolishing this modern building and replacing it with a replica of the old theatre. In contrast, the Ionian Academy has been rebuilt to its former glory.

Beauty, Power and Tragedy: The Achilleion

Empress (German: Kaiserin) of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria, also known as Sissi, was a woman obsessed with beauty and very powerful but tragically vulnerable since the loss of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in the Mayerling affair in 1889. A year later in 1890 she built a summer palace in the region of Gastouri (Γαστούρι) to the south of the city, with the powerful mythical hero Achilles as its central theme. Achilles was considered the most handsome of the heroes assembled at Troy, but he was tragically vulnerable at his heel.

Corfu is an island associated with beauty that historically proved to be very powerfully defended, mainly against the Turks, an enemy the Austrians faced many times in their past also. Corfu was tragically vulnerable as well since the local population outside its fortified walls was decimated and repeatedly suffered many hardships during the numerous invasions. The island therefore, on many levels, provided the perfect ambience match to the Empress and her Hero.
The palace, with the classic Greek statues that surround it, is a monument to platonic romanticism as well as escapism and was, naturally, named after Achilles: Achilleion (Αχίλλειον). This elegant structure abounds with paintings and statues of Achilles, both in the main hall and in the lavish gardens depicting the heroic and tragic scenes of the Trojan war.

The Imperial gardens on top of the hill provide a majestic view of the surrounding green hill crests and valleys as the Ionian sea gleams in the background.

The centerpiece of the gardens is an imposing marble statue on a high pedestal, of the mortally wounded Achilles (Achilleas Thniskon Αχιλλεύς θνήσκων translated as dying Achilles) without hubris and wearing only a simple cloth and an ancient Greek hoplite helmet. This statue was created by distinguished German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter.

The hero is presented devoid of any accoutrements of rank or status and thus seems very human although heroic as he is forever trying to pull Paris's arrow from his heel, with pain and agony etched on his classic face. He is also gazing skyward as if to seek help from Olympus. According to Greek mythology, his mother Thetis was a goddess.

The parallels to the grieving Empress recuperating from the painful loss of her only son by trying to extract it from her memory, but never quite being able to do so, are compelling.

In contrast, a giant painting of the triumphant Achilles full of pride, dressed in full royal military regalia on his racing chariot, pulling the lifeless body of Hector of Troy and parading it in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the Trojan citadel, greets the visitor at the top of the great staircase of the main hall.
In 1898 Empress Sissi was assassinated in Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of 60. After her death the palace was sold to the Kaiser of Germany and eventually it was acquired by the Greek State. The Achilleion was used until recently as a Casino but currently it is used as a museum; the myth however lives on.

Kaiser's Bridge

German Kaiser Wilhelm II was also fond of vacationing in Corfu. Having purchased Achilleion in 1907 after Sissi's death, he built a bridge named by the locals after him: "Kaiser's bridge" (Greek: η γέφυρα του Κάιζερ transliterated as: i yefyra tou Kaizer), to access the beach without having to cross the road that is the island's main artery to the south. The bridge, arching over the road, spanned the distance between the lower gardens of Achilleion and the nearby beach. The ruins of that great bridge, a monument to imperial vanity as well as impracticality, are an important landmark of this highway. Ironically, the bridge's central section was demolished by Wehrmacht during the German occupation in WWII to allow for the free movement of its vehicles.

 

 
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