Corfu (Kérkyra, ; ; ; ) is a Greek island in the Ionian Sea. It is the second largest of the Ionian Islands, and, including its small satellite islands, forms the edge of the northwestern frontier of Greece. The island is part of the Corfu regional unit, and is administered as a single municipality. The municipality includes the island Corfu and the smaller islands Ereikoussa, Mathraki and Othonoi. The principal city of the island and seat of the municipality (pop. 32,095) is also named Corfu. Corfu is home to the Ionian University.
The island is bound with the history of Greece from the beginning of Greek mythology. Its Greek name, Kerkyra or Korkyra, is related to two powerful water symbols: Poseidon, god of the sea, and Asopos, an important Greek mainland river. According to myth, Poseidon fell in love with the beautiful nymph Korkyra, daughter of Asopus and river nymph Metope, and abducted her. Poseidon brought Korkyra to the hitherto unnamed island and, in marital bliss, offered her name to the place: Korkyra, which gradually evolved to Kerkyra (Doric). Together, they had a child they called Phaiax, after whom the inhabitants of the island were named: Phaiakes. This term was transliterated via Latin to Phaeacians.
The island's history is laden with battles and conquests. The legacy of these struggles is visible in the form of castles punctuating strategic locations across the island. Two of these castles enclose its capital, which is the only city in Greece to be surrounded in such a way. As a result, Corfu's capital has been officially declared a Kastropolis ("castle city") by the Greek government. Corfu was long controlled by Venice, which repulsed several Turkish sieges, before falling under British rule following the Napoleonic Wars. Corfu was eventually ceded by the British Empire along with the remaining islands of the United States of the Ionian Islands, and unification with modern Greece was concluded in 1864 under the Treaty of London.
Corfu is a very popular tourist destination. Up until the early 20th century, it was mainly visited by the European royals and elites, including Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and Empress Elisabeth of Austria; today it is also widely visited by middle class families (primarily from the UK, Scandinavia and Germany), leading to mass tourism. It is still popular with the global elite however, and in the island's northeast the homeowners include members of the Rothschild family and Russian oligarchs.
The earliest reference to Corfu is the Mycenaean Greek word ko-ro-ku-ra-i-jo ("man from Kerkyra") written in Linear B syllabic script, ca. 1300 BC. According to Strabo Corcyra (Κόρκυρα) was the Homeric island of Scheria (Σχερία), and its earliest inhabitants were the Phaeacians (Φαίακες). The island has indeed been identified by some scholars with Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians described in Homer's Odyssey, though conclusive and irrefutable evidence for this theory or for Ithaca's location have not been found. Apollonius of Rhodes depicts the island in Argonautica as a place visited by the Argonauts. Jason and Medea were married here in 'Medea's Cave'. Apollonius named the island Drepane, Greek for "sickle", since it was thought to hide the sickle that Cronus used to castrate his father Uranus, from whose blood the Phaeacians were descended. In an alternative account, Apollonius identifies the buried sickle as a scythe belonging to Demeter, yet the name Drepane probably originated in the sickle-shape of the island. According to a scholiast, commenting on the passage in Argonautica, the island was first of all called Macris after the nurse of Dionysus who fled there from Euboea.
At a date no doubt previous to the foundation of Syracuse, Corfu was peopled by settlers from Corinth, probably 730 BC, but it appears to have previously received a stream of emigrants from Eretria. The commercially advantageous location of Corcyra on the way between Greece and Magna Grecia, and its fertile lowlands in the southern section of the island favoured its 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 BC, when their fleets fought the first naval battle recorded in Greek history: 665 BC. according to Thucydides. 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 over the control of Epidamnus, 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 Spartan 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 Cleonymus of Sparta, 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. In 229, it was captured by the Illyrians, but was speedily delivered by a Roman fleet and remained a Roman naval station until at least 189. At this time, it was governed by a prefect (presumably nominated by the consuls), but in 148 it was attached to the province of Macedonia In 31 BC, it served Octavian (Augustus) as a base against Mark Antony. From AD 336 onwards, it was ruled by the Eastern Roman Empire. After the definitive division of the Roman Empire in 395, Kerkyra remained with the Eastern Roman Empire, known in modern historiography as the Byzantine Empire.
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 Byzantine 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 Corfu and kept it until the French Occupation in 1797.
Kerkyra, the "Door of Venice" during the centuries when the whole Adriatic was the Gulf of Venice, remained in Venetian hands from 1401 until 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 powerful Venetian fortifications of the island as well as the strength of some old Byzantine fortifications in Angelokastro, Kassiopi, Gardiki and others, was another strong factor that enabled Corfu to remain free. Will Durant claims that Corfu owed to the Republic of Venice the fact that it was the only part of Greece never conquered by the muslim Turks.
A series of attempts by the Ottoman Turks to take the island began in 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 Corfu (1537) was the first great siege by the Ottomans. It began on 29 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 unsuccessfully because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks.
Thirty-four years later, in August 1571, Turkish forces returned for yet another attempt to conquer the island. Having seized Parga and Mourtos from the Greek mainland side they attacked the Paxi islands. 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 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 defeats in the east and the west of the island proved decisive for the Turks and they abandoned their siege and departed. Two years later, Turkish forces repeated their attempt. Coming from Africa after a victorious campaign, they landed in Corfu and wreaked havoc on rural areas. Following a counterattack by the Venetian-Corfiot forces, the Turkish troops were forced to leave the city by way of the sea.
The second great siege of Corfu took place in 1716, during the last Turkish-Venetian War. After the conquest of the Peloponnese in 1715, the Ottoman fleet appeared in Butrinto opposite Corfu. On 8 July the Turkish fleet, carrying 33,000 men, sailed to Corfu from Butrinto and established a beachhead at 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 19 July, after taking a few outlying forts, the Ottoman army reached the hills around the city of Corfu and laid siege to it. Despite repeated assaults and heavy fighting, the Turks were unable to breach the defences and were forced to raise the siege after 22 days. The 5,000 Venetians and foreign mercenaries, together with 3,000 Corfiotes, under the leadership of Count von der Schulenburg who commanded the defence of the island, were victorious once more. The success was owed in no small part to the extensive fortifications, where Venetian castle engineering had proven itself once again against considerable odds. The repulsion of the Ottomans was widely celebrated in Europe, Corfu being seen as a bastion of Western civilization against the Ottoman tide. Today, however, this role is often relatively unknown or ignored, but was celebrated in Juditha triumphans by the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi.
Venetian policies and heritage
Corfu city looks very different from most Greek cities, because of Corfu's unique history. From 1386 to 1797, Corfu was ruled by Venetian nobility; much of the city reflects this era when the island belonged to the Republic of Venice, with multi-storied buildings on narrow lanes.
Many Venetian-speaking families settled in Corfu during these centuries and until the second half of the 20th century, the Veneto da mar was spoken in Corfu: they were called Corfiot Italians. During this time, the local Greek language assimilated a large number of Italian and Venetian words, many of which are still common today.
The Venetian feudal families pursued a mild but somewhat enervating policy towards the natives, who began to adopt some segments of Venetian customs and culture. 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. A Corfu clergyman and scholar, Nikephoros Theotokis (1732–1800) became renowned in Greece as an educator, and in Russia (where he moved later in his life) as an Orthodox archbishop.
Many Italian Jews took refuge in Corfu during the Venetian centuries and spoke their own language (Italkian), a mixture of Hebrew-Italian in a Venetian or Apulian dialect with some Greek words.
The Venetian influence was important in the development of opera on Corfu. During Venetian rule, the Corfiotes developed a fervent appreciation of Italian opera, which was the real source of the extraordinary (given the conditions in the mainland of Greece) musical development of the island during that era. It was in Venetian times that the city saw the erection of the first opera in Greece, but it was badly damaged during World War II by German artillery.
The internationally renowned Venetian-born British photographer Felice Beato is thought to have spent much of his childhood in Corfu.
Venetians promoted the Catholic church during their four centuries rule in Corfu. Even if today the majority of Corfiots are Greek Orthodox (following the official religion of Greece), a percentage of Catholics (5%) nevertheless owe their faith to these origins. These contemporary Catholics are mostly families who came from Malta, but also from Italy during the Republic of Venice, and today the Catholic community takes in about 4000 people, (2/3 of Maltese descent) who live almost exclusively in the Venetian "Citadel" of Corfu City, and harmoniously side-by-side with the Orthodox community. Like other native Greek Catholics, they celebrate Easter using the same calendar as the Greek Orthodox church.
The island's way of life absorbed Venetian influence in a variety of ways ; its local cuisine, for example, took in such elements and today's Corfiot cooking maintains some of these Venetian delicacies and recipes: "Pastitsada", deriving from the Venetian "Pastissada" (Italian: "Spezzatino") and is the most popular dish in the island of Corfu, "Sofrito", "Strapatsada", "Savoro", "Bianco" and "Mandolato".
By the Treaty of Campo Formio, Corfu was ceded to the French, who occupied it for two years as the département Corcyre, until they were expelled by a joint Russian-Ottoman squadron under Admiral Ushakov. For a short time it became the capital of a self-governing federation of the Heptanesos ("Seven Islands"), under Ottoman suzerainty; in 1807 after the Treaty of Tilsit its faction-ridden government was again replaced by a French administration under governor François-Xavier Donzelot, and in 1809 it was besieged in vain by a British fleet, which had taken all the other Ionian islands. When, by the Treaty of Paris of 5 November 1815, the Ionian Islands became a protectorate of the United Kingdom as the United States of the Ionian Islands, Corfu became the seat of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The period of British rule was a prosperous period for Corfu because the Greek language became official, new roads were built, the water supply system was improved and the first Greek University was founded in 1824. On 29 March 1864, the United Kingdom, Greece, France and Russia signed the Treaty of London, pledging the transfer of sovereignty to Greece upon ratification. Thus, on 21 May, by proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner, the Ionian Islands were united with Greece.
British Lord High Commissioners
This is a list of the British High Commissioners of the Ionian Islands; (as well as the transitional Greek Governor, appointed a year prior to Enosis (Union) with Greece in 1864).
World War I
During the First World War, the island served as a refuge for the Serbian army that retreated there on Allied forces' ships from a homeland occupied by the Austrians and Bulgarians. During their stay, a large portion of Serbian soldiers died from exhaustion, food shortage, and various 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, Плава Гробница, Plava Grobnica), after a poem written by Milutin Bojić following World War I.
In 1923, after a diplomatic dispute with Greece, Italian forces bombarded and occupied Corfu. The crisis was settled by the League of Nations. See Corfu incident.
World War II and Resistance
During the Greco-Italian War, Corfu was occupied by the Italians in April 1941. They administered Corfu and the Ionian islands as a separate entity from Greece until September 1943, following Benito Mussolini's orders of fulfilling Italian Irredentism and making Corfu part of the Kingdom of Italy. During the Second World War the 10th infantry regiment of the Greek Army, composed mainly of Corfiot soldiers, was assigned 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 Italians. After Greece's surrender to the Axis, the island came under Italian control and occupation. On the first Sunday of November 1941, high school students from all over Corfu took part in student protests against the occupying Italian army ; these student protests of the island were among the first acts of overt popular Resistance in occupied Greece and a rare phenomenon even by wartime European standards. Subsequently, a considerable number of Corfiots escaped to Epirus in mainland Greece and enlisted as partisans in ELAS and EDES, in order to join the resistance movement gathering in the mainland.
The German occupation and the Holocaust
Upon the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, the Nazis moved to take control of the island. On 14 September 1943, Corfu was bombarded by the Luftwaffe; these bombing raids destroyed churches, homes, whole city blocks, especially in the Jewish quarter Evraiki, and a number of important buildings, such as the Ionian Parliament, the Municipal Theatre, the Municipal Library and others. The Italians capitulated, and the island came under German occupation. 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 10 June sent them to Auschwitz, where very few survived. Approximately two hundred out of a total population of 1,900 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 city 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 (who still speak their original Italkian language) is an integral part of Evraiki currently. On April 18, 2011, the Jewish synagogue was targeted by arsonists but the fire was extinguished and there were no victims.
Corfu was liberated by British troops, specifically the 40th Royal Marine Commando, which landed in Corfu on 14 October 1944, as the Germans were evacuating Greece. 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 and gave rise to the Corfu Channel Incident. This incident led to the Corfu Channel Case, where the United Kingdom opened a case against the People's Republic of Albania at the International Court of Justice.
Post-War and modern Corfu
After World War II and the Greek Civil War, the island was rebuilt under the general programme of reconstruction of the Greek Government (Ανοικοδόμησις) and many elements of its classical architecture remain. Its economy grew but a portion of its inhabitants left the island for other parts of the country; buildings erected during Italian occupation – such as schools or government buildings – were put back to civic use. In 1956 Maria Desylla Kapodistria, relative of first Governor of Greece Ioannis Kapodistrias, was elected mayor of Corfu and became the first female mayor in Greece. The Corfu General Hospital was also constructed; electricity was introduced to the villages in the 1950s, the radio substation of Hellenic Radio in Corfu was inaugurated in March 1957, and television was introduced in the 1960s, with internet connections in 1995. The Ionian University was established in 1984. Due to perceived neglect of Corfu by the central government in Athens, local businessmen and others proposed formation of an autonomist party to compete in the 2010 local elections.