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Prehistory and antiquity

The south-western part of Corfu was already inhabited in the Old Stone Age (70,000-40,000 BC). Probably it was not yet an island but connected to the mainland of Epirus, where the first inhabitants also came from. In Sidari on the north coast, a settlement was founded around 7000 years B.C. It was not until the Bronze Age that people remained here. People continued to live here until the Bronze Age (3000-1000 BC).

From 2000 B.C. Illyrian tribes also founded settlements in the north-western part of the island. Nothing has been found that indicates that these tribes were in contact with other parts of Greece. Remains that have been found point to a culture that is entirely their own, strongly leaning towards the Apulia region in southern Italy. The first settlements were founded by Eretrians in the period 775-750 BC south of today's capital Kerkyra.

In 734 BC, Corfu was occupied by settlers from the important Greek city of Corinth. At that time, mainland Greece was plagued by famine due to overpopulation. As a result, their own culture was outstripped by the highly developed Hellenic culture. The Corinthians founded the new city of Korkyra just south of an existing settlement which, due to its central location, became important for trade between Italy, Sicily and the Greek mainland.

Korkyra tried to break away from Corinth and in 664 BC an armed conflict broke out which was won by Korkyra. Korkyra immediately developed colonial activities on the mainland where a number of coastal cities were colonised. In 600 BC Korkyra was conquered by the tyrant of Corinth, Periander. Under him, the city flourished with beautiful temples, buildings and sculptures. There is not much left of this ancient city. Over the centuries, Korkyra was slowly demolished and the stones were used to build a new city and, in the 5th century, a large basilica. After the death of Periander, Korkyra broke away from Corinth and maintained close ties with Athens, which by 479 BC had firmly established its hegemony on the mainland.

A new golden age followed for the island and by the beginning of the 5th century it had its own fleet almost as large as that of Athens. In the second half of the century another conflict broke out between ancient enemies Korkyra and Corinth for the colony of Epidamnos on the Adriatic coast. Partly because of this, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) broke out, with Korkyra siding with democratic Athens and Corinth siding with the military stronghold of Sparta. This war ended disastrously for Athens but did not have many consequences for Korkyra. In the same period, the island itself was in turmoil and a civil war broke out between supporters of the democracy and of the oligarchy. Ultimately, this internal struggle was won by the democratic party.

In 374 BC Korkyra was attacked by Sparta, but with the help of Athens they managed to resist the Spartans. In 361 BC, the Second Athenian Alliance, which included Korkyra, fell apart, and the Macedonians could easily occupy Greece. In 338 BC, Corfu was occupied by Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Under Philip and Alexander the Great, Greek freedom came to a temporary end and Corfu became part of the Macedonian world empire. From that time onwards, Corfu no longer played a significant role.

In the third century B.C. the island was occupied by Illyrian pirates who were driven out in 229 B.C. by the Romans who had come to their rescue. Although the Greeks had been freed from the Macedonians and the pirates, they were now annexed by the Romans, who used their cities as military bases for expansion to the east. In exchange for the use of the harbour, Korkyra was allowed to keep its independence and privileges.

Middle Ages

From the first century, Christianity was preached on the island and Korkyra was one of the first Greek cities to be Christianised. After the death of Theodosius the Great, the Roman Empire was divided in two and Korkyra was incorporated into the Eastern Roman Empire, which was later called Byzantium. In the first half of the 5th century, large parts of Korkyra were demolished and rebuilt as an early Christian city. At that time Korkyra was still situated at an important point in the trade route Byzantium-Venice.

From the fifth to the ninth century, the whole of Europe and therefore also Corfu was attacked by tribes such as the Huns, Vandals and West and East Goths. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476. Because of these attacks, in the 6th century Corfu was moved to the better defended peninsula. From that time on, the city was called "Polis stous koryfo". In the mid-7th century, Koryfo was saved from Arab pirates by military intervention from Constantinople. In 800, Leo III was crowned Roman Emperor and this meant that the Eastern Roman Empire could forget about merging with the former Western Roman Empire. In 876 Koryfo and the other Ionian Islands were ecclesiastically separated from Rome and henceforth fell under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

In the 11th century, Koryfo was again attacked by, among others, the Venetians and the Normans. In 1081, Koryfo was occupied by the Normans who, however, were driven out three years later by the Byzantines with the help of the Venetians. In 1147 there was another attack by the Normans which was again repelled by the same coalition. In 1199 the island was conquered by Venice's rival, Genoa. By then, Byzantium was no longer in a position to offer help and protection. The Crusaders conquered Byzantium in 1204 and Korkyra was allocated to Venice, which fought Genoa. Venice won the battle and ruled Koryfo from 1207 to 1214. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire had broken up into three independent states and Koryfo belonged to the realm of Michael I, despot of Epirus. He annexed the island and defended it against the Genoese. In 1258 the state of Epirus was conquered by Manfred, the son of a Sicilian king. This Manfred in turn lost the area to Charles, the king of Naples and Sicily. From then on, Koryfo belonged to the House of Anjou.

The new rulers of Anjou wanted to convert the orthodox inhabitants of the island to Catholicism. The King of Anjou gave the island as a wedding present to his son Philip, but the Venetians were very interested in Koryfo and wanted to buy it. It was only after a crisis broke out in Naples that the Venetians were able to take over the island.

Venetians, Turks, French and Russians

In 1386, the rule was even voluntarily handed over to the Venetians. The second Venetian period would last until 1797. Although the central power lay with the Venetians, parts of the island still had a certain degree of freedom. The importance of maintaining good relations with these nobles was high because of the economic importance. Because of this important economic position, Corfu was repeatedly attacked, especially by the Turks. They attacked the island a total of five times, in 1431, 1537, 1571, 1573 and 1716. All these attacks eventually failed but in 1537 the whole island was looted and 15,000 islanders were captured and sold as slaves. The Turks, however, did not manage to conquer the citadel. In the following years, the city was further fortified and after the attack of 1571, a new fortress was built and the defences around the city were completed. The last attack in 1716 failed completely, although this was partly due to a storm that hit the Turkish fleet. In the meantime, the population of the island had thinned out due to all the acts of war, but also epidemics and farmers' rebellions against landowners.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Venice's position on the world stage weakened to such an extent that authority over the island passed into the hands of the French Emperor Napoleon without a struggle. He, too, was aware of the importance of the island to the French due to its crucial location. Corfu was soon declared a French province, with the city being governed by a council that included people from the middle classes. Although the population was initially excited to be rid of the Venetians, the mood soon changed when it became clear that the inhabitants were being economically exploited by the French.

At that time, Russia had made an alliance with Turkey to arm itself against Napoleon's expansionism. Because the islanders were very dissatisfied with the French, it was not difficult for the Turks and the Russians to gradually occupy all the Ionian islands. However, Koryfo was occupied only after months of fighting following a truce. After this, the Russians installed a Greek Orthodox bishop on the island. However, the upper classes on the island now wanted to create a new independent state of the Ionian Islands with Koryfo as its capital. The new state was to be called Heptanissa.

In 1800 the new state was recognised by England, Russia and Turkey. After this, the nobility returned to power, which immediately led to great unrest and fights between the aristocracy and the common people after the departure of the Russians in 1801. In 1806, the Russians took back control and controlled all internal and external affairs. And this meant in fact that independence soon came to an end.

By the Treaty of Tilsit, the seven Ionian Islands were returned to France. Thus, Heptanissa became a French province again, which developed well in a short time due to the interference of the French. Agriculture, education, architecture and town planning were addressed and made the French very popular with the population. The fall of Napoleon in 1814 marked the end of the French rule over Koryfo.

English protectorate, 1814-1864

By the Treaty of Paris in 1815, the English were not granted full authority over the island (now called Corfu instead of Koryfo) on paper. The so-called "United States of the Ionian Islands" was to form a free independent state protected by the English. The support of the Ionian Islands in the Greek War of Independence of 1821 did not meet with the approval of the English. The Union Movement of the Ionian Islands, which wanted to join the Greek Empire, also arose after Greek independence from Turkish rule. After a change in the constitution in 1848, the islanders were given more freedom and self-government.

Greek had already been recognised as an official language by 1817, and the road network, education system and culture in general also improved or flourished.

Corfu finally joins Greece

In 1864, the Ionian Islands were officially incorporated into the Greek state. The English still forced Prince Wilhelm of Denmark to become the new king of Greece. He was related to the English royal family and was therefore later named George I. It was also stipulated that in case of war, the Ionian Islands would remain neutral and the fortifications would be dismantled.

The neutrality clause was soon to apply only to Corfu and Paxos, but during the First World War Corfu was already being used by the Allies as a base for their armies. In addition, the Serbs used the island for two years as a temporary administrative centre. The Serbs arrived at Corfu after fleeing Austrian and German armies through Albania. In 1917, the Treaty of Corfu was concluded, laying the foundations for the new state of Yugoslavia. In 1923, an Italian general was killed and the island was bombed.

In the Second World War, the island was occupied by the Italians from 29 April 1942 to 25 September 1843. They attempted to annex the islands to Italy. When the Italians capitulated, the Germans wanted to occupy the island and they succeeded at the end of September 1943, but were driven away by the British on 12 October 1944. The many bombings and battles caused great destruction. In Greece itself, the communists wanted to take over power after the Second World War but failed. The post-war years were also characterised by reconstruction, and an airport and a new harbour were built as a result of the rapidly increasing tourism.

In 1965 there was a conflict between King Constantine II and the reformist Prime Minister Papandreou. Papandreou was dismissed and a number of years of cabinet crises and social unrest followed. On 21 April 1967, a coup d'état by a group of ultra-right-wing army officers brought the dictators Papadopoulos and Patakos to power under the pretext of fighting dangerous communism. This dictatorship lasted until July 1974, when the regime collapsed. King Constantine initially tolerated the regime and thus made himself very unpopular with the people. He resisted far too late and went into exile in Rome and London. This also angered the people and as a result the monarchy was exchanged for a republic. In 1994, a summit was held on Corfu to mark the end of the Greek Presidency of the European Union. Unfortunately for the island, no important decisions were taken.

See also the history of Greece.


Desypris, Y. / 777 schitterende Griekse eilanden
Uitgeverij Michalis Toubis S.A.

Fürst, F. / Corfu
Het Spectrum

Gerrard, M. / Korfoe
Van Reemst

Hendriksen, B. / Korfoe en de Ionische eilanden : Paxos, Lefkáda, Kefaloniá, Itháka en Zákinthos
Van Reemst

Webb, S. / Corfu & the Ionians
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated March 2024
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