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Corfu - History

Corfu was the first Greek territory to fall under Roman rule. Utilizing the Oligarchy, the Romans created an aristocracy, and in consequence led the island into a steep decline. It was during this period, in the first century AD, that the saints Jason and Sosipatros, disciples of Saint Paul, brought Christianity to the island. Soon after, Nero visited Kassiopi, a plague ravaged the population, and Christians suffered persecution.

In 337 the Roman Empire split and Corfu fell into the eastern section. The partition was finalised in 395, and Corfu was ceded to the Eastern Roman Empire. Dark years followed, during which Corfu suffered barbarian raids such as the one in 455 when the Vandals of Genzerichou depopulated the island. The sack of Corfu by the Goths under Totila followed in 550, an event which led to the abandonment of the ancient city and its relocation for defensive purposes in the Old Fortress. In the second half of the 7th century, Saracens seized Corfu, ravaged it and then used it as a base. The Byzantines expelled the Saracens, signalling the start of a new era under Byzantium. In 1081 the Normans under Robert Guiscard besieged and captured the island. Their rule did not last long, however, since the Byzantines, with the help of Venice, beat them in a naval battle and again took possession.

Various Frankish knights conquered the island in subsequent years, and in 1204 when knights of the Fourth Crusade seized Constantinople, Corfu fell into Venetian hands. The next decade was Corfu's first period under Venice, but in 1214 Byzantium again took the island, which became part of the Despotate of Epirus, at that time one of three independent Greek states. Half a century of peace followed, until a new threat from Sicily began. The use of the Greek language in the Eastern Roman Empire constituted the basis for the development of a different consciousness from that of Rome. The Church left the control of the Pope and came under the auspices of the Patriach in Constantinople. Corfu became a Metropolitan Bishopric and the Greek world opposed the Latin one. When in 1267 the Angevins conquered Corfu, they attempted to impose the Catholic Church in place of Orthodox, an attempt which failed completely. Indeed, nothing could blunt the strong Greek Orthodox faith amongst the population of Corfu. Following the administrative pattern established by the Byzantines, Corfu belonged to the Department of Kefallinia, being one of the prefectures of this Department, under the control of a Prefect. The Prefecture was in turn divided into klimas and these into episkepsis, each of which comprised a small number of villages, whose ecomony was administered by the appointed figure. Later, the departments and climes were abolished and the administrative districts were reduced to just prefectures and episkepsis. In all probability the villages of Klimatia, Episkepsis, Episkopi and Episkopiana took their names from these districts. As far as society was concerned, the Nobility had dominion over the peasants, who could be either free or dependent. The dependent peasants were either salaried or 'unwritten'. Four centuries of Venetian rule determined the character of the island. The existing feudal system was strengthened through the nobility which was listed in the Libro d'Oro, while at the same time two new social classes made their appearance, the civili (bourgeoisie) and the popular (the mass). Not only were commerce and agriculture at their peak, thanks to the encouragement of olive culture, but intellectual and artistic life also flourished. While the rest of the Greek world was under the Turkish yoke, the Corfiots spoke Italian and enjoyed a rich cultural life, and it was for this reason that many literary and artistic figures made their way from other parts of Greece to settle in Corfu. But this cultural development was the privilege of the aristocracy, and was made at the expense of those in the country who, working without economic profit and living in a cultural void, began to revolt.

The first uprising came in 1610 and was followed by four major and several minor revolts, all of which were savagely suppressed. As a result, when the French fleet sailed into Corfu, they were welcomed as liberators. During the Venetian period, Corfu suffered repeated but finally unsuccessful attacks by Genoese pirates and Turks, who razed villages and devastated the countryside. The resulting decline in the population forced the Venetians, who needed a labour force to exploit the island, to encourage immigration from the Mainland. When the French occupied Corfu the local people, fired by the ideals of the French Revolution, had visions of independence and of an end to the days of the nobility. The Libro d'Oro was burned and emblems of Venetian rule were destroyed. But the authoritative policy which the French in turn imposed antagonised the people. In 1799 Russia and Turkey, concerned about French territorial expansion, formed an alliance and took Corfu. A year later, on March 21st 1800, Corfu and the other Ionian Islands joined to create the independent Septinsular State, but this was dissolved when, in 1807, Corfu was ceded again to France under Napoleon. By 1814 the Ionian Academy and the Library had been founded, and the local economy had improved.

In 1814, following the final defeat of Napoleon, the Ionian Islands were declared an independent state under the protection of Great Britain. Under the British, the economy recovered fully, a road network was constructed, the Ionian Academy was established as the first Greek university and, most important of all, Greek became the official language. The British remained until 1864, when the islands were united with Greece on May 21st 1864, Corfu and the Ionian Islands recovered their Greek identity, and the long years of foreign occupation came to an end. But it also signalled the end of Corfu as the capital of the Ionian Islands. The newly established Greek State could not allow another pole of culture and wealth to exist outside Athens, and the University and other institutions had to be sacrificed. By 1900, Corfu was just another provincial town with a glorious past. In 1923 it was bombarded and occupied by the Italians after the Italian General Cellini was murdered on Greek territory. During the Second World War, in 1940, it was bombed and occupied by the Italians and in 1943 was bombed by the Germans, when the Ionian Academy, the Library and the Municipal Theatre were burnt down. In the hard years that followed the end of the war, Corfu shared the fortune of the rest of Greece. Poverty, crisis and emigration continued until the late 1960's, when tourist development gave a new impetus to the economic and social life of Greece. The island's attraction for tourists was already evident by the turn of the century.

As well as being the spot chosen by the Empress Sissi for her Achillion Palace, built in 1890 as a refuge from the intrigues of the Hapsburg court, it also became the setting of the Bella Venezia Hotel, a beautiful hostelry which was often compared with the Grande Bretagne in Athens and attracted the aristocracy of Europe as guests. From the early years of the century up until the Second World War, Corfu rivalled Capri and Mallorca as the favourite Mediterranean destinations of the European elite. During the last 40 years, the explosion of mass tourism', coupled with the island's natural beauty and historic past, has made Corfu one of the most popular holiday destinations for millions of people, who treasure memories of their stay as one of the best in their life. Visiting the fortresses, the old mansions, the monasteries, the cafes and tavernas of this island, the visitor can take delight in the experience of a living culture, discerning it also in the character of the beguiling people of Corfu.

Corfu - Culture

The Corfiots are cultured people with a great heritage of music and arts.
The island boasts no less than thirty-two philharmonic bands, and the three which are established in the town give regular outdoor concerts during the summer months.

Opera became a favourite musical form in Venetian times, and performances are greatly appreciated. As a proverb of the last century went, "to be applauded in Corfu is to be sure of international success.

The many art galleries have permanent and changing exhibitions by artists of international as well as local fame. Today, the modern theatre and various romantic outdoor locations serve as venue for a great variety of events, from rock concerts to displays of contemporary dance, from performances by the island's symphony orchestra to theatrical works of tragedy and comedy.

In Corfu the past lives in the present.
Events which have been celebrated for hundreds of years are still enjoyed, in the traditional way.

For centuries, the year has been defined by the passage of significant days and celebrations. The four annual processions of the island's patron saint, Spiridon, are well-loved occasions, and the two which occur at Easter are part of an extensive calendar of religious and cultural activities, including traditions such as the Easter Saturday morning ceremony.

Summer sees many festivals, with traditional music and dances, while succulent lambs roasting on a spit scent the warm night air. The Corfiots love festivities, but they also take their Greek Orthodox religion seriously. The basis of Orthodox dogma, established in 733 by the Emperor Leonta, who took the Church of Western Greece out of the authority of the Pope and gave it to the Patriarch in Constantinople, was still in place at the close of the 9th century.

The Episcopal Throne of Corfu, dependent until then on the Archbishopric of Nicopolis, itself became an Archbishopric, with direct dependence on the incumbent Patriarch. This period continued in the 12th century with the Golden Bull of Emanuel Comnenus I, who provided special prerogatives and tax exemptions to two groups of priests, consisting of 33 members each. The first group was a political company of 33 priests from the country who were exempted from every tax imposed by the Emperor or local authorities, could freely sell their merchandise and were exempt from forced labour. In return they had to pray for Orthodox sovereigns. They were called Lefteriotes to differentiate them from their neighbours in slavery, and from this comes the surname Lefteriotis, which is common in the Corfu countryside. The second group was the Holy Order, consisting of 32 priests of the town and one layman, who were called Pythagorians and had the same rights and obligations as the Lefteriotes.

Almost two thousand years of religious tradition is manifest in the richly endowed ecclesiastical buildings with their stunning icons, in tiny, inaccessible chapels where a candle always burns, and in the pristine, white-washed of monasteries where black-clad monks reside.

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