Corfu’s long and turbulent history has contributed to the island’s intriguing, charming and somewhat mystifying character.
Corfu was not always an island. During the Paleolithic era, Corfu was part of Greece’s mainland; the geographical separation took place during the Neolithic era (10.000-8.000 BC) when the ice melted and the level of the sea rose creating an independent island. Traces from that era can be found in Sidari. On the northwest side of the island, in Kefali, Afionas and Ermones, archeological excavations uncovered few Bronze Age settlements from the 2nd century BC.
The First Colonizers
The first Greek settlers of the island were Eretrians from Evia Island, around 775-750 BC. A few years later, the Eretrians were joined by political refuges from Corinth who brought with them their highly developed political outlook and founded the ancient city of Palaiopolis. Under Heriscrates leadership, Corfu became an important commercial center with a strong naval force, independent from Corinth. The strong political power however divided the island into two; the Democrats and the Oligarchs.
The Democrats and Oligarchs cohabited Corfu peacefully for 300years, before falling into conflict over a jointly-held colony, Epidamnos (Durres). Corfu requested support from the Athenians, giving rise to the well-known Peloponnesian wars. Corfu’s alliance with Athens lasted a century until 338 BC, when the Macedonians under King Philip II dissolved the alliance and took control. King Philip II domination was followed by the Spartans, the Syracusians, the Illyrians and finally the Romans in 229 B.C.
Corfu was the first Greek territory to full under Roman rule. Together with the Oligarchy, the Romans created their own aristocracy and subjected the island into a state of deep recess. Under the Romans reign, roads and public buildings were built and Christianity was introduced by the disciples of Saint Paul, Jason and Sosipatros. Corfu was one of the first Greek cities to convert to Christianity. Sometime thereafter, Caesar Nero’s persecution of all Christians brought a division to the Roman Empire; Corfu was ceded to the Eastern Roman Empire and left to the mercy of barbarian raids by the Vandals of Genzerichou, Goths and finally the Saraceans who were expelled in 733 A.D.
Corfu was inhabited for several centuries after by the Byzantine Orthodox, the Normans, and the Franks before falling under the Venetian rule.
The Venetian domination determined Corfu’s unique character as it did not endure the control of the Ottomans that overwhelmed the rest of Greece. The Venetians ruled Corfu for four centuries, under which the Corfiots enjoyed a highly intellectual life. The existing system was strengthened by the Libro d’Oro (nobility), new social classes emerged, the ‘civili’ (bourgeoisie) and the ‘popolari’ (common people), commerce and agriculture reached their highest peak and culture flourished. Corfu’s intellectual awakening can be marked by the many literary and artistic personas that inhabited the island.
In 1797, Venice surrendered to Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire and Corfu became part of the French state. The ideology of the French Revolution inspired the locals who began dreaming of their own independence; the Tree of Freedom was planted in Esplanade square, the ‘Libro d’ Oro’ book burnt and emblems of Venetian rule destroyed. In 1890 the Palace of Empress Sissy was built as a refuge from the conspiracies of the Hapsburg court. The palace then became the setting of the Bella Venezia Hotel, a beautiful hotel often compared to the Grand Bretagne of Athens.
The Start of Independence
In 1814 the Ionian Islands were declared an independent state, under the British rule. The economy fully recovered; an extended road network was constructed, the first Greek University, the Ionian Academy, was established (1824) and Greek became the official language of the island. The British remained in Corfu until 1864, when the Ionian Islands were united with the rest of Greece.
Corfu’s independence brought a change to the Ionian state capital who could no longer afford the existence of two separate centers of culture and wealth. The Ionian University and other cultural institutions were sacriviced and in WWII, the occupation of the Italians and Germans demolished the Ionian Academy, the Library and the Municial Theatre, crippling Corfu’s arts.
Corfu shared the misfortune with the rest of Greece in the years that followed WWII, until the late 1960s, when tourist development gave a new movement to the economic and social life of the country. The island’s natural beauty was undeniable. Up until WWII, Corfu rivaled Capri and Majorca as amongst the favorite Mediterranean destinations of the European elite. During the last 40 years, the excellent tourism infrastructure, the historic past and the natural beauty of the island made it one of the most popular holiday destinations.