Corfu’s history stretches far back in time: from prehistory and mythical times to archaic and classical Greece; the Hellenistic period, then Rome and the Byzantium; the West and the East, Venice, France and Russia, Great Britain and modern Greece. All these elements have played a part—here, where the Adriatic meets the Mediterranean—in making up the unique mo¬saic that is Corfu.
We know Corfu was already inhabited by the Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age), when the island was still attached to the mainland. Human presence here has also been ascertained during the Neolithic and Bronze ages.
We also know that in historical times the island was first settled by Eu¬boeans and later by Corinthians. In the seventh century bc Chersoupolis (later to be called Palaeopolis) was a highly organized Greek town with a marketplace (agora), a port, various workshops, small ceramic industries, many temples, and its own coinage.
The Roman invasion of Greece in the second century bc brought the is¬land under Roman rule. As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west five hundred years later, Corfu reverted to the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire.
Over the centuries the island has been attacked and raided numerous times. In the sixth century, for example, Palaeopolis was razed to the ground by the Goths, prompting its remaining inhabitants to seek a safer place for their homes. That was how they gradually resettled on a high promontory between two great natural rocks. This gradually emerged as a fortress, the town’s present Old Fortress. As the new capital of the Corfiots, the town was initially a territory of Byzantium. After the beginning of Venetian rule in 1386, fortification work was continued by the Serenissima Republic.
By this time the town had started to spread outside the walls of the Fort– ress and was becoming a more substantial settlement. The Fortress now had to be prepared urgently for defensive purposes against a new enemy, the Ottoman Turks, who were desirous of taking the island over from the Vene¬tians, in order to sever their trade routes to Crete and the east. The obvious need for more effectual defensive works led the Venetians (who had already lost considerable ground to the Ottomans in the Mediterranean) to build the New Fortress on St Mark’s Hill, to construct walls on the perimeter of the expanded city, and to erect smaller peripheral fortresses The greatest military engineers and architects of the time worked on these fortifications, applying the latest technological advances in their de¬signs. The result was a city impregnable, immune to siege, and one of the most important fortified port cities in the Mediterranean.
Armies comprising Venetians and Corfiots threw back four Ottoman sieges. As we may understand, the Ottomans sought to dominate Corfu as a stepping stone on their projected forced passage to the west. In this way Corfu played its role in the development of European history.
It must be noted that the island has never at any time lost its Greek identity. It always retained the language, the morals and the Eastern Ortho– dox faith that made it a beacon for many of those Greeks who were subjects of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, it followed closely on the foot¬steps of Western Europe, the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Following Venetian rule, the island became a French dominion, governed by French Republicans under Napoleon between 1797 and 1799. Their defeat by Rus-sians and Turks brought Russian rule for seven years. In Corfu and the other Ionian islands a new political entity, the Ionian State, came into being in this period.
By 1807, when France briefly re-established possession of the island, Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, and wished that grand and attrac¬tive buildings should be erected throughout his empire to remind everyone of his rule, on the model of the new buildings of Paris. This was the idea that led to the creation of the Liston complex in Corfu Town.
It wasn’t long before the all-powerful British Empire took over the Ionian islands. The greatest and most interesting testimony to the British presence on Corfu is the Palace of Saints Michael and George, a typically neoclassical building of the middle nineteenth century.
The handing-over of the Ionian islands to Greece in 1864 reunited Cor¬fu with the motherland after centuries of forced estrangement.
The Corfiot soul has always remained Greek in its core, but has also been able to absorb creatively various western influences. The ensuing blend has a singular cultural character, obvious even today, in all manner of ex¬pression, from the local linguistic idiom to architecture.
The black veil of twentieth-century wars also cast a dark shadow on Corfu’s history. The First World War brought here the government of Ser¬bia and some 150,000 Serbian soldiers and citizens, to whom the Corfiots offered solidarity and shelter. In the Second World War Corfu Town was mercilessly bombed, with German incendiaries burning many architectur¬ally distinguished buildings to the ground. At the same time the island’s Jewish community, an integral part of Corfiot society for long centuries, was almost extinguished.
By 1950 Greece had been tending the deep wounds of the Second World War and the Civil War that followed it. It was then that the island started on its first awkward steps into the new era by turning to advantage its natural environment and long history. By the middle 1950s the tourism industry had been slowly growing, in part as a continuation of the travels described by European authors from the 18th century onwards: some of them would mention in private letters and journals that here they had found Paradise. Tourist development in the ensuing decades has made Corfu one of the world’s best-known travel destinations.