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Ioannina was founded in the early 6th century by the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and became an important commercial and cultural outpost. In 1082, however, it was raided by the Normans during the first stages of an east–west antagonism that peaked in 1204, when Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople and dismembered the Byzantine Empire. Numerous illustrious Greek families from the capital fled to Epiros, where an important Byzantine successor state developed under Byzantine nobleman Michael I Komnenos Doukas. The Greeks would remain in control until the Serbs arrived in the early 14th century, followed briefly by more Latins and finally by the Ottoman Turks, who conquered in 1430. The Tourkokratia (Rule of the Turks), as Greeks gloomily call it, would last for the better part of five centuries.

However, things were not terrible during Ottoman times for Ioannina, which enjoyed special privileges and became one of the foremost cultural and artistic centres in Greece. Important new schools were founded, skilled craftsmen created intricate silver and gold jewellery, and through the 16th and 17th centuries, the ‘Epirot School’ of religious painting blossomed.

As Ottoman power began to ebb in the late 18th century, crafty opportunists like the Albanian warlord Ali Pasha (1741–1822) seized their opportunity. In 1789, the morally reprehensible yet oddly charismatic Ali made Ioannina the capital of his personal fiefdom, one which would soon encompass much of Albania and western Greece. Despite a penchant for cruelty that sickened that lover of Greece, Lord Byron, Ali enforced law and order, and Ioannina flourished. In 1822, trapped at the Agios Pandeleimon monastery on the Island (To Nisi) in Lake Pamvotis, the 82-year-old Ali was finally liquidated by some very irritated Ottomans, who paraded his severed head through the streets of İstanbul.

Although Ottoman rule returned to Ioannina, it would become increasingly tenuous, and during the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, Ioannina was captured by the Greek army. The character of the city’s population would change dramatically over the next 30 years; in 1923, with the mandated Greek-Turkish population exchanges, Muslim Turks were replaced with Anatolian Greek refugees, while in 1943 the occupying Germans deported most of Ioannina’s centuries-old Jewish population to the Nazi death camps.