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History

The origin of the name ‘Ionian’ is obscure, but it’s thought to derive from the goddess Io. As yet another of Zeus’ paramours, Io fled the wrath of a jealous Hera (in the shape of a heifer), and happened to pass through the waters now known as the Ionian Sea.

If we are to believe Homer, the islands were important during Mycenaean times; however, no magnificent palaces or even modest villages from that period have been revealed, though Mycenaean tombs have been unearthed. Ancient history lies buried beneath tonnes of earthquake rubble – seismic activity has been constant on all Ionian islands.

By the 8th century BC, the Ionian Islands were in the clutches of the mighty city-state of Corinth, which regarded them as stepping stones on the route to Sicily and Italy. A century later, Corfu staged a successful revolt against Corinth, which was allied to Sparta, and became an ally of Sparta’s archenemy, Athens. This alliance provoked Sparta into challenging Athens, thus precipitating the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC). The wars left Corfu depleted, as they did all participants, and Corfu became little more than a staging post for whoever happened to be holding sway in Greece. By the end of the 3rd century BC, Corfu, along with the other Ionian Islands, fell under Roman rule. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the islands saw the usual waves of invaders suffered by Greece. After the fall of Constantinople, the islands became Venetian.

Corfu was never part of the Ottoman Empire. Paxi, Kefallonia, Zakynthos and Ithaki were variously occupied by the Turks, but the Venetians held them longest. The exception was Lefkada, which was Turkish for 200 years.

Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797. Two years later, under the Treaty of Campo Formio, the Ionian Islands were allotted to France. In 1799 Russian forces wrested the islands from Napoleon, but by 1807 they were his again. The all-powerful British couldn’t resist meddling, and in 1815, after Napoleon’s downfall, the islands became a British protectorate under the jurisdiction of a series of Lord High Commissioners.

British rule was oppressive but, on a positive note, the British constructed roads, bridges, schools and hospitals, established trade links, and developed agriculture and industry. However, the nationalistic fervour throughout the rest of Greece soon reached the Ionian Islands, and a call for unity was realised in 1864 when Britain relinquished the islands to Greece.

In WWII the Italians invaded Corfu as part of Mussolini’s plan to resurrect the mighty Roman Empire. Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943 and, in revenge, the Germans massacred thousands of Italians who had occupied the island. The Nazis also sent some 5000 Corfiot Jews to Auschwitz.

The islands saw a great deal of emigration after WWII, and again following the earthquakes of 1948 and 1953 that devastated the region. But while Greeks left the islands, the foreign invasion has never really stopped, and these days takes the form of package tourism from northern Europe.