History of Lefkas

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WorldMediterraneanIonian SeaGreeceLefkasHistory of Lefkas

The earliest evidence of human settlement on the island dates from the Neolithic period. In the 7th c. BCE the town of Lefkas was founded by settlers from Corinth, who closed off the south end of the lagoon, opposite the St. George Fort, by a 600 m long mole, remains of which are still visible under water (the sunken breakwater). They also cut a channel through the spit of shingle at the north end of the lagoon, opposite the Fort of Santa Maura.

Very little is known about the early Byzantine period of Lefkas, save that a bishop from the island took part in the Convention of Nicaea (AD 325) and that the island was devastated by a huge earthquake fifty years after that. During the fifth century, the island came under attack from the Vandals and the Huns. What they did not destroy of the island was brought down by two further severe earthquakes in the middle of the sixth century. The island was incorporated into the Byzantine Theme of Cephalonia in the seventh century. The Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries brought a period of instability to the Ionian and the island came under the control of many foreign princes. Lefkas, during this period was part of the Despotate of Epirus. Although the Crusades were supposedly an attempt to 'liberate' the Holy land and Christian lands subject to Muslim leaders, the reality of the situation was that Crusaders often fought to liberate any country so that they could keep it for themselves! In 1204, the Jewel in the Byzantine Crown, Constantinople, fell to the Crusaders and for a while, the Empire was broken. It fell as the 'duty' of Crusaders to divide up Greece amongst themselves. The Ionian islands, and nearly half of the whole Empire, went to Venice. Since Venice had to rule so many areas, it did not have a tight grip on any and it took nearly fifty years to loosen the hand of Epirus and to bring Lefkas under real Venetian control. In 1293 Nicephorus Angelus, Despot of Epirus, married his daughter to Roberto Orsini, and with her went Lefkas as a dowry. Orsini was the son of the Count of Kefalonia, subject to the Venetians. The fortress of Santa Maura was built by the Orsini family to protect the island from the increasing pirate raids. The fourteenth Century saw the government of the island in almost constant flux. Lefkas was passed, or taken, from leader to leader, leaving the islanders poverty-stricken from the constant high taxes of each leader, eager to make a quick fortune before the island be taken from him. Stability came with the rule of the Counts de Tocci and lasted for the best part of a century.

During this period, the Ottomans had slowly been advancing across Greece. The only power that did anything to halt their attacks was Venice. Battles over Greek territory between the Ottomans and the Venetians continued for nearly two centuries. Surprisingly, when the Ottoman fleet of the bloodthirsty Ahmed Pasha (who was actually French) landed at Lefkas, Venice did not respond. In 1479 the Pasha sacked the island, burning much of it to the ground and slaughtering many of the island's inhabitants. Those who were not killed, and who did not kill themselves (there are many accounts of men, women and children throwing themselves from cliff tops to escape the tyranny of the Ottomans) were sold into slavery at the bazaars of Smyrna and Constantinople. Although there were many battles for supremacy in the Ionian sea, Lefkas was the only Ionian island to come under the control of the Ottoman Empire for more than a few years. They ruled Lefkas for over 180 years, co-operating with the many pirate ships that lurked in the sheltered waters, preying on the Venetians ships that used this important shipping route. These pirates also made frequent attacks on the Lefkadians, taking goods from the towns as well as new slaves from the local population. The period of Ottoman rule went on as it had started; with great suffering to the local population. Most of the fertile land was taken by the Ottomans and the land that was not taken was subject to excessive taxes. It was only due to the industriousness of the Greeks that they survived at all. The only positive thing that was to come of the Ottoman occupation was the building of the Aghia Marina aqueduct.

The island was recovered for Venice by Morosini in 1684.With the Venetians came peace, a basic constitution and some limited self-rule. However, the prosperity that the Lefkadians expected, did not find its way into their hands. Trade was controlled by the Venetians so that the islanders were not really lifted from their poverty. By the mid-eighteenth century, the power of the Venetian Republic was wavering. Her possessions were being slowly lost, including some of the Greek ones. None of the big European powers, however, wanted to see any of the Ionian islands coming under the rule of the Ottomans; this was an important trade route, which lead on to the east. 1797 saw the start of an intense thirteen year war for the control of Lefkas. During that period, Lefkas changed hands several times.

The French took control of Lefkas in 1797 and for two years democracy reigned supreme. The island then, came into the hands of the Russians, intent of ridding the world of the Turkish threat. After that the island came under the Protectorate of Britain in military operations that were to incorporate all of the Ionian islands. New freedoms came with the British Protectorate, including the right to vote; new roads and bridges; new aqueducts; new schools and new anti-seismic building regulations to protect the islanders from a series of serious earthquakes that hit Lefkas during that period.

The smouldering of the Greek War of Independence, however, had long since started on the mainland and many Lefkadians were beginning to side with the Freedom fighters. The War of Independence officially begun in 1821 and hundreds of Lefkadian men joined the fight against the Ottomans. The Greek mainland finally won that fight in 1830 and this further induced the islanders to rise up against their own foreign rulers. Lefkas and the Ionian islands were finally incorporated into Greece with a wave of angry fighting after the Otto king of Greece was deposed and the whole country came under British rule; but that was not until 1864! Still parts of Northern Greece were occupied by the Ottomans and some border disputes still rumble on today. Lefkas remained for the early part of the twentieth century, an important organizational center for the Independence fight.

Twenty years into the twentieth century Greece marched on to Asia Minor in an attempt to "free" Smyrna (Izmir), but the effort was disastrous and more than five thousand Greeks fled to the Fort of Santa Maura which had been set up as a temporary refugee camp.

World War II saw the occupation by both Italian and Nazis soldiers across most of Greece. The troubles of the island were further compounded by the huge earthquake that shook Lefkas into ruins in 1948 and again in 1953. Walking around Lefkas Town today, you will see that many of the upper storeys of the buildings are constructed from corrugated iron in order to limit the damage from any further shakes. Many Lefkadians left the island around this time, forced to search for work abroad.

At the beginning of the 1980's the tourist industry begun to make an impact on the island. There has been some movement of the population, during the summer months at least, down from the villages of Lefkas to the coastal resorts. The impact of tourism, however, was minimal and the island remained unspoilt by it; a rich treat for its more peaceful visitor. But recently with the opening of the airport in Preveza direct charter flights are coming in daily and the island is being flooded by tourists.

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