Zakynthos History

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The oldest traces of life on the island date to the Neolithic period and were found in the gulf of Laganas. The island's history has its roots in antiquity and, as Pliny tells us, it was inhabited before 3000BC, when it was called Yria. A complex of marble divine figurines, such as Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemis, has been found near Frourio, and is now kept in the Tiepolo Museum in Venice. This confirms the particular inclination that the island's ancient inhabitants had for music and the worship of Artemis.

As Homer says, the name Zakynthos was given to the island by Zakynthos, son of Dardanos, King of Troy. Zakynthos came to the island from the Arcadian city of Psophidas in around1500 BC, and lent his name to the new city. The colonists who followed him called the acropolis of the island Psophidas in memory of their homeland. His descendants created a fine civilization and began to found colonies whereby they could spread, such as Zakantha in Spain, the city of Kydones in Crete and Fokis in Spain. In the Mycenean years, the island was part of the kingdom of Ithaka. Homer called the island "yleissa", i.e.verdant.

Its geographical position, the fertile land and the island's tar sources played an important role in its economic growth, which in the 6th century BC enabled it to mint its own silver coins. These coins portrayed tripods – the holy symbol of Apollo – on one side, which was succeeded by the lyre in the 5th century. For around seven centuries the island enjoyed a democratic life. In 455 BC Zakynthos joined with the Athenian League. After this was crushed, it found itself under Spartan occupation, resulting in its democratic political system being replaced by an oligarchic one. Zakynthos kept a neutral position during the Persian Wars, whilst it was part of the Roman province of Achaia under Roman Empire.

It was during these years that Christianity was introduced to the island in 34 BC, by Mary Magdalene according to one tradition, but by Saint Beatrice according to another. With the establishment of the Byzantine Empire, Zakynthos was incorporated in the province of Illyria, without however enjoying particular care or protection. It was thus raided during pirate raids and by expectant conquerors. The Ionian Islands experienced further adventures during the Crusades.

At the end of the 12th century the island passed into the hands of the French Counts of Orsini, then to the Angevin kings of Naples, and finally the Tocci (Florentine princes ). The Venetians took over the island in 1485, after pressurizing the Turks diplomatically. Venetian rule gave Zakynthos stability and opportunities for growth, which the island had been denied for centuries. The peace that Venetian power secured for the island gave it for the first time opportunities for economic and cultural growth. The inhabitants were divided into three classes: the nobles (nobili), the bourgeoisie (civili) and the masses (popolari). Only the nobles were registered in the Golden Book (libro d'oro) and had political rights. In 1797 the French democrats arrived on Zakynthos and were welcomed enthusiastically. The Libro d'oro was burnt in Saint Mark's square with ecstatic celebrations. French control lasted 15 months.

nomisma-1-bIn October of 1798 the unified Russian-Turkish fleet, led by the Russian Admiral Ushakov, arrived on Zakynthos. With the great enthusiasm local people met Russian navies. Russian Admiral offered Zakinthian Greek to be the official language and Orthodoxy the established religion. In 1800 a treaty was signed between Russia and Turkey whereby an independent state known as the Septinsular Republic was established. . The Septinsular Republic, the first independent Greek state of modern history, was to last for seven years. In 1807 French troops occupied the Ionian Islands.

Two years later, in 1809, the British navy occupied Zakynthos. British occupation (1809 – 1864) was to be the final phase of occupation before union with Greece. With outbreak of the War of Independence in 1821, the Ionian islanders openly and actively supported their uprising fellow Greeks.

With liberation from the Turks and the foundation of the Greek state, the demand of the Ionian Islands for union with the rest of Greece became pronounced. Thenomisma Greek flag was finally raised on the island on 21 May 1864. During the Second world war, the island was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans. A few years later, in 1953, the island suffered a catastrophic earthquake, which was followed by a large scale fire that destroyed the town of Zakynthos. The historic buildings and churches, with the treasures that they contained, were all lost. The city was rebuilt along strict anti-earthquake regulations, attempting at the same time to preserve something of its old character.



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