The history of Corfu fortresses

The history of Corfu fortresses

The history of Corfu fortresses is a tale woven with threads of conquest, defense, and cultural exchange, reflecting the island’s strategic importance in the Mediterranean. From the ancient Greeks to the Venetians, and later the British and French, Corfu’s fortresses have stood as silent sentinels witnessing the ebb and flow of history.

The origins of Corfu’s fortifications trace back to antiquity, with the ancient Greeks recognizing the island’s strategic position. The earliest fortifications date to the 8th century BCE when the Corinthians established a colony on the island. They built walls around their settlement, providing rudimentary protection against invaders.

However, it was during the Byzantine era that Corfu’s defenses were significantly strengthened. In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of new fortifications to safeguard the island from incursions by various barbarian tribes and rival powers. These defenses included walls, towers, and gates, which formed the foundation for the later fortresses.

The subsequent centuries saw a succession of rulers vying for control over Corfu, including the Normans, Angevins, and Sicilians. Yet, it was the Venetians who left the most enduring mark on the island’s fortifications. In 1386, the Republic of Venice seized control of Corfu and embarked on an ambitious project to fortify the island against Ottoman expansion.


Under Venetian rule, Corfu became a bastion of Venetian power in the Mediterranean. The Venetians constructed two formidable fortresses: the Old Fortress and the New Fortress. The Old Fortress, located on a rocky promontory at the eastern edge of Corfu Town, served as the primary defensive stronghold. Its massive walls and imposing bastions withstood numerous sieges, including a prolonged Ottoman assault in 1537.


Meanwhile, the New Fortress, built during the 16th and 17th centuries, provided additional protection to the burgeoning town and harbor. Its strategic location atop a hill overlooking the town ensured its effectiveness in repelling attacks from both land and sea.

Despite Venetian dominance, Corfu faced persistent threats from the Ottoman Empire. In 1716, the Ottomans launched a massive invasion of the island, laying siege to the fortresses for over a month. However, Venetian resilience and assistance from European allies ultimately repelled the Ottoman forces, solidifying Corfu’s status as a Venetian stronghold.

The Venetian period came to an end in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces occupied Corfu, marking the beginning of French rule. Under French administration, the fortifications underwent minimal changes, as Napoleon’s attention was focused elsewhere in Europe.

In 1814, the Congress of Vienna awarded Corfu to the British Empire, ushering in a new era of governance. The British made several modifications to the fortresses, primarily focusing on modernizing their defenses to withstand the evolving threats of the 19th century.

Following the end of British rule in 1864, Corfu became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Greece. Over the years, the fortresses gradually lost their military significance but retained their cultural and historical importance. Today, they stand as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, attracting visitors from around the world who come to admire their architectural splendor and learn about the island’s rich and tumultuous past.

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