History of Lefkas
The Ionian has a long history of invasion and a culture that incorporates elements from all over Europe.
Lefkas' history is more tied in with mainland Greece than its neighbouring islands, so for those who are dying to find out more...
In antiquity, Lefkas was known as 'Leucas', or white, after the white cliffs on the southern Cape Lefkatas.
'Kavos tis Kyras', or the Cape of the Lady, as it is also known, was made infamous by the ancient Greek poet, Sappho.
Sappho, writing in the sixth century BC, was considered by Plato to be the 'Tenth muse' and today to have been 'the first modern poet'.
Legend has it that she flung herself from the cliff at Cape Lefkatas when Phaeon rejected her love.
Where now stands a lighthouse, was once a Temple dedicated to the god Apollo.
It is said that the priests of the temple would safely act out Sappho's leap.
Later, it became popular practice with fashionable and dramatic Romans who were rejected by their lovers to follow Sappho's example, being careful to employ constructed 'wings' to soften their fall and to position rescue parties in the sea below!
We can assume that it is Cape Lefkatas that Homer refers to as the White Rocks, in his Epic poem, The Odyssey, but where exactly the island stands in the legend is unclear.
The islands that are today known as Ithaca, Kefalonia and Lefkas were not always known by these names and different theories claim that each of the islands was in fact Odysseus' Ithaca.
Nineteenth century archaeologist, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, assisted with Heinrich Schlieman's excavations of Ithaca.
Schlieman concluded that modern Ithaca was, at one time, the home of Odysseus but Dorpfeld was not satisfied with this assertion.
Going back to The Odyssey, he felt that Lefkas was a more likely candidate and located Odysseus' palace somewhere around Nidri.
It was around here that he begun to dig.
Despite making some significant finds, he did not uncover any evidence to suggest that Lefkas, was or was not, the home of Odysseus.
Some of Dorpfeld's finds are housed in the public library in Lefkas Town.
In its earliest history, Lefkada, as it is known to the Greeks, was not an island at all but a peninsular of mainland Greece.
Although flint tools have been found across the island dating back to 8000 BC, the earliest evidence of real settlements dates back to 4000 BC.
Dorpfeld uncovered two such settlements at Hirospilia and Asvospilia.
The legendary Teleboans were said to have occupied the Ionian islands for at least two centuries; the island of Taphos, just off the coast of Lefkas, today known as Meganisi, was one of their most important centres.
Arkananian and Corinthian Lefkas
From the seventh to the third century BC, there were two main influences on Lefkas; that of Corinth and that of Arkanania, the area of the mainland adjacent to Lefkas.
The peninsular was snatched from the Arkananians by the Corinthians in the seventh century BC and it was they who dug the channel that now separates Lefkas from the mainland.
The channel was dug around 650 BC by the Corinthians to strengthen the defences for their most important base in the area, on the sea route to Sicily.
The huge bridge that linked the newly made island to mainland Greece was, by the accounts of Livy, an impressive structure; 500 paces long and 125 paces wide.
The bridge is a clear indication of the wealth that the island enjoyed around this time.
Although Lefkas considered itself to be an independent state, it remained loyal to its 'mother city' Corinth and was very much under the influence of the Corinthians.
Lefkas was involved in most of Corinth's external struggles: the battle of Salamina (480BC), the battle of Plataies (479 BC) the Peleponnesian Wars (431 BC) and, later, the campaign against Sicily.
Philip of Macedon was elected Emperor and, under his leadership, the Macedonians conquered Lefkas when locals sided with Athens against Macedonia.
Philip's successor was Alexander the Great, who brought Greece together for the period of his lifetime.
Upon his death, Lefkas re-allied itself with Rome and a few years later, declared its independence.
By the third century BC, the constant pressure from the Arkananians on mainland Greece for Lefkas to join the Koinon of the Arkananians paid off and they were united.
This united front, however was troublesome to the Romans who saw the Koinon as a great threat.
Rome was also gathering strength and declared Lefkas independent once more to weaken the powers that resisted its rule.
In 230BC Lefkas, supported by Arkananians and Macedonians, resisted the Roman attack.
The long fight took its toll, causing the loss of many lives and the destruction of the ancient cities.
The famous Battle of Actium which settled the fight between Mark Anthony and Octavius Caesar, took place off the north coast of the island in 31 BC.
Byzantine & Venetian Lefkas
Very little is known about the Byzantine period of Lefkas, save that a bishop from the island took part in the Convention of Nice (AD 325) and that the island was devastated by a huge earthquake fifty years after that.
Because of its strategic position, Lefkas was eyed by many nations as a prime possession.
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.
Lefkada was incorporated into the Byzantine Theme of Kefalonia 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 Dominion 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 that they could... not that they did so badly out of it 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 and 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 Mavra 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 Turks had slowly been advancing across Greece.
The only power that did anything to halt their attacks was Venice.
Battles over Greek territory between Turks and Venetians continued for nearly two centuries.
Surprisingly, when the Turkish fleet of the bloodthirsty Ahmed Pasha landed at Lefkas, Venice did not respond.
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 Turks) 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 Turkish 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 Turkish rule went on as it had started; with great suffering to the local population.
Most of the fertile land was taken by the Turks 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 Turkish occupation was the building of the Aghia Marina aqueduct.
The joy felt after the Venetians finally set siege to the island in 1684 is not then surprising.
Help was also sent from the nearby island of Kefalonia in the form of 150 armed priests and monks, organised by the island's bishop, Timothy, determined to fight
back the Muslim occupiers.
After sixteen days of the siege, the Turks retreated to the mainland and the Venetians were to rule Lefkas for the next hundred years.
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 Empire 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 Turks; 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.
French & British Lefkas
The French took control of Lefkas in 1797 and for two years democracy reigned supreme.
It then came into the hands of the Russians, intent of ridding the world of the Turkish threat.
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 smoulderings 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.
Independence and Modern Lefkas
The War of Independence officially begun in 1821 and hundreds of Lefkadian men joined the fight against the Turks.
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 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 Turks and some border disputes still raumble on today.
Lefkas remained for the early part of the twentieth century, an important organisational centre for the Independence fight.
Twenty years into the twentieth century Greece marched on Asia Minor in an attempt to free Smyna, but the effort was disastrous and more than five thousand Greeks fled to the Fort of Santa Mavra which had been set up as a temporary refugee camp.
World War Two saw the occupation of both Italian soldiers and Nazi's across most of Greece.
Lefkas was no exception and the islanders suffered great brutality and physical hardships at the hands of the Nazi occupiers.
The troubles 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, is minimal and the island remains unspoilt by it; a rich treat for its more peaceful visitor.