History of Zakynthos island

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The Greek island of Zakynthos is a beautiful Ionian island with diverse, lush nature and a rich history. Throughout its development, Zakynthos has had a long and complex journey, remaining under the rule of various powers before becoming part of a free Greece in 1864.

One of the most significant periods in the history of Zakynthos is the Venetian rule, during which the life of the inhabitants of Zakynthos improved and flourished, especially in the cultural and architectural spheres. At that time, Zakynthos acquired the name 'Flower of the East' or 'Venice of Greece' and the influence of Venetian culture is still evident on the island today.

Zakynthos island and mythology

The first mentions of Zakynthos can be found in Greek mythology, which depicts the island as a green paradise with magical nature and a place for the pastimes of the Greek gods. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, roamed the forests, and her brother Apollo played his lyre under the trees to praise the beauty of the island.

The ancient Greek poet Homer mentioned Zakynthos in the epics Ilias and Odyssey, where he states that its first inhabitants were the son of the Trojan king Dardanus of Arcadia, called Zakynthos, and men from his naval fleet. They arrived on the island around 1500 BC with the aim of establishing their own acropolis. Zakynthos, who is often depicted with a snake in his hand because, according to some legends, he freed the island from snakes, is considered the founder and first ruler of the island.

Later, the island of Zakynthos came under the rule of Ulysses, King of Ithaca, and subsequently Zakynthos took part in the Trojan War along with other countries ruled by the son of the Ithacan king Odysseus. After the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus took the important step of granting autonomy and democratic status to Zakynthos.

Most historians agree that Zakynthos was first inhabited around 1500 BC, when an acropolis was built on the island. The earliest evidence of settlement on the island, obtained from archaeological excavations, dates back to the Early Stone Age (Neolithic).

Roman period

Thanks to its location, Zakynthos gradually became an important Greek island and many powers tried to assert their influence over it. Its strategic position was noticed by the Romans, who occupied the island in the 2nd century BC, ending the rule of the Macedonian king Philip V. It was the Romans who are said to be the first real and historical conquerors of Zakynthos.

The inhabitants of Zakynthos, however, tried to fight against Roman rule and Roman laws through numerous uprisings, but gradually improved their coexistence through commitments and concessions from both sides. Zakynthos gained a degree of autonomy and the island developed both materially and culturally.

Legend also has it that in 34 AD Mary Magdalene anchored on Zakynthos and together with Mary of Clopas brought Christianity to the island. The name of the village Maries also refers to this important moment.

Byzantine period

After the decline of the Roman Empire, the island of Zakynthos experienced a period of uncertainty and had to defend itself against raids by various tribes.

In the 4th century AD, Zakynthos was annexed to the sphere of influence of the Byzantine Empire and this period was characterised mainly by greater security and stability, the development of Christianity and the construction of religious and defensive buildings. Social classes began to form, with the nobility (landowners and landowners) being the highest, the middle class consisting of merchants and workers, and the peasants being the lowest. However, a large number of the population suffered from poverty.

Venetian period

After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, Zakynthos was again in a period of greater uncertainty, as several families and dynasties changed power until the Ottoman Turks took over the island in 1479.

An important period in Zakynthos' history was the so-called Venetian period (15th to 18th centuries), when the Venetians made an agreement with the Turks to control the Ionian Islands and in exchange pay privilege taxes to the Turks. The Venetians eventually ruled Zakynthos for almost 350 years.

During the Venetian rule, the islanders enjoyed a good quality of life, the island flourished architecturally and the culture also developed strongly. The Venetian government also encouraged and supported its citizens to move to the province of Zakynthos. The peaceful coexistence between the two peoples is mainly attributed to the wisdom of the Venetians, who were able to give the natives a sense of social and religious freedom.

The Venetian influence is still evident on the island today, especially in the fields of architecture and culture. Zakynthos has also been nicknamed 'the Venice of Greece' and 'the flower of the East'.

The struggle for independence and the emergence of a free Greece

The island of Zakynthos began to be governed by a democratically elected government. However, there were still three classes of inhabitants - the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the popolari (commoners), who did not have the right to vote. This led to conflict and violence in society. In 1797, after the fall of the Venetian Republic, French republicans came to the island promising to change the social, economic and political system.

The following period was marked by the aspirations for a free Greece. The French rule was an important impetus in this respect, and although it was short-lived, its slogan of 'equality and justice' gave rise to a new direction of thought among the Greeks. The French style was more likely to be supported by the lower social classes, as the newly introduced freedoms awakened their desire for equality and independence. This period also saw the burning of the Golden Book, the Libro d'Oro, which gave privileges and political rights only to the nobility. It was also during this period that compulsory schooling was introduced on the island.

However, innovation and liberality met with the displeasure of the noble class, who began to miss their former privileges. Thus, after only 15 months and with the support of the local nobility, the oligarchy was restored in 1798 when Zakynthos came under Russo-Turkish rule. The state of the Ionian Islands was established.

In 1809, the British occupied Zakynthos and made it the capital of the Ionian State. As a result, new infrastructure was built on the island, including bridges and harbours, the water supply was made more efficient, schools were built, etc.

The rest of Greece, however, was under Turkish rule at the time, and the inhabitants of Zante openly supported the Greeks against the Turks during the Greek War of Independence (1821), while they themselves were under British rule. After Greece broke away from Turkish influence, the Ionian islands were not stopped, and in 1864 they, including Zakynthos, joined free Greece.

Modern history of Zakynthos

The modern era of Zakynthos' historical development was marked by two major moments - the Second World War, when the freedom of the Greek islands was temporarily restricted again, and the devastating earthquake that hit the area in 1953.

During the Second World War, Zakynthos and the rest of Greece were occupied first by Italian and then by German troops from 1941 until its liberation in 1944. However, the islanders tried to resist the occupiers and protected the Jewish community on the island.

Just a few years later, in 1953, another difficult test awaited the inhabitants of Zakynthos. A massive earthquake and the devastating fires that followed were a disaster, especially for the island's infrastructure and monuments, with ancient and unique buildings destroyed and only a fraction of the island's historical wealth surviving. The capital of Zakynthos was almost entirely razed to the ground, with only three major buildings remaining standing - the Cathedral of St. Dionysus, the National Bank building and the Church of St. Nicholas. However, the inhabitants of the island tried to preserve as much as possible their original appearance when rebuilding the towns and monuments.

Nowadays Zakynthos is one of the most popular Greek islands for tourists - it has beautiful and clean beaches, smaller and larger tourist resorts and many interesting tips for excursions, whether you prefer natural attractions or historical monuments.