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Monday, November 12, 2012

The Byzantine "Castle of the Angels"

The Castle of the Angels.
View of Angelokastro approaching from the nearby village of Krini. Archangel Michael's church at the Acropolis can be seen at the top left of the castle. The Ionian sea can be seen in the background. Remnants of the battlements can be seen on the right (northeast) side of the castle. The circular protective tower can be seen in front of the main gate.

Angelokastro  -  Powerful Fortress on the Western Border of the Empire
Angelokastro or "Castle of the Angels" is one of the most important Byzantine castles of Greece.
It is located on the island of Corfu at the top of the highest peak of the island's shoreline in the northwest coast near Palaiokastritsa and built on particularly precipitous and rocky terrain. It stands 1,000 ft (305 m) on a steep cliff above the sea and surveys the City of Corfu and the mountains of mainland Greece to the southeast and a wide area of Corfu toward the northeast and northwest.
The origin of its name is not completely clear, with some historians mentioning that in 1214 Michael I Komnenos Doukas, Despot of Epirus, sometimes called Michael Angelos, annexed Corfu to Epirus and following his death, Michael II Komnenos Doukas, often called Michael Angelos in narrative sources, further fortified the area and named it after himself and his father: Angelokastro. The Despots were related to the Komnenoi dynasty of Byzantine emperors.

Angelokastro is one of the most important fortified complexes of Byzantine Corfu. It forms an Acropolis, translated as city on the edge, that surveyed the region all the way to the southern Adriatic and therefore presented a formidable strategic vantage point to the occupant of the castle. The engineering of its construction at such a remote and forbidding location is remarkable by any standards, not only medieval.

It played a pivotal role during the Great Siege of Corfu in 1571 when the Turkish attack on the northwestern flank of Corfu was successfully repulsed by the defenders of the castle.

Angelokastro and surrounding area - Corfu 

Origins and strategic significance

Situated at an impregnable and strategic position, Angelokastro became important to the island's fortunes for many centuries. In peace time it was also a centre of commerce and development. During excavations in 1997 by the Society of Byzantine Antiquities of Corfu, two Early Christian slabs were unearthed at the top of the acropolis, indicating that the site was occupied by the early Byzantine period (between 5th-7th century AD).

The Byzantines built the castle in order to defend the island from the attacks of the Genoan pirates. Before the Venetians conquered Corfu there were three castles which defended the island from attacks: The Cassiopi Castle in the northwest of the island, Angelokastro, defending the west side of Corfu and Gardiki in the south of the island. It is considered one of the five most imposing architectural remains in Corfu along with Gardiki Castle, the Kassiopi Castle built by the Angevins and the two Venetian Fortresses of Corfu City, the Citadel and the New Fort.

It can be reasonably assumed that since Byzantium lost its dominion over southern Italy in 1071 AD, the Komnenoi must have paid a lot of attention to the castle since Corfu by default became the frontier to the west of the Byzantine Empire between the 11th and 12th centuries, serving to separate and defend Byzantium from its dangerous foes to the west.

At the same time, the acritic and windswept fortifications helped safeguard Corfu from the great menace of that era, i.e. the Normans of Sicily whose constant incursions had turned the island into a theatre of military conflict.

Ruled by Rome and Constantinople.
During the Roman Empire, the Ionian Islands were variously part of the provinces of Achaea and Epirus vetus. These would form, with the exception of Cythera, the Byzantine theme of Cephallenia in the late 8th century. From the late 11th century, the Ionian Islands became a battleground in the Byzantine–Norman Wars.
The island of Corfu was held by the Normans in 1081–1085 and 1147–1149, while the Venetians unsuccessfully besieged it in 1122–1123. The island of Cephalonia was also unsuccessfully besieged in 1085, but was plundered in 1099 by the Pisans and in 1126 by the Venetians.
Finally, Corfu and the rest of the theme, except for Lefkada, were captured by the Normans under William II of Sicily in 1185. Although Corfu was recovered by the Byzantines by 1191, the other islands henceforth remained lost to Byzantium.


After the Crusaders took Constantinople in 1204, Corfu fell into the hands of a variety of invaders until 1267 when it was occupied by the Angevins of Naples. Shortly thereafter the Angevins took over Angelokastro. The takeover is documented in a rare manuscript of the time confirming the change of ownership of the castle. The manuscript is the oldest written reference to the castle.


In 1386, the castle came under the ownership of the Most Serene Republic of Venice (Venetian: Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta). Throughout the period of the Venetian rule the castle enjoyed great prominence because it offered protection to the locals from foes such as the Genoan pirates to the west as well as the Turks to the east. The Turks were never able to penetrate its defences.

The Venetians, being the prominent maritime power of the era, used it to monitor the shipping lanes in the southern Adriatic and the Ionian sea. The Castellan (Venetian: Castellano) i.e. the Governor of the castle was appointed by the city of Corfu and was a nobleman whose family name was included in the Venetian originated Libro d'oro or Golden book, a list of the aristocratic families of Corfu.

Under the dominion of Venice Corfu was defended throughout the period of her occupation. However invasions and associated destruction still occurred during this time, especially at the undefended areas of the island

Genoan piracy

In 1403, a Genoese pirate fleet made an attempt to occupy Angelokastro. The Genoan pirates burned and pillaged the surrounding area. Then they attempted to occupy the castle. After furious battles with the Corfiot garrison, they were ultimately repulsed.

Turkish sieges

In August 1571, the Turks made another of many attempts at conquering Corfu. Having seized Parga and Mourtos from the Greek mainland side they attacked the Paxi islands, killing, looting and eventually burning the island. Subsequently they landed on Corfu's southeast shore and established a large beachhead all the way from the southern tip of the island at Lefkimi to Ipsos in Corfu's midsection of the eastern part of the island. These areas were thoroughly pillaged and burnt as in past encounters.

Although the Corfu city castle stood firm the rest of Corfu was destroyed and the general population outside the castles was defenceless and suffered heavy casualties while homes, churches and public buildings were burned in the city suburbs.

The Turks also attacked Angelokastro at that time trying to establish a beachhead at the northwestern part of the island but the Corfiot garrison at Angelokastro stood firm. These Turkish defeats both at the city castle in the east and Angelokastro in the west proved decisive and the Turks abandoned their attempt at conquering Corfu.

Angelokastro protected the population of the region again during the second Great Siege of Corfu by the Turks in 1716

The Siege of Corfu (1537) was the first great siege by the Ottomans. It began on 29 August 1537, with 25,000 soldiers from the Turkish fleet landing and pillaging the island and taking 20,000 hostages as slaves. Despite the destruction wrought on the countryside, the city castle held out in spite of repeated attempts over twelve days to take it, and the Turks left the island unsuccessfully because of poor logistics and an epidemic that decimated their ranks.

View from the battlements

Angelokastro excavations

(Corfu History)      (Angelokastro Corfu)

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