Zakynthos History & Culture
Zakynthos or Zante, or "Fiori di Levande", is a exquisite island with great natural beauty and rich history.
The history of Zakynthos is long and complex and most historians agree that the island was inhabited for the first time in 1500 B.C.
Zakynthos has also a substantial cultural history, and is the native place of Dionysios Solomos, the poet who wrote the Greek National Anthem.
Mythology and the founding of Zakynthos
According to mythology and the writings of Homer, the island was named after Zakynthos who was grandson of Zeus and Electra and the son of Dardanus who founded Troy.
The name Zakynthos - as it ends in 'nthos' shows that it is pre-Mycenean or Pelasgian in origin.
Zakynthos was born on Phrygia, and he sailed to Zakynthos in 1500 B.C., where he occupied the island and gave it his name. Some accounts however feel that there was an older name of the island - Iria, a position that is supported by the traditional village of Gyri probably being a corruption of this name.
The earliest written works that mention Zakynthos are by Homer who describes it as an island full of forests and claims that the settlers were from the Peloponnese area of Greece, in particular from Arcadia.
There is evidence to support this, as the traditions of the Arcadians and Zakynthians are similar, their past worship of Apollo for instance, as are some of the names of the places.
Another mythological account is that Artemis the goddess of hunting used to wander the island of Zakynthos, enjoying the woods as these were ideal for hunting. It is also claimed that her brother Apollo played his lira under the trees, to enchant the island and make it more beautiful.
Most historians agree on the fact that the island was inhabited for the first time in 1500 B.C.
An acropolis was built on the island around this time and coins were created which featured the tripod of the God Apollo.
In the next period of Zakynthos, it was conquered, along with the other Ionian Islands of Lefkada and Kefalonia, by Laertes the son of the King of Kefalonia. Zakynthians travelled to Crete and Panos on the Iberian Peninsula where they set up colonies. At the start of the Peloponnesian War the islanders supported the Athenian alliance and fought the Corinthians.
However, Zakynthos was later defeated and conquered by the Spartans. In the 3rd century B.C., the islanders tried to rebel against King Philip V but the island remained under Macedonian rule until the Romans overthrew them.
The Romans ruled from the 3rd century B.C., but they left the islanders largely alone, without much interference as long as they paid taxes. Several times the
islanders tried to break away from the Roman influence.
Eventually co-operation occurred and they joined forces in 87 A.D., with the islanders always ready to fight for the Romans as long as the Romans helped the Zakynthians to attack the pirates who were trying to raid the island.
As the Roman Empire started to decline in 300 A.D., the island of Zakynthos caught the
attention of opportunists (such as Arabs, Hans, Goths etc.) who tried to conquer the island
to undermine the Romans.
Legend also states that Mary Magdalene came to the island in 34 A.D.,
where she introduced Christianity as well as naming the village Maries after herself.
Life was difficult for the majority of the islanders during the Byzantine era, with many people
living in poverty. Social classes started to form namely: the workers, tradesmen, and nobility.
The island also suffered constant attack from Arabs and Goths in the early Byzantine era
and towards the end by the Crusaders and the Franks, which severely hindered progress on the island, with the islanders focusing on protecting their families and houses.
Post- Byzantine period and Venetian & Turkish Rule
In 1185 Zakynthos and Kefalonia came under the jurisdiction of Guglielmo of Sicily who granted the island to what is now known as the Brindisi family, of Italy.
From 1185 to 1357 the country was governed by the Orsini family, and they also conquered Lefkada and Ithaka.
The Orsini family were not popular on the island as they murdered islanders and constantly attacked the villages.
However, the family ruled for two centuries. Following some family deaths, Leonardo Tocca took over running Zakynthos.
He was more popular and made great changes to the island. He was friendly and ruled fairly and another change was that the Orthodox faith flourished with many new churches and monasteries established.
In 1479 the Turks defeated the Tocca family, and they ruled for five years.
In 1484 the Turks and the Venetians stuck a deal regarding the Ionian Islands. The Venetians were to rule the Ionian Islands and pay taxes for the privilege to the Turks. The Venetians ruled for almost 350 years.
Under the Venetians the islanders enjoyed a good quality of life and many cultural developments occurred - even today many of the traditions and customs have an Italian influence.
Zakynthos became such an attractive place to live that many refuges came to live here. The island was very under populated, so the Venetians offered incentives for other Venetians to move here, such as titles and tax exemptions.
The island started to be ruled democratically with an elected government. However, there were still three classes of people: nobility, bourgeoisie and popolari (or commoners).
The commoners were not allowed to vote. This led to conflict and in 1628 the peasants revolted demanding political rights, unfortunately they were unsuccessful, and much violence ensued. In 1797 the French conquered the island, ending the Venetian rule.
French & Russian rule
After the conquering of Zakynthos by the French, Napoleon himself promised
that he would free the Ionian Islands and the island became the administrative
headquarter of the Ionian Islands.
This led to great celebrations, the planting of a freedom tree and the burning
of a controversial book the “Libro d' Oro” that contained the
privileges and rights only for the nobility.
The French rule did not last for long, as the island was quickly conquered by a
Russian and Turkish feet in 1798 and they immediately reinstated the nobles' privileges.
In 1800 the Sultan created a new "Ionian State" which was founded in Constantinople - and consisted only of nobles. This led to constant rebellion by the islanders.
In 1802 to try and appease the Zakynthians the count Georgio Motsengio was sent to establish a democratic way of electing officials. In 1807 the Turks gave the island back to the French which greatly pleased the islanders making them think that a better life would once again be established.
However, the English conquered the island in 1809.
The English rule led to many projects being developed on the island - such as a new
infrastructure of road networks, bridges, harbors, schools and so on.
Even though the English were ruling at the time of the Greek war of
independence in 1821, Zakynthians still played a crucial role in the conflict,
donating money and soldiers.
Once Greece gained independence of the Turkish rule, the Zakynthians along
with the other residents of the Ionian Islands demanded constitutional
changes and asked to be reunited with Greece.
The British resigned their claim over Zante and handed back the island to Greece in 1864.
Zakynthos was occupied by Italian and German forces during the Second World War, but many of the islanders tried to resist.
The islanders are also noted for shielding the Jewish community on the island, with all 275 Zakynthian Jews surviving the war.
The reason for this was the courageous and intelligent actions of the Bishop Chrysostomos and the Mayor Loukas Karrer whom when ordered at gun point to hand over a list of the names of Jews residing on the island -only wrote their own names.
In the meantime, the Jews had been hidden in the mountain villages of the island,
and to the Zakynthian's credit, their whereabouts were never revealed.
In 1978, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance
Authority in Israel, honored Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Karrer
with the title of “Righteous among the Nations”,
an honor given to non-Jews who, at personal risk, saved Jews
during the Holocaust.
After the war, all the Jews of Zakynthos moved either to Israel or to Athens.
In 1953 a strong earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale shook the
Ionian Islands and virtually destroyed the nearby island of Kefalonia and inflicted
considerable damage on Zante.
Nations all around the world responded to this tragedy with generous donations
of money, medical supplies and other aid arriving from in particular the
United States, Britain, France and Norway.
One of the first boats to arrive with aid was from Israel with a message that wrote
"The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten
their mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us."
Agios Sostis beach & Cameo Island
Agios Sostis is a rather small and picturesque beach located 11km southeast of Zakynthos Town, between the villages of Laganas and Porto Koukla.
The beautiful beach offers the chance to rent a boat and travel through the coastal villages of Zakynthos. The area is family-orientated, and it is an ideal location for children.
The beach is the natural continuity of the larger beach of Laganas. The water is shallow and safe. Moreover, it is a very romantic place for couples. On the beachfront, there are many taverns and cafeterias operating until the late hours.
A wooden bridge from Agios Sostis leads to a small rocky island just opposite the bay of Laganas. This is Cameo Island. There visitors shall find a small sandy beach to relax.
Marathias beach, surrounded by mountains, is large and pebbly, with deep waters at Keri.
Marathia is quite far from the city and getting here can be difficult for some. You will have to slowly descend the hill through curved paths and walk on a dirt downhill path, so it is never very crowded. Young and lonely travelers are the most frequent visitors here. Families with children will find this path down the hill an obstacle, but otherwise it is quite comfortable. The pebbles that cover the seabed are large and pleasant to the touch.
There is no infrastructure for tourists in Marathia so you should take care in advance for water or whatever else you need. On the road above the beach you will find beautiful taverns.
Makris Gialos beach
The picturesque beach of Makris Gialos is located on the north coast of the island, before you reach the port of Agios Nikolaos.
It is a beach with small pebbles, crystal clear blue-green and deep waters. You can walk to some of the mountain caves on the south side of the beach and relax there. Caves in the water are ideal for snorkeling.
The main road that goes to the northern part of Zakynthos passes through Makry Gialos and a few steps lead to the beach.
There is no well-developed infrastructure, only a limited number of sunbeds and umbrellas are available in July and August. Above the beach there are some taverns with traditional Greek cuisine.