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40 years of active presence

Sunday, May 28, 2023

    HISTORICAL BACKGROUND – The kingdoms of Sicily and Naples

    Spyros P. Gaoutsis Collection
    Map of the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples, Laurie & Whittle, London, 1799.

    Despite Corfu’s proximity to mainland Greece, where Jewish communities have existed since ancient times, the Jewish presence on the island was first recorded by Benjamin of Tudela in 1148 and the reference involved just one person, a dyer, named Iossif. Corfu was at the time under the rule of King Roger of Sicily, before briefly passing to the despot of Epirus, Michael I Komnenos Angelos, in 1214 and then the Angevin king, Charles I of Anjou, for the next 120 years (1267-1386). At that time the first mass settlement of Jews on Corfu took place. In 1267 there already were a few hundred present, hailing from the lands of the Byzantine Empire as well as from Apulia (Puglia) in Italy.

    The local population was quite disturbed by their presence, as can be inferred from a series of decrees (1317, 1324, 1370) that sought to protect them from the violent attacks and frequent humiliations at the hands of locals. Although Angevin rule was in principle benign, it was largely absent, which left the Jewish community vulnerable to petty harassments by the local magistrates. It was in this period that a Jewish neighbourhood was first mentioned. However, the community enjoyed a much better situation than those in Central Europe at the same time. Jews even managed to reach high administrative positions, especially under the reign of Charles III, when they were granted certain privileges. Some members of the community even participated in official delegations from the island to the kings in Naples. When, in 1386, the Corfiots, tired by the constant dynastic struggles for the throne of Naples, sent a delegation to Venice to submit a request for annexation, the Jew David Semos was one of its six members.