Ancient fear of the ‘infidels’ reawakened by Muslim refugees

A lesson for today: in 1716 the Turks controlled most of the Balkans, including the Greek mainland, but they had failed to capture Corfu and the other Ionian islands which, for the previous 300 years, had belonged to Venice.

Corfu was strategically important since it commanded entry into and exit from the Adriatic, and therefore it had been essential for the Venetian trading empire to annexe it. In 1716 the Turks were intent on breaking through this bottleneck by seizing Corfu and thus reducing Venetian power in the Mediterranean.

The ambition was only partially territorial: it was also a confrontation between the Christian west and the Muslim east.

When the Elizabethan traveller Fynes Morison visited in 1596, he called Corfu “one of the chief keys of Christendom”. It was not entirely for its religious significance that he commended it, but for the island’s location as a guardian of the west’s routes to the riches of the east and to the “Holy Land”.

Two hundred years later, Napoleon in his turn would write “with Malta and Corfu we should soon be masters of the Mediterranean”. So in 1716, if the Ottomans could gain Corfu the way would be open for an invasion of southern Italy, Malta, Spain and Portugal.

Turkish siege

Due to a hasty alliance between Venice and the Hapsburg empire (where the Turks were also knocking on the door via Hungary) the 1716 Turkish siege of Corfu was rebuffed.

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