04 September 2019
The church in Kassiopi
that stands on the site
of a temple to Zeus
The village of Kassiopi (Κασσιόπη), 38 km north of Corfu town, was once a traditional fishing village, but in recent decades it has become one of the many summer resorts on the affluent north-east coast of the island and a popular destination for tourists, particularly from Britain and Italy.
The small, former fishing harbour is romantic and picturesque, lined with tavernas and bars. At the top of the street leading from the harbour, the town square is surrounded by tavernas, cafés, travel agencies, restaurants and shops.
The town has been heavily developed, and hotels and villas now extending far beyond the town. But this is not any other modern holiday resort, for Kassiopi has a history that dates back 22 centuries to Classical and pre-Roman times.
The town is said to have been founded in the Hellenistic period during the reign of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus in the 3rd century BC, as a supply post during his war with Rome. The victory of Pyrrhus came at such a cost to the Epirots that it has given us the phrase ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’
Corfu was conquered by the Romans of the island in 230 BC, and successive Roman emperors, including the Emperor Nero, came to Corfu the island to visit the Temple of Cassius or Kassios Zeus (Κάσσιος Ζευς). The cult of Cassius Zeus was centred on Mount Cassius in northern Syria, between Antioch and the sea, across the Orontes from Seleucia, and in turn the temple and its cult gave Kassiopi its name.
The small headland north of Kassiopi is dominated by Kassiopi Castle, a Byzantine fortress that was fortified further by the Venetians.
The fortress survived successive sieges by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, and parts of the fortress walls can be seen today from the coastal roads around the headland that also perfect views of the Albanian mountains and coastline.
But the most interesting site I visited in Kassiopi earlier this week is the Church of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, which dates back to the fifth century, when the ruined Temple of Kassios Zeus was converted into a church by Saint Iasonas and Saint Sosipatros.
This beautiful church is near the main street of Kassiopi, the harbour and the castle. In the Middle Ages, this was one of the most famous churches on the island. It is mentioned by Latin travellers in the Middle Ages, indicating it was known beyond Corfu as a place of pilgrimage.
The church once held the relics of Saint Donatos the Wonderworker, the Patron of Paramythia. These relics were later moved to Venice, although a small part of them were returned to Paramythia.
However, the church of Panagia Kassopitra has had a chequered past, and it was burned badly by the Ottoman Turks during the siege of Corfu in 1537.
The church was restored and rebuilt by the Venetians between 1590 and 1591 with the unusual provision of two altars to accommodate the liturgical needs of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic people of the town.
The church has inscriptions bearing the dates 1590, 1670 and 1832.
The most important treasure in the church is the Icon of the Panagia Kassopitra or the Virgin of Kassopitra, said to be miraculous and revered as the protector of mariners.
Each year on 8 May the church commemorates a miracle said to have taken place in 1530 when the Panagia healed a blind man. Special liturgical commemorations also take place on 15 August, the Feast of the Dormition.
Much of the church was believed to have been destroyed, but during restoration work in the 1990s parts of Byzantine frescoes dating from the 11th or 12th century were rediscovered on the walls of the church.
The main road runs through the edge of the town, but in an effort to remove much of the commercial traffic from the town centre a loop takes buses as far as the village square, about 230 metres from the harbour, and there is a car and coach park at the top of the town.
This makes the centre of the old town almost traffic free, and Angelo’s Bar was a pleasant place to sit in shade in the mid-afternoon, sipping a glass of cool white wine, watching life go by in the Square.