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Map showing Epirus periphery in Greece

Epirus (Greek Ήπειρος, Albanian Ēamėria), a province in northwestern Greece (a Greek periphery) bounded by West Macedonia and Thessaly to the east, by the Ambracian Gulf and the province of West Greece to the south, the Ionian Sea and the Ionian Islands to the west and Albania to the north. Epirus is divided into the prefectures, called Nomoi, of Arta, Ioannina, Preveza and Thesprotia. The province has an area of 9,200 sq km and a population of about 350,000. Its capital and largest city is Ioannina, pop. 100,000. The population today is almost entirely Greek-speaking and Greek Orthodox in religion. There are small Albanian and Vlach minorities.

Historically, Epirus extended further north into what is now Albania. There is still a substantial Greek minority in southern Albania, which Greeks call North Epirus. There was also a large Albanian minority in Greek Epirus, but these people were mostly moved to Albania during and after World War II and the Greek Civil War. Greece maintained a territorial claim to southern Albania for many years, but today both countries recognize the current border. Greece's main concern currently is the illegal immigration of Albanians seeking work in Greece.

Epirus is largely made up of mountainous ridges that in places reach 2,600 m. In the east, the Pindus Mountains that form the spine of mainland Greece separate Epirus from Macedonia and Thessaly. Most of Epirus lies on the windward side of the Pindus. The winds from the Ionian Sea offer the region more rainfall than any other part of Greece. This advantage is set off by a lack of suitable farmland and poor soils. As a result the agricultural productivity of Epirus has always among the lowest in Greece. Tobacco is grown around Ioannina, and there is also some dairy farming and fishing, but most of the area's food must be imported. Having few resources and industries, it has been steadily depopulated by emigration since the 19th century. The population is concentrated in the area around Ioannina, which has some manufacturing and service industries. Despite its many attractions, Epirus has not experienced the tourist boom enjoyed by other parts of Greece.


The Greek name Epirus signifies "mainland" or "continent", and was originally applied to the whole coast south to the Corinthian Gulf. Epirus was settled by Greeks early ca. the first millennium BC but remained a frontier area contested with the Illyrian peoples of the Adriatic coast. It played only a minor role in Ancient Greek politics. The Greek states founded a number of colonies in Epirus, which served as ports for shipping heading towards the Adriatic and Italy. Of these the most important was the Corinthian colony of Ambracia.

Epirus was ruled from the 6th century by a dynasty, the Molossians, who claimed to be descended from Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. The main importance of Epirus to the Greek cities (polis) was that it was the location of the shrine and oracle at Dodona, second in importance only to Delphi. In the 5th century Epirus was drawn more closely into the Greek political and cultural orbit. Arymbas II was a respected figure in the Greek world, and his niece, Olympias, married Philip II of Macedon and was the mother of Alexander the Great.

On the death of Arymbas, Alexander succeeded, but ruled only as a dependent of Macedon. Alexander assumed the title King of Epirus, and raised the reputation of his country abroad. Aeacides , who succeeded Alexander, espoused the cause of Olympias against Cassander, but was dethroned in 313 BC. His son Pyrrhus came to throne in 295 BC, and for six years fought against the Romans in southern Italy and Sicily. His campaigns gave Epirus a new, but brief, importance.

In the third century BC Epirus remained a substantial power, and the Epirotes attempted to gain control of Macedonia, but in the 2nd century they blundered into war against the Romans, and in 168 BC the Romans pillaged the country and effectively ended its independence. In 146 BC it became part of the province of Roman Macedonia, receiving the name Epirus Vetus, to distinguish it from Epirus Nova to the east.

For the next 400 years Epirus was ruled from Rome, until in the 4th century AD it passed to the rule of Constantinople. It was overrun and largely resettled by successive waves of Goths, Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians, and its Greek character was diluted without ever being entirely lost. When Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Michel Angelus Comnenus seized Aetolia and Epirus, and his family ruled the area until 1318. After a period of confusion Charles II Tocco , lord of Cephalonia and Zante, assumed the title of Despot of Epirus.

In 1443 Skenderbeg, revolted against the Ottoman Empire and conquered most of Epirus, but on his death it fell into the power of Venice. In the late 15th century, the whole area was overrun by the Ottomans, who ruled it for the next 400 years, the Venetians retaining only a few strongholds along the coast. Under the Ottomans Epirus remained a backwater, with a mixed population of Orthodox Greeks and Moslem Albanians and Turks.

In the 18th century, as the power of the Ottomans declined, Epirus became a virtually independent region under the despotic rule of Ali Tepelenė, an Albanian brigand who became pasha, or provincial governor, of Ioannina in 1788, and at one time controlled much of western Greece and Albania. When the Greek War of Independence broke out, Ali tried to make himself an independent ruler, but he was deposed and murdered by Ottoman agents in 1822. When Greece became independent, Epirus remained under Ottoman rule.

The Treaty of Berlin of 1881 gave Greece parts of southern Epirus, but it was not until the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 that most of the rest of Epirus was returned to Greece. But the Greeks resented the fact that northern Epirus had been given to the new state of Albania, despite the mostly Greek character of towns like Koritsa (now Korēė) and Aryirokastro (now Gjirokastėr). A provisional government existed for a short time during this period, and issued postage stamps; see postage stamps and postal history of Epirus for details.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Albania collapsed. Under a March 1915 agreement among the Allies, Italy seized northern Albania and Greece gained the southern part of the country, which it called North Epirus. But internal divisions among the Greeks led to Greece being forced to evacuate the area in August 1916, in favour of Italy. Although the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 awarded the area to Greece, political developments such as the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War meant that Greece could not sustain its claim, and the area was ceded to Albania.

Italy occupied Albania in 1939, and in 1940 invaded Greece. The Greeks counterattacked and soon occupied the Greek-speaking areas of southern Albania. But the German invasion of April 1941 saw the defeat of Greece, and the whole of Epirus was placed under Italian occupation until 1943, when the Germans moved in. The highlands of Epirus became a major area of guerilla resistance to the occupation. Following the German withdrawal from Greece in 1944, some of the Greek nationalist resistance movements tried to reclaim southern Albania for Greece, but the Communist Party of Greece, which controlled the largest resistance movement, supported their fellow Communists in Albania in returning the area to Albanian control. During the Greek Civil War there was heavy fighting in the mountains of Epirus.

After the war, the Albanian minority in Greek Epirus was moved to Albania, but Greek nationalists continued to agitate for the cession of what they called North Epirus to Greece. There was no possibility of this during the decades of Communist rule in Albania, but after the fall of the Communist regime in 1991 agitation resumed by nationalists on both sides. In 1993 Albania deported the Greek Orthodox Archimandrite of Gjirokaster for behavior it saw as seditious, causing a short-lived Albanian-Greek crisis. The Epirus question is still controversial both in Albania and Greece.


Last updated: 10-14-2005 10:39:13
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