Epirus (Greek Ήπειρος), is a province or periphery in northwestern Greece, 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 includes one of Greece's largest concentrations of Vlachs.
Historically, Epirus extended further north into what is now Albania. There is a Greek minority in southern Albania, which Greeks call North Epirus. Greece maintained a territorial claim to southern Albania for many years, but today both countries recognise 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 south Epirus has always been 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 in the first millennium BC but remained a frontier area contested with the Illyrian peoples of the Adriatic coast.
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 the oracle at Dodona, second in importance only to the oracle at Delphi. Arymbas II was a respected figure in the ancient 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 the throne and the title King of Epirus. 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. 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 Epirus, but on his death it fell to 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 Christians and Muslims.
In the 18th century, as the power of the Ottomans declined, Epirus became a virtually independent region under the despotic rule of Ali Pasha Tepelenë, 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 rest of southern 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 Korytsá (Korçë in Albanian) and Argyrókastro (Gjirokastër).
When World War I broke out in 1914, Albania collapsed. Under a March 1915 agreement among the Allies, Italy seized northern Albania and Greece set up the autonomous Greek state of North Epirus in the southern part of the country. Although short-lived, the state of North Epirus managed to leave behind a number of historical records of its existence, including its own postage stamps; see Postage stamps and postal history of Epirus.
Although the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 awarded the area to Greece after World War I, political developments such as the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War and, crucially, Italian lobbying in favour of its client state Albania meant that Greece could not sustain its claim to northern Epirus, and the area was finally ceded to Albania in 1924.
Italy occupied Albania in 1939, and in 1940 invaded Greece. The Greeks counterattacked and soon occupied northern Epirus. 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 took over. The highlands of Epirus became a major theatre of guerilla resistance to the occupation. Following the German withdrawal from Greece in 1944, the nationalist resistance movements tried to reclaim northern Epirus 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. The mountains of Epirus were the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the Greek Civil War.
After the war, Greek nationalists continued to agitate for the cession of northern Epirus to Greece. There was no possibility of this during the decades of Communist rule in Albania, but the state of war that had existed between the two countries since the Second World War was only officially lifted as late as 1987. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1991, nationalist tensions increased on both sides. In 1993 Albania deported the Greek Orthodox Archimandrite of Gjirokastër (Argyrókastro) for behaviour it saw as seditious, causing a short-lived Albanian-Greek crisis. This was exacerbated by the trial in 1994 of several members of Omonoia, a political party of the Greek minority in Albania, accused of secessionist activities. The OSCE and international human rights groups condemned "serious irregularities" (http://hrw.org/wr2k1/europe/albania.html) directed against ethnic Greek candidates and parties during the 2000 munipical elections. These included harassment and intimidation of ethnic Greek voters by Albanian police, the destruction of one ballot box in a violent incident, and fraud in three other voting centres. (http://greekhelsinki.gr/english/pressrelease/GHM&MRG-G-17-10-2000b-osce2000.html) Albanian nationalist rhetoric during the election campaign, both at the local and national level, had heightened tension over a possible victory by the local ethnic Greek Human Rights Union Party in the town of Himara.
Despite these tensions, the governments of both Greece and Albania have made a concerted effort in recent years to transcend the enmities of the past and forge a new relationship based on peace and cooperation.
The current President of the Hellenic Republic, Karolos Papoulias, is a native of Ioannina, Epirus.
Epirus 1-drachma value stamp of the infantryman issue of March 1914, See Postage stamps and postal history of Epirus