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Firing the imagination, perched on the steep slope of a hill at the end of the Taygetos range towering in the distance above the city of Sparta, lie the medieval ruins of Mystras. Known as ‘the Wonder of Morea’, it was listed as a UNESCO protected site since 1989, so it is a wonder indeed why this breathtaking location with such historical importance received little attention from local and international visitors until recent years. Apparently, nineteenth century travellers overlooked Mystras as it was mistaken for the ruins of Ancient Sparta, which we can also visit on another site entirely not far from here.
Mystras, once a thriving town that was the second most powerful town of the Byzantine Empire – second only to Constantinople, is well worth our attention due to its significant role and colourful history during the last millennium from the time of the Crusades up to the beginning of the Greek Revolution against Turkish rule. Originally built by the Franks who had invaded the land of Morea (that we now know as the Peloponnese) it was then taken by Byzantines to become the Despotate of Morea. As was the case with much of the Byzantine Empire, it fell into Ottoman Turkish hands. The Venetians moved in and made their mark for a short spell, until the Turks wanted it back.
While, after their own fashions, each of these respective invading nations contributed to building Mystras, both Christian Albanians and Islamic Egyptians made separate attempts to loot and destroy it. Fortunately, there is still plenty of the original architecture and art, especially frescoes, for us to see. A few hours exploring the ruins will be well spent to gain some insight into the mentality and lifestyles of its occupants throughout the influences of their various regimes. And the views from the upper town are stunning.
Update: CNN Travel has awarded Mystras the distinction of being one of the ’10 of the best medieval walled cities’.
The name Mystras was a shortened form of Myzithras, a traditional type of Greek cheese, so the town could have been named after the hard round cheese itself, which might be explained by the amphitheatre-shaped plan of the town that could be likened to a half cheese shape. Alternatively, this could have related to the round shape of the hill, or perhaps simply the original land owner was a cheese producer. Whatever the case, it was certainly destined to become a ‘big cheese’ in the Byzantine world! Alternatively, Mystras originates from ‘maîtresse’, as in the ‘mistress’ of the Peloponesse.
During the Fourth Crusade, the period following the Siege of Constantinople in 1204, when the Latin Crusaders (Venetians and other Europeans) captured the Byzantine capital and destroyed parts of the Empire, Morea was under Frankish occupation. In 1249, William de Villehardouin, who was Prince of Achaia in the north-west Peloponnese (and also happened to be a grand-nephew of historian Geoffrey de Villehardouin), chose this site to build his fortress. Given its location on this lone hill separated from the rest of the Taygetos range by a deep gorge, it was a wise choice indeed. Firstly, it afforded protection as it was easy to defend against potential attackers approaching from the valley below. Secondly, the abundance of mountain springs ensured that the citadel had a fresh water supply which meant it could survive through long periods of siege, if necessary.
In 1262, the Byzantines under the rule of their Emperor Michail VIII Paleologos regained control of the hinterland of Morea, taking William de Villehardouin hostage in the process. The Franks then handed over Mystras to the Byzantines as the ransom demanded in exchange for his release. The Emperor, clearly not open to democratic alternatives, appointed his own relatives to rule the area as the Despotate of Morea. At this point, the town was expanded with its plethora of churches, despots’ palaces and mansions, and streets fanning out below the fortress to form its characteristic amphitheatre shape. Like the towns of their ancient Mycenaean ancestors, the upper town (Ano Hora) of Mystras being the most protected area was home to the nobility, while the lower classes populated the lower part (Kato Hora).
Despite the fact that the Venetians still held the coastal areas and islands under Latin rule, Mystras stood firm and flourished for two hundred years until the fifteenth century with a population of around 20,000. As a major capital of the Byzantine Empire with its impressive places of worship, it was a haven for artists and scholars. Among them was the philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon, who was a teacher and magistrate here.
Plethon had travelled widely throughout the Byzantine Empire and had adopted his surname in admiration of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (Platon). He taught a range of subjects, including astronomy, geography and history. As a philosopher he analysed the works of several classical writers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, whose conflicting concepts of creation and deities fascinated him.
To take this into a wider context, this was all happening at the time of the Italian Renaissance movement, which was making waves in the Latin church. In support of this movement, Plethon basically reintroduced Plato’s forgotten teachings to the western world, for which he was declared a heretic by one of his former pupils, George Scholarios, later known as Gennadius II the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the medieval equivalent of ‘house arrest’, Plethon was confined to Mystras, where he continued to teach and promote his polytheist theory which he suggested could be implemented to reform the Byzantine Empire. Perhaps the Emperors did not take kindly to this since it offered the basic tenets of belief in a supreme being which was compassionate towards mankind and was not affected by material gifts or compliments, concepts which Plethon regarded as lacking within Byzantine monks. Plethon generally went along with Plato’s theory of a pantheon of gods with the Olympians in the heavens ruling immortal life, whilst the Tartareans ruled mortals. He also believed in reincarnation, and that the people of Morea were directly descended from the ancient Hellenes and could thus rebuild a new self-ruling Hellenic civilisation on the peninsula. Reports of his exact words were only transmitted through the centuries in the reports of others, including Gennadius II, who had seen fit to destroy Plethon’s heretic writings; an act of destruction which has been repeated so often through the ages that it makes the job of archaeologists and historians all the more challenging.
Around the time of Plethon’s death came the Fall of Constantinople, taken by the Turks in 1453. The last Byzantine Emperor was Constantine XI Paleologos, who had formerly been a despot at Mystras. By 1460, the last despot at Mystras, Demetrios Paleologos, was forced to hand over the city to the Ottoman Emperor, Mehmed II. Despite a Venetian attempt to conquer it, Mystras continued, no longer a capital but as a busy provincial town for the next two centuries. Among other things, it was known for its silk traders, with silk being produced from the silkworms of the local mulberry trees. It was from the ancient Greek word mori (or moura), meaning mulberry or berries, that the area was called Morea – alternatively (or additonally), Morea was thus named due to its resemblance to the mulberry leaf.
In 1687, the Venetians returned and seized the city. The population grew to about 42,000, mainly Christians with a notable Hebrew minority, however Venetian rule only lasted until the Ottomans regained power in 1715. The decline set in after the attack Mystras by Albanian forces in the short-lived Orlov Revolt of 1770, which was an unsuccessful, Russian- led attempt to oust the Ottomans and achieve a pro-Russian independent Greek state.
The town was won back from the Turks briefly at the start of the Greek Revolution that began in 1821, only to be raided and burnt in 1824 by Egyptian forces led by their general Ibrahim Pasha, who the Ottomans turned to for help to quell to Greek uprising. When the new town of Sparta was built in 1834, most of Mystras remaining residents moved there. Mystras was declared a Byzantine monument in 1921 and became an archaeological site, which meant that should have been evacuated, but a few residents stayed on until 1953, when the site became state property. These days, the only inhabitants are a small group of nuns in the Pantanassa convent.
The Site Today
A short drive from Sparta leads us to Mystras, and an early start will give us ample time to spend a morning among the ruins. There is so much to see on this steep slope that the best approach is usually to head for the original Frankish castle (kastro) which was the court of Villehardouin right at the top of the upper town, and then take in the other sights from there as we move downhill. As restoration works on the town are still in progress, we can choose our paths according to which buildings are most accessible.
As we descend from the castle, we reach Agia Sofia (Saint Sophia), a church built in 1350, named after the cathedral of the same name in Constantinople in recognition of Mystras’ importance within the Empire. Inside, we can see its remarkably well-preserved frescoes depicting biblical scenes and step on its multi-coloured marble floor.
Following the path downhill, we pass the Nafplio Gate to the upper town and the Palace of the Despots. Here is a grand complex with four buildings which were built in stages, starting from the time of Frankish rule, and then completed in Byzantine style. The Despot, who was usually the Emperor’s second son, lived in one of these buildings – a mansion that was known as the Palataki (little palace) to contrast it with the Emperor’s large palace in Constantinople. Other parts of the Palace are four-storey buildings, with where the nobility lived. Then there is a vast meeting room – the throne hall – with long, highly ornate windows and eight massive fireplaces. Imagine this room filled with the knights and other nobles of Byzantine times wining and dining here in all their silk-clad splendour. In the square outside was a marketplace. Although the Ottomans had converted the Christian churches to use for their own religion, they also added a new mosque here, of which a few ruins still stand.
Near the Palace is the seventeenth-century church of Aghios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas), decorated inside with Venetian paintings of its time though these are not as detailed as many of the other frescoes.
The lower town is where we find a series of monasteries and churches of varying sizes, each with different blends of Byzantine and Gothic frescoes bearing witness to the centuries of history made within the walls of Mystras. For instance in the Pantanassa Convent, which was built in 1428, we can compare scenes painted in the fifteenth century that remain next to the art from the Venetian occupation of 1687-1715. The nuns from this convent sell their own handicrafts here and provide much-needed refreshments to welcome visitors.
Two older monasteries to visit are: the Perivleptos Monastery, which is a tiny church built into the rocky hillside; and the large Vrondohion Monastery further down the hill, where its cells were home to most of the monks and scholars of Mystras. Perivleptos, despite its size, is packed with an astonishing number of fourteenth-century frescoes, and the newly restored churches within Vrondohion have similar displays.
In the town’s oldest church, the Agios Demetrios Mitropolis (cathedral), we can pay a visit to the Museum of Mystras, which has a collection of artefacts from the Byzantine era. Built in the late thirteenth century, as well as its frescoes, the floors of the Mitropolis have their own gruesome tales to tell. Carved in marble on its threshold is the two-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire, where the ill-fated Constantine XI Paleologos (the last Emperor) was crowned. Another paving stone, stained in red, is rumoured to be the crime scene where the murder of a prominent bishop occurred in 1760.
However many of these ecclesiastical ruins we manage to take in during our visit, it is sure to be an enlightening tour. To round this off, we can choose to relax and dine at a taverna in the nearby village Neos Mystras, return to Sparta, or continue south towards the coast and the fishing port of Githion or to Areopolis in Mani.