Mystras Medieval City
Five miles west of Sparta, in the foothills of Mount Taygetus, is the medieval town of Mystras. Today it is an abandoned city, and has been made into a World Heritage Site, and for the tourist, there is far more to see in Mystras than in Sparta itself.
“Mystras” the imperial grandeur: the ‘wonder of the Morea’, was built as an amphitheatre around the fortress erected in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William of Villehardouin. Reconquered by the Byzantines, then occupied by the Turks and the Venetians, the city was abandoned in 1832, leaving only the breathtaking medieval ruins, standing in a beautiful landscape!
Mystras was founded in 1249 by William de Villehardouin a Frenchman from Champagne, one of Frenchmen who were trying to carve out empires in the eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of the ignominious Fourth Crusade. William did not hold it for long, for only 10 years later in 1259 at the battle of Pelagonia, he was defeated by the Byzantines and captured and was forced to give up Mystras as part of his ransom.
Mystras was a far more defensible site than old Sparta.There was a good water supply, the air was pure, and despite its steepness, it rapidly thrived while old Sparta was abandoned, and it soon became the capital of the whole of the Peloponnese.
Indeed in the 14th century it became one of the principal towns are the Byzantine Empire. Following the disastrous fourth Crusade, when the Christian crusaders sacked Christian Constantinople, Constantinople shrank to a shadow of its former self, and Mystras became one of the biggest of part of what remained of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed some of the best late Byzantine art is to be found in Mystras.
It became the tradition for the emperors in Constantinople to send their sons and successors to being the rulers of Mystras as a stepping stone to becoming rulers of Constantinople itself and thus in the 14th century it became rich and powerful.
Indeed Mystras survived for some 7 years after the fall of Constantinople itself in 1453 and it was not until 1460 that Mystras fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks.
Under the Turks it became a provincial backwater, though with a flourishing silk industry, and though it was captured by the Venetians from 1687 to 1715, the Venetian was in many ways even worse than the Turks. The final straw came in 1770 when the town was pillaged by Albanian Mercenaries, brought in by the /Turks, who then failed to pay them. Then with the liberation of Greece in 1832, a new city of Sparta was founded down in the plain over the top of the classical city, and Mystras was abandoned though a modern town of Mystras has been formed at the foot of the hill outside the mediaeval town. In 1952 the last 30 inhabitants were finally moved out and now only the nuns remain in the old city. The ruins are now being spruced up as Mystras takes on the trappings of a thriving World Heritage Site.
The most important monuments of the site are:
a) The fortification – The Frankish castle with the battlements and towers was founded by William II de Villeharduin and was later reinforced by the Greeks and the Turks.
b) The walls – The two strongly fortified circuit walls were strengthened by tall, rectangular towers, dated to the Late Byzantine period.
Monastery of Our Lady Pantanassa (the Queen of all).
The Pantanassa (Queen of all) church on the border of the Middle town is the highlight of any visit to Mistra . It was the last church to be built, in 1428, and is the best preserved and it is the only building to be still occupied as a convent with half a dozen nuns.
Frescoes in the interior of the Pantanassa monastery
The church itself shows considerable westernised influences with its Italianate belfry and the rounded arches. In the interior there are a number of magnificent frescoes.
Steven Runciman in his book on Mystras says that the decoration show “how taste had changed in the previous half century. The artists were still highly accomplished, but somehow the religious intensity of earlier Byzantine work is gone. It is almost as if we were looking at the illustrations to a book of fairy stories. There is a great charm about it all; but it is the art of a civilisation that has outlived its political basis, an art of wilful nostalgia for which there was no future. The paintings in the Pantanassa formed the last important monuments of the mediaeval free Greek world.
Palaces of the Mystras Despots (Kantakouzenoi and Palaeologoi)
The Despot’s palace at Mistra (‘Despot’ is the Greek world for ‘Master’). This is the largest and most grandiose of all the buildings at Mystras. It is an L – shaped structure on two sides of the only land flat enough in the city to be called a square. The oldest part is in the corner and may date back to the time of the Franks (1259 to 1262) or the first Byzantine administration. Subsequent buildings were erected to the right. The latest building is the large building to the left which dates from the time of the Palaiologoi, the most famous dynasty of Mystras and indeed of Constantinople, probably early 14th century. It consisted of a semi-basement used for storage, a raised ground floor used for barracks, and an upper story which was unpartitioned and was the throne room. The building has fallen into ruin and is now being totally repaired.
Monastery of Our Lady Peribleptos
The catholicon (main church) is a domed, two-column, cross-in-square church with chapels. Beside it stands the Tower-Refectory. The church is decorated with wall paintings of exceptional artistic quality, made by various artists of the third quarter of the 14th century. The decoration of the Peribleptos is the most interesting and successful of all those in Mystras. Some of the individual scenes are among the greatest of Byzantine works of art!
The Cathedral of St. Demetrios
It belongs to a mixed architectural type: it is a three-aisled basilica on the ground floor with a narthex and a bell tower (dated to the second half of the 13th century), and a cross-in-square church on the upper floor (added in the first half of the 15th century). The interior is decorated with wall paintings representing many different styles, dated to the period between 1270/80 and the first quarter of the 14th century. The wall paintings of the dome date to the
Church of Saints Theodore
It was built between 1290 and 1295 by the monks Daniel and Pachomios. It is of the octagonal type, with lateral chapels, and is decorated with wall paintings dating from the end
of the 13th century.
Church of Our Lady Hodegetria (the Leader of the Way)
It was built in 1310 by abbot Pachomios. It belongs to the mixed architectural type with a narthex and lateral chapels and is decorated with excellent wall paintings, dated to 1312-1322, some of which are connected to the Constantinopolitan art.
Church of Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)
Domed, cross-in-square, two-column church, built in the middle of the 14th century. It has side chapels and a bell-tower. Remarkable wall paintings are preserved in the sanctuary and
Church of Our Lady Evangelistria (of the Annunciation)
Domed, cross-in-square, two-column church decorated with wall paintings of the beginning of the 15th century.
The most interesting of the urban buildings erected on the hill are the Palataki (Small Palace), the House of Frangopoulos and the House of Laskaris.
Tel: +30 27310 23.315, 25.363
Tickets: Full: €5, Reduced: €3
Special ticket package: Full: €6, Reduced: €3
Duration of the ticket: 7 days