Mystras: A haven of Byzantine civilization

In 1249, William II of Villehardouin, the Frankish ruler of the Peloponnese, began building Mystras, a fortress on a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt Taygetos, 6 kilometers northwest of the present-day town of Sparta, the capital of Laconia.

Though it was not his capital, Mystras was the prince’s favorite residence, offering unparalleled views of the fertile plains below and the purple mountains surrounding it. However, in 1259, during the Battle of Pelagonia against Byzantine-led forces, he was captured and was only released three years later, after having first surrendered Mystras as part of his ransom. The battle signaled the end of Frankish rule of Greece and opened the way for the Byzantine princes to retake Constantinople, the capital which had fallen to the Crusaders in 1204.

The hill town increased in importance as a haven of Byzantine civilization at a time when the empire was set on a course of decline, its power eroded by internal feuding and pervasive corruption. High-ranking officials arrived from Constantinople and architects built richly decorated churches. By the early 15th century, Mystras was a recognized seat of learning.

Politically as well, the city grew in importance as the Ottoman Turks drew an ever-tighter ring around Constantinople. The last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine Palaiologus, was crowned here in 1449. Four years later, he fell fighting the Turks on the wall of the capital.

Mystras fell six years later. For a short period (1687-1715), it came under Venetian control, but was again taken by the Turks. The foundation of modern Sparta by King Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town’s life.

Today, unlike any other Byzantine site, it is an entire medieval walled city, where the main monuments have been carefully restored and steep, narrow alleyways climb between ruined chapels and roofless houses. The fame of the site, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, rests mainly on its church frescoes. Expert say these reflect the Hellenistic tradition in terms of Christian art and influenced Giotto via the Greek iconographers who began migrating to Italy in the 14th century. But it was probably a case of two-way traffic, as the perceptions of resident artists must have also been influenced by Byzantine scholars returning home from Italy.

The site is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. until October 31. For further information, call 27310.23315/25363.


About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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4 Responses to Mystras: A haven of Byzantine civilization

  1. I went to Mystra myself in December of 2010. Both the landform and the construction are spectacular.
    The churches display an especially large amount of variety; there are cross-and-square, greek cross and basilica types, as well as the homegrown Mystra type. I’m not aware of another site with such structural variety or which displays such a willingness to experiment and innovate.
    As it is also right at the end of the Byzantine period, one of the great things is the way one can see something of an evolution in the church art from that which is recognisably ‘Byzantine’ (As in the Aphendiko and St Demetrios) into the more icon-like art which graces modern Greek churches. The example par excellence is the Pantanassa church, which is decked out with extremely delicate wall paintings (Particularly fine is the raising of Lazarus on the north side) and, brilliantly, remains in use to this day. It is great to be able to see such continuity.
    One possible downside, at least when I visited, is that even when the site is open it dosen’t seem to follow that all the churches are open also. When I was there, the Evangelistria was locked (which is probably no big loss) but so was the Peribleptos (Which is a great shame; as it is the only church on the site which retains the original frescoes inside its dome). The Despot’s Palace also remains off-limits to the public due to ongoing restoration work.

    Finally, I must say, that if you have the option and the will, the road back to Sparti makes for a great walk.

  2. Chris’s comment put me in mind of my own visit to Mystras in 2000, part of my DIY itinerary following St Demetrius (of Thessalonica) to whom the Metropolitan church in Mystras was dedicated. As it happened, a young nun, Agnes (I wonder if she is still there?), whose community was responsible for the upkeep of the Pantanassa, agreed to talk with me about the “meaning” of St Demetrius to her. She told me the charming story of how, in the days when there was little civil order in the Sparta region and the ruins of Mystras provided shelter for various brigands and the like, local authorities begged the nuns to quit the convent and live instead in town where they would be safe. Still mulling this over, the sisters one night all had the same dream: Sts Demetrious & Theodore appeared to each of them and assured then that they, the women, were under their protection so there was no need to abandon their Mystras home. And there they still are….And, yes, the walk to and from Sparti makes a wonderful walk, especially in the morning.

  3. proverbs6to10 says:

    Myrna – good to see you still here. This is a lovely comment. Thank you. 🙂

    We should all go one day!

  4. John says:

    I have just discovered this wonderful site. I am an amateur Byzantinist, and have traveled extensively in the region since 2003. In that year, the necessity of traveling cheaply directed me to Bulgaria, by way of Istanbul. The rest, as they say, is history. I have been going back to the old Byzantine world ever since. Last summer, I spent 26 days driving around the Balkans–11 of them in Greece. Mystras (and the Pelopponese) was by far my favorite. When I return to Greece, my first destination will be to revisit Mystras. Again, thanks so much for this site.

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