Byzantine Castle of Mystras

Byzantine Castle of Mystras

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The Castle of Mistras with its now abandoned settlement occupy a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos, 6km northwest of Sparta. Because of the steep and conical hill, it was named Mystras or Myzithras and as it was strategically placed, constituting in itself a great natural fort. The history of Mistras starts from the mid-13th century, when the Franks completely occupied Peloponnese. The castle was built in 1249 by Guillaume de Villehardouin on the hill top of the byzantine fortress town.After the battle of Pelagonia, it was occupied by Byzantines where Mistras was built, which was also the capital of the Despotate of Moria. The fortress town remained the center of arts and writting until 1953, housing within great emperors, like Kostantinos Paleologos. Today, within the wall of Mistras, there are four abandoned settlements with great post byzantine churches, houses and palaces. Since 1989, the archaeological site of Mystras is listed as a natural heritage from the Unesco World Heritage List.

Built on a natural fort and strategically-placed hill of the Byzantine Myzythra on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos, the castle of Mistras is directly linked to the first Fall of Constantinople. In 1249, the Frankish prince Guillaume II de Villehardouin built the castle of Myzythra on the top of the hill of Myzythra in order to control the Evrotas valley. Ten years later the castle was given over to the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Paleologos. In the following years, the castle constituted the center of the later founded fortress town of Mistra, one of the most significant post byzantine cities. In 1262, after the battle of Pelagonia, the castle along with the ones of Monemvasia and Mani are surrendered to the Byzantines, in exchange for the release of the French prince that was captivated. That point marks the starting of the main historic period of Mystras that lasted two centuries. The castle was fortified with walls and inhabitants from the neighboring Lacedaemon came and settled nside the walls, in a place that was named Chora.Over the years a new settlement outside of the walls was created, named Kato Chora, which too was protected by walls.

In 1349, Mistras becomes the capital of the semi-independent Despotate of Morea with Manuel Katakouzinos in reign.In 1383, the royal family of Paleologi superseded the Katakouzinos Dynasty.Konstantinos Paleologos, the last Emperor of Byzantine, occupies a very special place among the despots of Mystras. At that time, Mistras becomes the Empire’s center of political and cultural life. The byzantine era ends for Mistras in 1460 when it was surrendered over to the Turks.

Between 1460 to 1540 it becomes one of the most significant centers of silk production and trade in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. A short intervention of the long-standing Turkish Occupation was the Period of the Venetian Rule. The decline of Mystras started in 1770 during Orlov Revolution, after its destruction from Turkish

Albanian soldiers. During the War of Independence in 1821, Mistras was looted by Ibrahim and every one gradually abandoned it. In 1843, King Othon rebuilds Sparta and Gytheion, and from then until 1943, when the Greek government expropriated the area, the last inhabitant leave the fortress town. In 1989, Unesco decides to include the archaeological site of Mistras as part of the cultural and natural heritage in the World Heritage list.

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

Mystras: The Byzantine castle state

A living legend in the heart of Peloponnese, the capital of the Despotate of the Morea, with its triumphant victories, its humiliating defeats, full of intrigue and conspiracies, used to be “the apple of contention” among Franks, Venetians, Byzantine and Ottomans.

Driving towards Mystras, I pass by the beautiful gardens with the huge magnolias and roses that adorn the courtyards of the last houses of Sparta. As I move further down the road, orange, lemon and olive trees start making their presence felt and make me ponder how fertile this place is. As I arrive at the small town of Mystras, the stone houses, as well as a couple of houses in discord with the architecture of the area, lead me towards the square with the plane trees. Nestled among colorful roses, the imposing statue of Konstantinos Palaiologos, the “Despot” of Mystras and last Byzantine emperors, stands in the background.

The road leading to the byzantine city and the medieval castle is full of bends. However, the Spartan plains on one side, and the castle city of Mystras on the other, make up for an exciting vista.

The history…
The state of Mystras is clearly the most distinctive medieval settlement in Greece. Overlooking the plains, the castle was built in 1249 by William II Villeharduin on the hill of Mystras or Mytzithras. Villeharduin thought that the geographic position was of strategic importance for the Franks. Ten years later, in 1259 A.C. during the Battle of Pelagonia, Michael VII Palaiologos defeated the Franks, capturing Villeharduin. The Byzantine emperor demanded the concession of the castles of Mystras, Monemvasia, Geraki and of Maina. Seeking security, over the years, the inhabitants of the region and of ancient Sparta would settle in Mystras.

Mystras started gaining prominence as a military, administrative, financial and cultural center of the Peloponnese. In 1308, the administration was assumed by regular commanders instead of generals, as it was the case until then. The commanders hailed from certain families, such as the Katakouzinoi and the Paleologoi. Later on, the commander took on the title of “Despot” and Mystras became the capital of the “Despotate of the Moreas”.

The organization of the Despotate owes its dynamic start to Manuel Katakouzinos. In 1384, the Palaiologoi assumed power. From 1443 to 1449 Konstantinos Palaiologos becomes the Despot of Mystras. In 1449 he was crowned emperor of Byzantium, and retained the title until the fall of Constantinople. From 1460 the power was held either by Venetians or by Turks. The downfall of Mystras was marked by the founding of Sparta in 1834, by the former king Othonas. In 1921 the castle city was declared an important byzantine monument and in 1989, Mystras was first included in UNESCO’s list of monuments that are considered part of the world Cultural heritage.

Georgios Gemistos – Plithon the “wise”
The last wise man of Byzantium, Georgios Gemistos – Plithon, lived in Mystras. He was a teacher and a judge, but above all, he was a philosopher and a writer, who believed that the Peloponnese was the cradle of the noblest Greek races, and that the salvation of the empire would begin there. In 1975, the late philosopher and academician Ioannis Theodorakopoulos, founded in Magoula, Sparta, a philosophical school and named it “Plithon” after the philosopher.

A tour of the Upper and Lower town of Mystras
Arriving at the medieval – Byzantine town of Mystras, the guests must choose where to start their tour. There are two entrances to the town, the first is the “Main Gate”, located on the lower part of the town, while the second one is located a few kilometers further, on the upper part, closer to the castle and the palace. My choice was to start at the Main Gate. Following the map to the letter, I went through the arched gate and passed by the deserted house of Laskaris, a characteristic urban byzantine residence that used to belong to one of the most important families of Byzantium.

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Continuing to the right, I came across the town’s cathedral, Saint Dimitrios. It is built as a three-nave basilica with a dome, decorated with beautiful religious paintings. Presumably, this is the place where Konstantinos Palaiologos was crowned emperor. Next to the church is housed the Museum of Mystras. Its engraved marble slabs, the beautiful women’s attires and jewelry, as well as the rings of the despots, take the guest back in time. The manuscripts of the Metropolis of Monemvasia and Sparta, are testaments to the spiritual development of the city.

Further on, I passed by the churches of Evangelistria and Saint Theodoroi and went on towards the Perivleptos Monastery. The path among the cobblestone alleys, paved with time worn, grassy stones, is magical.

The amazing frescoes of the monastery, along with the wooden altarpiece are riveting. The icon of Mother Mary was full of offerings. I went down towards the Main Gate, passing by the houses of Krevattas, the church of Agios Christoforos and Ai Giannakis. Taking the car, I drove up to the Upper Gate, where I beheld Saint Sofia, often called the “miniature of Saint Sofia of Constantinople.” Next stop is the Palaces of the Despots of Mystras. The way up the castle of William Villearduin offers a spectacular view.

The Future
Mystras is an important place for nature lovers and hikers, as it is the place where they start walking up the paths of mountain Taygetus. Its soothing, spiritual aura, coupled with the luxury hotels, that focus their services towards wellness and rejuvenation, make Mystras an international destination of tourism.

The Greek peninsula became a Roman protectorate in 146 BC, and the Aegean islands were added to this territory in 133 BC. Athens and other Greek cities revolted in 88 BC, and the peninsula was crushed by the Roman general Sulla. The Roman civil wars devastated the land even further, until Augustus organized the peninsula as the province of Achaea in 27 BC.

Greece was a typical eastern province of the Roman Empire. The Romans sent colonists there and contributed new buildings to its cities, especially in the Agora of Athens, where the Agrippeia of Marcus Agrippa, the Library of Titus Flavius Pantaenus, and the Tower of the Winds, among others, were built. Romans tended to be philohellenic and Greeks were generally loyal to Rome. [ citation needed ]

Life in Greece continued under the Roman Empire much the same as it had previously, and Greek continued to be the lingua franca in the Eastern and most important part of the Empire. Roman culture was heavily influenced by classical Greek culture (see Greco-Roman) as Horace said, Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Translation: "Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror"). The epics of Homer inspired the Aeneid of Virgil, and authors such as Seneca the Younger wrote using Greek styles, while famous Romans such as Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius compiled works in the Greek language.

During that period, Greek intellectuals such as Galen or Apollodorus of Damascus were continuously being brought to Rome. Within the city of Rome, Greek was spoken by Roman elites, particularly philosophers, and by lower, working classes such as sailors and merchants. The emperor Nero visited Greece in 66, and performed at the Olympic Games, despite the rules against non-Greek participation. He was, of course, honored with a victory in every contest, and in 67 he proclaimed the freedom of the Greeks at the Isthmian Games in Corinth, just as Flamininus had over 200 years previously.

Hadrian was also particularly fond of the Greeks before he became emperor he served as eponymous archon of Athens. He also built his namesake arch there, and had a Greek lover, Antinous. [ citation needed ]

At the same time, Greece and much of the rest of the Roman east came under the influence of Christianity. The apostle Paul had preached in Corinth and Athens, and Greece soon became one of the most highly Christianized areas of the empire.

During the second and third centuries, Greece was divided into provinces including Achaea, Macedonia, Epirus vetus and Thracia. During the reign of Diocletian in the late 3rd century, the western Balkans were organized as a Roman diocese, and was ruled by Galerius. Under Constantine I Greece was part of the dioceses of Macedonia and Thrace. The eastern and southern Aegean islands formed the province of Insulae in the Diocese of Asia.

Greece faced invasions from the Heruli, Goths, and Vandals during the reign of Theodosius I. Stilicho, who acted as regent for Arcadius, evacuated Thessaly when the Visigoths invaded in the late 4th century. Arcadius' Chamberlain Eutropius allowed Alaric to enter Greece, and he looted Corinth, and the Peloponnese. Stilicho eventually drove him out around 397 and Alaric was made magister militum in Illyricum. Eventually, Alaric and the Goths migrated to Italy, sacked Rome in 410, and built the Visigothic Empire in Iberia and southern France, which lasted until 711 with the advent of the Arabs.

Greece remained part of the relatively unified eastern half of the empire. Contrary to outdated visions of late antiquity, the Greek peninsula was most likely one of the most prosperous regions of the Roman and later the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. Older scenarios of poverty, depopulation, barbarian destruction and civil decay have been revised in light of recent archaeological discoveries. [1] In fact, the polis, as an institution, appears to have remained prosperous until at least the sixth century. Contemporary texts such as Hierocles' Synecdemus affirm that in late Antiquity, Greece was highly urbanised and contained approximately 80 cities. [1] This view of extreme prosperity is widely accepted today, and it is assumed between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, Greece may have been one of the most economically active regions in the eastern Mediterranean. [1]

Following the loss of Alexandria and Antioch to the Arabs, Thessaloniki became the Byzantine Empire's second largest city, called the "co-regent" (symbasileuousa), second only to Constantinople. The Greek peninsula remained one of the strongest centers of Christianity in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods. After the area's recovery from the Slavic invasions, its wealth was restored. Events such as the Seljuk invasion of Asia Minor and the Latin occupation of Constantinople gradually focused Byzantine imperial interest to the Greek peninsula during the late Byzantine period. The Peloponnese in particular continued to prosper economically and intellectually even during its Latin domination, the Byzantine recovery, and until its final fall to the Ottoman Empire.

Greece was raided in Macedonia in 479 and 482 by the Ostrogoths under their king, Theodoric the Great (493–526). [2] The Bulgars also raided Thrace and the rest of northern Greece in 540 and on repeated other occasions. These continuing Bulgar invasions required the Byzantine Empire to build a defensive wall, called the "Anastasian Wall," that extended for some thirty (30) miles, or more, from the city of Selymbria (now Silivri) to the Black Sea. [3] The Huns and Bulgars raided Greece in 559 until the Byzantine army returned from Italy, where Justinian I had been attempting to capture the heart of the Roman Empire. [4]

According to historical documents, the Slavs invaded and settled in parts of Greece beginning in 579 and Byzantium nearly lost control of the entire peninsula during the 580s. [5] However, there is no archaeological evidence indicating Slavic penetration of imperial Byzantine territories before the end of the 6th century. Overall, traces of Slavic culture in Greece are very rare. [6]

The city of Thessaloniki remained unconquered even after being attacked by the Slavs around 615. The Slavs were eventually defeated, gathered by the Byzantines and placed into segregated communities known as Sclaviniae.

In 610, Heraclius became Emperor. During his reign, Greek became the official language of the empire.

During the early 7th century, Constans II made the first mass-expulsions of Slavs from the Greek peninsula to the Balkans and central Asia Minor. Justinian II defeated and destroyed most of the Sclaviniae, and moved as many as 100–200,000 Slavs from the Greek peninsula to Bithynia, while he enlisted some 30,000 Slavs in his army. [7]

The Slavic populations that were placed in these segregated communities were used for military campaigns against the enemies of the Byzantines. In the Peloponnese, more Slavic invaders brought disorder to the western part of the peninsula, while the eastern part remained firmly under Byzantine domination. Empress Irene organised a military campaign which liberated those territories and restored Byzantine rule to the region, but it was not until emperor Nicephorus I's resettlement of some rural areas of Peloponnese with Greek-speakers from southern Italy, that the last trace of Slavic element was eliminated. [8]

In the mid-7th century, the empire was reorganized into "themes" by the Emperor Constans II, including the Theme of Thrace, the naval Karabisianoi corps in southern Greece and the Aegean islands. The Karabisanoi were later divided by Justinian II into the Theme of Hellas (centred on Corinth) and the Cibyrrhaeotic Theme. By this time, the Slavs were no longer a threat to the Byzantines since they had been either defeated numerous times or placed in the Sclaviniae. The Slavic communities in Bithynia were destroyed by the Byzantines after General Leontios lost to the Arabs in the Battle of Sebastopolis in 692, as a result of the Slavs having defected to the Arab side. [9]

These themes rebelled against the iconoclast emperor Leo III in 727 and attempted to set up their own emperor, although Leo defeated them. Leo then moved the headquarters of the Karabisianoi to Anatolia and created the Cibyrrhaeotic Theme of them. Up to this time, Greece and the Aegean were still technically under the ecclesiastic authority of the Pope, but Leo also quarreled with the Papacy and gave these territories to the Patriarch of Constantinople. As emperor, Leo III, introduced more administrative and legal reforms than had been promulgated since the time of Justinian. [10] Meanwhile, the Arabs began their first serious raids in the Aegean. Bithynia was eventually re-populated by Greek-speaking population from mainland Greece and Cyprus.

Nicephorus I also began to reconquer Slavic and Bulgar-held areas in the early 9th century. [11] He resettled Greek-speaking families from Asia Minor to the Greek peninsula and the Balkans, and expanded the theme of Hellas to the north to include parts of Thessaly and Macedonia, and to the south to include the regained territory of the Peloponnese. Thessalonica, previously organized as an archontate surrounded by the Slavs, became a theme of its own as well. These themes contributed another 10,000 men to the army, and allowed Nicephorus to convert most of the Slavs to Christianity.

Crete was conquered by the Arabs in 824. In the late 9th century, Leo VI faced also invasions from the Bulgarians under Simeon I, who pillaged Thrace in 896, and again in 919 during Zoe's regency for Constantine VII. Simeon invaded northern Greece again in 922 and penetrated deep to the south seizing Thebes, just north of Athens.

Crete was reconquered in 961 from the Arabs, by Nikephoros II Phokas after the Siege of Chandax.

In the late 10th century, the greatest threat to Greece was from Samuel, who constantly fought over the area with Basil II. In 985, Samuel captured Thessaly and the important city of Larissa, and in 989, he pillaged Thessalonica. Basil slowly began to recapture these areas in 991, but Samuel captured the areas around Thessalonica and the Peloponnese again in 997 before being forced to withdraw to Bulgaria. In 999, Samuel captured Dyrrhachium and raided northern Greece once more. Basil recaptured these areas by 1002 and had fully subjugated completely the Bulgarians in the decade before his death (see Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria).

By Basil's death in 1025, Greece was divided into themes including Crete, the Peloponnese, Hellas, Nicopolis, Larissa, Cephalonia, Thessalonica and Strymon, the Cyclades and the Aegean Sea. They were protected from raids and invasions by the new themes created out of Bulgar territory.

Greece and Thrace became more prosperous in the 10th century and towns and cities began to grow again. Athens and Corinth probably grew to about 10,000 people, while Thessalonica may have had as many as 100,000 people. There was an important aristocratic class from these themes, especially the Macedonian emperors who ruled the empire from 867 to 1056.

Greece and the empire as a whole faced a new threat from the Normans of Sicily in the late 11th century. Robert Guiscard took Dyrrhachium and Corcyra in 1081 (see Battle of Dyrrhachium), but Alexius I defeated him, and later his son Bohemund, by 1083. The Pechenegs also raided Thrace during this period.

In 1147, while the knights of the Second Crusade made their way through Byzantine territory, Roger II of Sicily captured Corcyra and pillaged Thebes and Corinth.

In 1197, Henry VI of Germany continued his father Frederick Barbarossa's antagonism towards the empire by threatening to invade Greece to reclaim the territory the Normans had briefly held. Alexius III was forced to pay him off, although the taxes he imposed caused frequent revolts against him, including rebellions in Greece and the Peloponnese. Also during his reign, the Fourth Crusade attempted to place Alexius IV on the throne, until it eventually invaded and sacked the capital.

Greece was relatively peaceful and prosperous in the 11th and 12th centuries, compared to Anatolia which was being overrun by the Seljuks. Thessalonica had probably grown to about 150,000 people, despite being looted by the Normans in 1185. Thebes also became a major city with perhaps 30,000 people, and was the centre of a major silk industry. Athens and Corinth probably still had around 10,000 people. Mainland Greek cities continued to export grain to the capital in order to make up for the land lost to the Seljuks.

However, after Constantinople was conquered during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Greece was divided among the Crusaders. The Latin Empire held Constantinople and Thrace, while Greece itself was divided into the Kingdom of Thessalonica, the Principality of Achaea, and the Duchy of Athens. The Venetians controlled the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean, while the Despotate of Epirus was established as one of the three Byzantine Greek successor states.

Michael VIII restored the empire in 1261, having also regained the Kingdom of Thessalonica. By his death in 1282, Michael had taken back the Aegean islands, Thessaly, Epirus, and most of Achaea, including the Crusader fortress of Mystras, which became the seat of a Byzantine despotate. However, Athens and the northern Peloponnese remained in Crusader hands. Charles of Anjou and later his son claimed the throne of the defunct Latin Empire, and threatened Epirus and Greece, but were never able to make any progress there.

By the reign of Andronicus III Palaeologus, beginning in 1328, the empire controlled most of Greece, especially the metropolis of Thessalonica, but very little else. Epirus was nominally Byzantine but still occasionally rebelled, until it was fully recovered in 1339. Greece was mostly used as a battleground during the civil war between John V Palaeologus and John VI Cantacuzenus in the 1340s, and at the same time the Serbs and Ottomans began attacking Greece as well. By 1356, another independent despotate was set up in Epirus and Thessaly.

The Peloponnese, usually called Morea in this period, was now almost the centre of the empire, and was certainly the most fertile area. Mystras and Monemvasia were populous and prosperous, even after the Black Plague in the mid-14th century. Mystras rivaled Constantinople in importance. It was a stronghold of Greek Orthodoxy and bitterly opposed attempts by the emperors to unite with the Catholic Church, even though this would have allowed the empire to gain help from the west against the Ottomans.

The Ottomans had begun their conquest of the Balkans and Greece in the late 14th century and early 15th century capturing among others Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Thessaly. In 1445, Ottoman-occupied Thessaly was recaptured by the future emperor Constantine XI, at the time despot of Mystras, but there was little he could do against most of the other Ottoman territories. Emperor Constantine XI was defeated and killed in 1453 when the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans also captured Athens by 1458, but left a Byzantine despotate in the Peloponnese until 1460. The Venetians still controlled Crete, Aegean islands and some cities-ports, but otherwise the Ottomans controlled many regions of Greece except the mountains and heavily forested areas.

The castle of Mystras

Six kilometers northwest of Sparta lay the now ruined Byzantine city of Mystras, which was a milestone in the history of culture and art. In the mid 13th century, the Franks had conquered the Peloponnese. The Villehardouin II built in 1249 the castle on the east side of Taygetus at the top (620 m) of a steep mountain called cheese. He incorporated Mystras at the core of his imperial possessions, launching a glorious history that made its cycle after six centuries of drama. In 1249 the French Prince built on the Hill Myzithra the famous namesake castle, which was soon destined to develop into a unique castle and one of the major Late Byzantine cities. The inhabitants of Lacedaemon began to build there for greater security, at the slope of Mystra and around the castle in order to have more protection by the prince. The construction activity extends beyond the walls and so a second wall to protect the new settlement was built, thus forming the so called Lower Town. Within two centuries after being delivered in 1259 in the Byzantine Empire, meanwhile changing hands between the dynasties of Cantacuzenus and Paleologos, the Mystras would become the center of “Despot of the Morea.” At its peak in the 15th century it would claim laurels as the cradle of literature and arts scholars, philosophers and personalities, of the caliber of George Gemistos Plython, a philosopher who founded a philosophical school and left his indelible mark on future generations.

The layout of the castle into three zones (Upper, Lower and Outside Country) offers visitors the opportunity to travel through time and admire the architecture, art and paintings of important artists, all inscribed in monuments, palaces and churches that have survived until today. In the Upper Country you will be captured by the look of Palaces of the Despots built from the 13th to the 15th century. On the top, lies the church of St Sophia, the chapel of the Palaces. At the Lower Town you can see the church of St. Demetrius. Here in the center of this mixture basilica with five-domed cruciform was crowned on January 6, 1449 the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine Palaiologos before dying at the Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453. The endless chain of temples including even the “St Theodor,” the “Evangelistria”, the “Pantanassa” with elaborate decoration, the “Saint John of the buffalo,” where you can quench your thirst at the fountain built by the pilgrims of the season, “Santa Barbara” and “Saint George”. The list is really endless. The conquest of the summit of the castle town brings you to the height of the Frankish castle and from there you will be able to supervise the valley of Lacedaemon.

The friends of trekking will satisfy their concerns choosing the paved paths that start from Parori’s hole, and other districts of Mystras and reach the tops of mount Taygetos.

Do not forget to visit the museum of the archaeological site of Mystras. It is housed in a two-storey stone building in 1754 and includes several collections of reliefs, manuscripts and jewelry. In New Mystra you will find any souvenirs that you want and you can relax in a guesthouse or a hotel.

Further reading

Make sure to include a visit to the Olive Museum in Sparti on a Peloponnese road trip!

If you have an interest in Byzantine art, and are visiting Athens, there is a dedicated museum you may be interested in. Just a short walk away from Syntagma Square, The Byzantine Museum would certainly be worth spending an hour or two exploring.

Interest in ancient Greece? read my guide to the best historical sites in Greece.


Nice post. I like the Byzantine angle – very educational. So many places have ‘other’ histories other than what we think of as conventional. I like these kinds of posts that find the obscure, the lesser-known. Two thumbs up.

I love that Mystras isn’t visited by the masses and that there is still monastery in use on the site! Exploring a place like this without the crowds allows you to really soak it all in.

It certainly does!Very happy we drove to Mystras, as we were undecided right up until the last minute!

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Old stone streets, noble mansions hundreds of years old, Byzantine churches, works of art: In the Medieval city-strongholds of Laconia, Mystras and Monemvasia, time seems to have stopped centuries ago — two of just a few places where such a description is no cliché. Here, you do not read history, you walk through it, touch it, experience it. It is all around.

The two castles of Mystras and Monemvasia represented the core of the illustrious Despotate of Morea, the Byzantine Empire’s semi-autonomous province in the Peloponnese. The rocky, naturally-defensible islet of Monemvasia served as the initial seat of the region’s renewed Byzantine administration until 1262, when this role was transferred to Mystras — whose own impressive fortifications had first been built by the Franks some 13 years earlier. As militarily strategic locations, both castles were successively claimed or reclaimed by the Franks, Byzantines, Venetians and Turks, resulting in their changing hands several times during their history.

Mystras’ authority was strengthened in 1349 when it became the capital of the despotate — essentially the entire Peloponnese. Although the Byzantine Empire was already beginning to collapse from external enemies and internal intrigue, Mystras was reaching its floruit, becoming one of the most important economic and cultural centers of Byzantium and offering the hope of rebirth to the rest of the empire. In the end, however, Mystras could only manage to prolong the empire’s life a little longer, to be its last “glimmer” and final stronghold.

Today, as visitors stand facing the Hill of Myzythras, on which Mystras was built, one immediately grasps the significance of the place. Crowned with a mighty citadel and walls that descend around its Upper and Lower towns and their many painted churches, Mystras is rightly considered one of Greece’s greatest archaeological sites, worthy of its ranking as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.

“ The two castles represented the core of the illustrious Despotate of Morea, the Byzantine Empire’s semi-autonomous province in the Peloponnese. ”

The main gate to the Mystras citadel. The main gate to the Mystras citadel. View of the interior of Aghia Sofia, one of the Byzantine churches at Mystras. View of the interior of Aghia Sofia, one of the Byzantine churches at Mystras.

“ The museum housed in Mystras castle’s courtyard features artifacts excavated in the town and strives to illuminate the connections and complex influences that once existed between Byzantium and the West. ”

Mystras is also distinctive for being a more-outlying, autonomous tourist destination, in comparison with other archaeological sites that can easily be visited during a single day trip. Consequently, more and more high-quality guesthouses and excellent restaurants are opening up in the surrounding villages of Neos Mystras, Pikoulianika and Parori.

Access to the Mystras castle can be gained through either of two gates. Most visitors choose to enter through the Lower Gate that leads directly to the Lower Town afterward, ascending to the Upper Gate by car, they visit the Upper Town.

In the Lower Town are several historic mansions and the site’s most important churches. Inside are precious works of Byzantine art, many of which are kept under lock and key for security reasons. Always open, however, is the Metropolitan church and the interesting museum housed in its courtyard. The museum features artifacts excavated in the town and strives to illuminate the connections and complex influences that once existed between Byzantium and the West. In the Upper Town stands the Church of Aghia Sophia, the famous Palace of the Palaiologoi (under restoration) and the fortress, from which the views of Mt Taygetus and the Evrotas River Valley are incomparable.

Of course, visitors who choose to climb from the Lower to the Upper Town and the citadel, strolling on well-marked paths, gain something even more special. The feeling of walking along historic, stone-paved lanes, surrounded by lush vegetation and absolute quiet is itself a monumental experience.

The Stellaki mansion, one of the oldest buildings within the fortress of Monemvasia, right next to the sea wall.

The Stellaki mansion, one of the oldest buildings within the fortress of Monemvasia, right next to the sea wall.

Small alleyways, flights of stairs here and there, and a maze of vaulted passages make for a fascinating exploration of the fairy-tale town of Monemvasia.

Small alleyways, flights of stairs here and there, and a maze of vaulted passages make for a fascinating exploration of the fairy-tale town of Monemvasia.

In contrast to the tranquility of Byzantine monuments at Mystras and what the site’s information panels reveal, Monemvasia is — in the words of the great Greek writer Stratis Myrivilis — “a Mystras that lives on.” Monemvasia’s fortress, which has never ceased to be inhabited, is now home to around 10 families, Greek and foreign, who live here permanently many more are daily commuters, who run guesthouses, tavernas, bars and tourist shops inside the walls. You’ll find all these easily on the main street — named after the celebrated Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos, who came from here and whose house is open to visitors. This was the shopping street where medieval tavernas and cellars once kept prized stocks of Malvazia: Monemvasia’s famous local wine.

Strict restoration guidelines have kept the fortified town in excellent condition. Not only does it have a storybook setting, but also a striking position: strangely perched on a giant rock joined to the rest of the Peloponnese by a causeway built in the 2oth century to replace a 6th century stone bridge that had 14 arches and a removable wooden section in the middle. After one crosses over and ascends through the gate, the fairytale begins.


Local legend has it that if you visit Monemvasia with your lover, your relationship is likely to lead to marriage. It is no surprise then that this is such a popular spot for weddings.

Wandering through the Lower City on lanes spanned by arches and vaulted structures (“dromikes”), where supplies are still transported by horses the ascent along the “Voltes” (the fortified street leading to the ruined Upper Town) the Byzantine churches once-grand houses Venetian coats-of-arms and the Ottoman mosque —all take you back in time.

In the architecture of these age-old buildings, you can read the entire history of Monemvasia, their stone-work displaying visible traces of all the town’s conquerors.

If you wish to live the experience to its fullest, however, it is worth roaming the castle from end to end and spending the night within its walls. Gaze out over the Myrtoan Sea explore the venerated chapels rest on the enviable rooftop terraces and in the small town squares and follow every path —even if it leads nowhere, and even after dark, when lanterns only partly illuminate the mysterious shadows and you feel that from somewhere horses and knights are bound to appear.

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Magnificent and impressive , distant and yet so close . Real time , the state still lies on the slopes of the steep strange hill with the castle on top.

Just 5 km northwest of Sparta time has stopped , but in the golden pages of history.

Mystras the " theofrouritos country Myzithras " the base of the Despotate of Peloponnese , the last cradle of Byzantine Empire , still lives in the historical memory and consciousness of people.

The visit at Mystras, transports the visitor to another dimension,
in the era of the Byzantine Empire.

With the fortifications and churches palaces, mansions and houses , in the streets and fountains of causes daily amazement to thousands of visitors , but also provides valuable insight on the development and culture of Byzantium . Two centuries on the stage of history , he composed a unique path of glory , splendor and supply - political social and cultural .

The starting point in the 13th century when the Franks dominated the Peloponnese. In 1249 Villehardouin II built an impregnable castle on the hilltop with Mystras name or Mizithras .

Ten years later he was captured the emperor of Byzantium Michael Paleologos , bought his freedom, giving the castles of Mistras Monemvasia and Mani . Mystras offered security , resulting in the residents of the neighboring Lacedaemon , as then called Sparta , build their houses on the slopes around the castle .

The settlement Chora, protected by a wall , but the new houses were built from the outside. Another wall protected the new district , Lower Town . With the generals permanent commanders since 1308 and the seat of Metropolis has been transported from Lacedaemon , Mystras became in the 13th century capital of the Peloponnese , the seat of the Despotate of Morea with Annuity Lord

First Master 1348 Manuel second son of Emperor John Kantakouzenos and second Matthew in 1380. Then came the time of Paleologos, with the despot Theodore I, son of Emperor John Palaeologus and his successors Theodore II in 1407 and Constantine Paleologos in 1443.

All these years, Mystras experienced glory despite external risks. The dominance was spread almost throughout the Peloponnese and became a center of political and intellectual life field to regenerate the letters and arts. Here founding the famous philosophical school of the Gemistus Pletho. On January 6 January 1449 the Metropolis of Mystras, Agios Dimitrios, Constantinos Paleologos was crowned emperor and left for Istanbul, for death and glory in the fall of 1453. But Mystras fell ingloriously.

The new Bishop Dimitrios surrendered without a fight the impregnable castle in Mehmed II. During the Turkish rule, the city was still flourishing, with 42,000 inhabitants. After the failure of the uprising of 1770 were 8,000. Poor but courageous and Mystras offered the War of 1821, but in 1825 the Egyptians Ibrahim burned down the town

The residents started leaving . Others settled lower in New Mystras. And others returned to the banks of the Eurotas to create the new Sparta. In the Byzantine state abandonment gave way to wear and tear


The most beautiful beach in the Mediterranean just got it's Byzantine tower of stone!So, after five .

    • Explore the ruins of this important Byzantine city below its castle on its improbable crag.
      • A moving and fascinating place, with huge view to boot. Not to be missed if you are in the Peloponnese.

      Walkopedia rating

      • Walkopedia rating90
      • Beauty 32
      • Natural interest 10
      • Human interest 18
      • Charisma 34
      • Negative points 4
      • Total rating 90
      • Note: Neg: tourists

      Vital Statistics


      Walkopedia walked the ruins of the Byzantine city of Mystras in early April, when the life and beauty of the wild flowers contrasted with the gentle, lonely melancholy of the ruins of this city. We loved it.

      Mystras evolved in the middle ages, on the steep slopes below the castle built on the great crag here by the Frankish Prince of Achaia, Guillaume de Villehadouih, in 1249. It became an important city of the shrinking Byzantine Empire after it was retaken by the Byzantines, and a liberal centre of thought and the arts. It fell to the Turks in 1460, and entered a long twilight period. It was abandoned in the C19 in favour of modern Mystras and Sparta on the plain below.

      Mystras' ruins are very well preserved, and extraordinarily evocative. Below the impregnable-feeling castle huddles the walled Upper City, with it churches and palaces, home of the aristos and administrators. Below is the Lower City, also walled, once home of artisans at its top, the peaceful and charming Pantanassa Convent is the only occupied building in the city.

      Start at the Upper Entrance at the top of the Upper City. Walk up paved mule tracks overhung by shrubs and wild flowers to the Frankish Castle on its extraordinary crag. Gaze at the views and salivate over a walk in the wooded slopes above, admiring the drama of the high Taygetus to the west and the huge view over the Laconiac plain to your east.

      Descend to and through to the Upper City, inspecting Agia Sofia church with its charming portico and St. Nicholas, in between patches of scrub and rubble.

      The Royal Palace is closed for a huge reconstruction.

      Descend through the Monemvasia Gate into the Lower City. Make sure you visit the Pantanassa Convent its church has the atmosphere and quiet serenity of a minor monastic church on Mount Athos. The Lower City is wider spread, with more areas of rubble and scrub. All hugely atmospheric and thought provoking.

      Mystras is some 300m to to bottom, so a full exploration is no mean undertaking. We parked at, and walked back to, the Upper Gate but you can descend on down to modern Mystras. You can also walk up and back from modern Mystras, and a one-way taxi journey. To start at the top makes sense.

      Have a look at TripAdvisor - there are tens of millions of reviews, so you may get good, current views on guides, places to hike and places to stay in the area.

      Sunflower's Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese has 30 walks, including information on this walk. Find relevant books by using our Amazon search function:

      For more information and photos, including detailed practical information and some warnings, see our Taygetus and the Mani walk page.

      Ruins, Byzantine city of Mystras, Peloponnese

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      Watch the video: Mistra - Mystras - byzantinische Stadt auf den Peloponnes 17