The Glorious Late-Byzantine city invites the visitor to a journey through time and place.
(Updated October 2020)
The ‘wonder of the Morea’, Mystras (Μυστράς) also known as Myzithras (Μυζηθράς) in the Chronicle of the Morea (*), is a fortified Byzantine town which lies in the southeast of the Peloponnese. Situated on Mt. Taygetos, the town developed down the hillside from the fortress built in 1249 by the prince of Achaia, William II of Villehardouin, at the top of a 620 m high hill overlooking Sparta.
The Franks surrendered the castle to the Byzantines in 1262, it was the center of Byzantine power in southern Greece, first as the base of the military governor and from 1348 as the seat of the Despotate of Morea (the Byzantine Empire’s semi-autonomous province in the Peloponnese) experiencing a period of prosperity and cultural flowering. Captured by the Turks in 1460, it was occupied thereafter by them and the Venetians. The site remained inhabited throughout the Ottoman period, when it was mistaken by Western travelers for ancient Sparta. In the 1830s, it was abandoned and the new town of Sparti was built, approximately eight kilometers to the east, leaving only the breath-taking medieval ruins.
(*) The Chronicle of the Morea (Το χρονικόν του Μορέως) is a long 14th-century history text, of which four versions are extant: in French, Greek (in verse), Italian and Aragonese. More than 9,000 lines long, the Chronicle narrates events of the Franks' establishment of feudalism in mainland Greece. West European Crusaders settled in the Peloponnese (called Morea at the time) following the Fourth Crusade. The period covered in the Chronicle was 1204 to 1292 (or later, depending on the version). It gives significant details on the civic organization of the Principality of Achaia.
Located 220 km from Athens, Mystras is quite far away to be qualified for a day trip for the Athenians. This is the reason I decided to visit this important archeological site as a side day trip of my holidays in Mani. If possible, one should stay overnight at the village of Mystras to have plenty of time to wander around. The village of Mystras should not be confused with the Byzantine fortified city with the same name. The village is a modern, beautiful and well preserved settlement with a very good tourist infrastructure, located only 1.5 km from the entrance to the fortified Byzantine town. There are many hotels and several restaurants in the area, for all those visiting the archeological site. I stayed at “Mystras Inn” hotel on the main square of the village. The hotel offers simple, but well equipped and comfortable rooms. Ask for a room on the main road building above the tavern, it may be a bit noisy, but these rooms offer nice little balconies with view.
Great breakfast is served at the tavern of “Mystras Inn” hotel. The tavern is open all day and serves local dishes: do not miss the crispy piglet, roasted to perfection!
In late 1248, William II of Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea, captured Monemvasia, the last remaining Byzantine outpost on the Morea. This success was soon followed by the submission of the restive Tsakones on Mount Parnon, the Slavic Melingoi tribe of Mount Taygetos, and the inhabitants of the Mani peninsula, thereby extending his sway over all of Laconia and completing the conquest of the peninsula, which had begun in 1205, in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Laconia was incorporated into the princely domain, and the young prince passed the winter of 1248–49 there, touring the country and selecting sites for new fortifications such as Grand Magne and Leuktron; finally, near his residence of Lacedaemon (ancient Sparta), on a spur of Mount Taygetos, he built the fortress that came to be known as Mystras.
In September 1259, William of Villehardouin was defeated and captured, along with many of his nobles, at the Battle of Pelagonia, by the forces of the Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Two years later, the Nicaeans recaptured Constantinople, putting an end to the Latin Empire and restoring the Byzantine Empire. At this point, the emperor concluded an agreement with the captive prince: William and his men would be set free in exchange for an oath of fealty, and for the cession of Monemvasia, Grand Magne, and Mystras. The handover was effected in 1262, and henceforth Mystras was the seat of the governor of the Byzantine territories in the Morea. Initially this governor was changed every year, but after 1308 they started being appointed for longer terms. Almost immediately on his return to the Morea, William of Villehardouin renounced his oath to the emperor, and warfare broke out between Byzantines and Franks. The first Byzantine attempts to subdue the Principality of Achaea were beaten back in the battles of Prinitsa and Makryplagi, but the Byzantines were firmly ensconced in Laconia. Warfare became endemic, and the Byzantines slowly pushed the Franks back. The insecurity engendered by the raids and counter-raids caused the inhabitants of Lacedaemon to abandon their exposed city and settle at Mystras, in a new town built under the shadow of the fortress.
From 1348 until its surrender to the Ottoman Turks on 31 May 1460, Mystras was the residence of a Despot who ruled over the Byzantine Morea, known as the "Despotate of the Morea". This was the city's golden age and Mystras "witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance, including the teaching of Plethon, and attracted artists and architects of the highest quality".
The frescos in the Peribleptos Monastery Church, dating between 1348 and 1380, are a very rare surviving late Byzantine cycle, crucial for the understanding of Byzantine art.
Mystras was also the last center of Byzantine scholarship; the Neoplatonist philosopher George Gemistos Plethon lived there until his death in 1452. He and other scholars based in Mystras influenced the Italian Renaissance, especially after he accompanied the emperor Ioannis VIII Palaiologos to Florence in 1439.
The last Byzantine emperor, Constantinos XI Palaiologos, was despot at Mystras before he came to the throne. Demetrius Palaeologus the last despot of Morea, surrendered the city to the Ottoman emperor Mehmed II in 1460. As Mezistre, it was the seat of a Turkish sanjak. The Venetians occupied it from 1687 to 1715, but otherwise the Ottomans held it until 1821 and the beginning of the Greek War of Independence. It was abandoned under King Otto for the newly rebuilt town of Sparta.
In 1989 the ruins, including the fortress, palace, churches, and monasteries, were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Archeological site
The Byzantine fortified city of Mystras is unique and attracts visitors from all over the world. The visitor, not only has the opportunity to walk in the streets of a late Byzantine town, but also to admire the beauty of the landscape. The town is built on a high and steep rock in the foothills of Mount Taygetos and provides great views over the verdant valley of Evrotas River and the city of Sparti (Sparta). The southern part of the hill is limited by a deep gorge that makes the town inaccessible from there.
There are two gates to the archeological site. The main gate is located on the northern side of the hill and is easily accessible either by foot (from the village) or by car. The other gate is located to the west and is again easily reachable. You may accomplish your visit in one go by entering the main gate and visit all places of interest or in two parts: first you visit the “middle city”, which is the lower part of the fortified city, by entering the main gate; and then you visit the “upper city”, by entering the western gate.
If you do this in one day you do not have to pay twice: the same ticket is valid for both entries. Entrance fee is €12 (€6 for senior visitors/ free for visitors aged under 18 years old).
I did not even know there is such a place. Very beautiful!