Byzantium’s last capital | A thorough guide to Mystras

by Fabian Jürgens
Published: Last Updated on

“…he gave the command and craftsmen and officials gathered, and brought together every kind of material, including lime, and stone, timber and other materials used in building: so they began to build the Castle and they finished it and they made it tall and most beautiful, and he called it Myzithras, because that is what that place was called, Mytzithras…”

Psendodorotheos

The earthly scent of petrichor travels up my nostrils and fills my lungs, as I stroll down a narrow country road.

Branched olive trees peek out from behind scraggly stone walls, while small raindrops trickle down their argentine leaves and hang precariously off the edge, before plunging into the depths below. In between, salient specks of yellow citrus vie for attention, perfectly complementing the post-rain serenity.

Soon after, a herd of sheep, joyfully indulging in the freshly watered gras sprouting underneath the groves, joins my walk. As I pass them, an attentive shepherd dog gives me a brief but thorough look before running off.  

To my delight, he deems me no threat to his flock.

Accompanied by distant barking, I turn left and head down a wet dirt path, leading me to an open space surrounded by orchards.

DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT PETRICHOR MEANS?

No? Neither did I, before I stumbled upon this magnificent word, while searching for an expression to describe the unique smell after a rainfall.

And that's exactly what it is! The fresh, earthly scent ascending from the wet ground after a storm!

The word is formed by combining the Greek words petra (πέτρα) or petros (πέτρος), meaning rock or stone, and īchōr (ἰχώρ), an expression used in Greek mythology to describe the divine fluid flowing through the veins of the gods. 

What an absolutely beautiful word!

wafts of mist flow across forested hills
two hills forming a u-shaped entrance to a valley, hidden behind a wall of fog

The verdant foothills of Taygetos, an impressive mountain front overlooking the fertile plains of the Evrotas Valley, rise in front of me, before seemingly vanishing into nothingness. Heavy fog merges with the looming rain clouds to form a single, opaque entity, impenetrable, veiling towering peaks and precipitous cliffs behind a white mantle.

Wafts of mist, everchanging and obscure, float through these sombre hills and virgin woods, create a mystical atmosphere, and bestow a true sense of wonder upon me.

My inquisitive eyes wander across the dark tops of conifers, when suddenly they fall upon an unremarkable ruin, protruding from the forested slopes. As my gaze continues its visual journey, evermore man-made structures appear, joining their dying brother in decay.  

Crumbling foundations, collapsed arches, and overgrown arcades climb up the steep mountainside, before they reach the shrouded summit, embellished with the proud and immemorial remains of a citadel.

Not all structures are caught in the clutches of ephemerality, however.

Above the sweeping green, persevering walls and rubicund roof tiles sing of a glorious past.

A past in which this city claimed its rightful place as one of the great settlements of its time.

Before my eyes lie the magnificent ruins of Mystras.

Byzantium’s last capital.

a Byzantine monastery and a grand palace sit proudly on a verdant slope amidst the crumbling remnants of a ruined city
remains of a once mighty fortress on a verdant mountain spur shrouded in clouds

LITTLE CONSTANTINOPLE

The inception of Mystras is a curious one.

Following the fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire in the wake of the 4th crusade, the newly established crusader states were hard pressed to strengthen their grip on the conquered territories and to exert their influence beyond their fragile borders.

Faced with an uncertain future, their crude leaders, moulded in the horrors of warfare, once more relied on brute force, and thus these successor states preyed on the bleeding corpse of the former world power, ravaging the Greek lands for their selfish motifs.

One of these usurpers was the Frankish Principality of Achaea, and by the middle of the 13th century, its ruler William II of Villehardouin had seized the last Byzantine stronghold on the Peloponnese, Monemvasia, thereby obtaining control over the entire peninsula.

In an effort to consolidate his recently forged realm, William travelled his lands in search of sites, he deemed worth fortifying. When he passed Sparta, his sight fell upon an imposing spur in the shadows of the Taygetos mountains. Impressed by the location, he ordered a mighty castle to be built on its summit.

This fortress became known as Mystras.

ramparts of a ruined castle overlooking a verdant plain covered in olive groves
partly overgrown ruins of a big castle complex, with the castle keep in the background

Peace was not to last, however, and soon William found himself in a new conflict with the expanding Nicaean Empire, another Byzantine successor state located in Anatolia, culminating in his capture in 1259 CE.

When the Byzantine Empire was restored by Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, William arranged his release. Freedom was granted in exchange for fealty and the surrender of several castles (including Mystras and Monemvasia), however, on his return to the Peloponnese the ambitious prince had already forgotten his oath.

War broke out once more and transformed Morea into a feast for the crows. Tired of the constant raids, the hardened people of Laconia (region around Sparta) abandoned their homes and resettled at the foothills of Taygetos, ultimately founding the castle town of Mystras.  

a palace and several other ruined buildings hug the forested slopes of a hill overlooking a fertile plain covered in olive groves
ruined buildings and an intact Byzantine monastery, boasting a rubicund tiled roof, surrounded by trees

“So Constantine sat in his ancestral palaces, surrounded by his generals and his advisors. And the city of Mystras was so embellished with palaces and towers and churches adorned with wall paintings illustrated by masters from Constantinople that it was called little Constantinople…”

Fotis Kontoglou, Ponemeni Romiosyni

bush with redish leaves in front of a small Byzantine church
reconstructed Byzantine palace behind a couple of crumbling ruins on the verdant slopes of a hill

Under the Palaiologoi, this infant of a city underwent an astonishing development.

In just a few decades, Mystras transformed from a provincial capital to one of the empire’s most revered towns (subsequently becoming the capital of the Despotate of Morea), and tales of her ravishing beauty spread throughout the realm. Byzantine merchantmen, trading in Laconia’s exquisite produce (olive oil, honey, citrus fruits, wheat, and above all silk), carried the fame beyond Morea’s sandy shores, thereby bestowing unprecedented wealth on Mystras and heralding the city’s golden age.

Where there is affluence, there is art, and before long Mystras not only established itself as a commercial hub, but one of Byzantium’s most prolific centres of culture and learning, only second to Constantinople in its splendour. Masterful artisans and architects alike descended upon the flourishing town and created one of the finest examples of Late Byzantine artistry and urban planning still visible today. None of her scholars was more renowned than Plethon, however, whose teachings massively influenced the Italian Renaissance.

After Constantinople fell to Ottoman troops in 1453, Mystras became the last capital of Byzantium, before its inevitable capture in 1460 and the ultimate disintegration of the empire.

Although, the town was still inhabited during the Turkish occupation, the population dwindled, and in 1953 the last residents left their crumbling homes, when the entire area was brought under state ownership in order to preserve the Byzantine gem.

Today, Mystras is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

window with a pointed arch made of sandstone embellished with a round arch on top
intricate decorated, arched window made of red bricks, behind some branches
stone bench next to a small arched portal, flanked by to arched windows, leading through a stone wall

GOVERNED BY THE GRACE OF GOD

In the Byzantine Empire, cities were not only administrative centres but played a critical role in the religious landscape of the Romanoi (Byzantine Greeks), as well. Although, the Patriarchate, the ecclesiastical authority within the Orthodox Church, was in Constantinople, many other towns were home to Metropolitan or Diocesan sees.

Moreover, it was common for wealthy benefactors to found or restore monasteries and to erect churches or private chapels as a sign of piety. While founders had certain rights regarding the running of these houses of worship, they also had to ensure the maintenance and overall appearance of the buildings and provide the general supplies.

Mystras was no exception and countless ecclesiastical complexes were constructed to grace the verdant slopes of Taygetos.

Byzantine monastery boasting a red tiled dome and roofs behind a collapsed wall surrounded by lush trees
big Byzantine monastery, boasting a red roof and surrounded by crumbling walls, overlooking a verdant plain

Today, an overwhelming majority of the well-preserved buildings in Mystras are houses of prayer. Besides the formidable citadel and the grand Despot’s Palace, no less than eight monasteries can be found within the confines of the walled city, forming the definitive highlight of the archaeological park.

Even though their outside appearance varies, they are all distinctively Byzantine in their architecture. Round arches, artistic elements incorporated into the brickwork, and red tiled domes dominate the exterior, while the monastery of Pantanassa (the only monastery in Mystras that is still inhabited) even boasts Gothic elements, borrowed from Western Europe.

However, the pinnacle of Byzantine ecclesiastical art is reserved for those who enter the church’s dim interior. Colourful scenes of holy saints, pious martyrs, and biblical figures decorate the walls and columns, arches and ceilings, and will even awe an infidel like myself. Although, the wall paintings are not as perfectly preserved as the ones in Ioannina, they are still an absolute treat for the eye.

colourful wall painting of an old, bearded man clothed in long, red robes, wearing a brown cloak and holding a scroll
damaged wall painting of a bearded man, wearing a blue and yellow patterned robe
a series of colourful and graphic wall paintings depicting the brutal torture of Christian martyrs

Prices | General admission: 12€; Reduced (students 26 and under): 6€

 

Opening Hours | 1 Nov – 31 Mar 8:30-15:30 | 1 Apr – 31 Aug 8:00-20:00 | 1 Sep – 15 Sep 8:00-19:30 | 16 Sep – 30 Sep 8:00-19:00 | 1 Oct – 15 Oct 8:00-18:30 | 16 Oct – 31 Oct 8:00-18:00

 

Closed | 1 Jan | 25 Mar | 1 May | Easter Sunday | 25 Dec | 26 Dec

 

Free Admission | 6 March | 18 April | 18 May | 28 October | last weekend of September | 1st Sunday of each month from 1 Nov-31 Mar

an arched arcade adorned by purple blossoms next to a church tower
two nuns in black clothes walk through the narrow courtyard of a monastery, surrounded by potted plants and three cats

WHERE TO STAY

Since there is not a lot to see in the city of Sparta itself, Mystras and the adjacent peaks of Taygetos will be the highlights of your trip to Laconia.

Therefore, I suggest you arrange your accommodation in the charming village of Mystras, rather than Sparta.   

I stayed in the beautifully arranged Mystras Castle Town guesthouse, run by a lovely Greek couple, providing me with a perfect base for exploring the magnificent man-made and natural wonders of the area. If you want a homely feeling (and free tea and fruits!) after a long day of exploring (or hiking!), I highly recommend this place!  

While accommodation in Mystras tends to be a tad bit more expensive than in downtown Sparta, not being dependant on public transport and having free reign over your available time definitely makes up for the extra investment.  

fresh raindrops on the leaves and fruits of a lemon tree

HOW TO GET THERE

| From Sparta

There are daily buses going directly from the city centre to the main entrance of the archaeological park and back. The bus leaves Sparta from the tourist information (kiosk) across the street of the Archaeological Museum and takes roughly 15-20 minutes.

Make sure to ask for the bus schedule (especially during off season) as intervals might be very infrequent. When I visited in October (2021) the last bus from Sparta to Mystras was at 2pm, while the site closes at 6pm, so be aware of that fact, should you plan on going there in the afternoon.

| From Mystras

Starting from the main square, it is an unspectacular 1,5 km walk/drive along the conifer-covered slopes of Taygetos to Mystras’ main gate.

Alternatively, there is another entrance located right below the Castle of Villehardouin, should you prefer to explore the sight from top to bottom.

bust of a young man with curly hair and bare torso
statue of a Byzantine king robed in a tunic and a scaled harnish, holding a dagger in one hand and resting the other on a satchel
Enjoyed it? Pin it for later!
Mystras pin

You may also like

Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More