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Mystras or “Morea” sits atop a hill overlooking the city of Sparta. In approximately 1248-1249, William II of Villehardouin, a prince of Achaea who had taken part in the Fourth Crusade, decided to build a stronghold there as a defence from the Byzantines.
Soon after the castle was completed, William was taken prisoner following his defeat at the hands of Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. From 1262, the citizens of Sparta used the castle at Mystras as a place of shelter, but soon settled there and began building a city around it.
In 1438, Mystras reached its peak, becoming the capital of the Byzantine province of the Despotate of the Morea, a position it held until 1460 when it was captured by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II. The Ottomans held on to Mystras for centuries, except for a couple of brief periods when it was captured by the Venetians.
Probably abandoned in 1832, Mystras is today an important archaeological site listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. During its time as an active city, many churches, palaces, houses and other structures, including its famous fortress were considered to be some of the best architectural gems of their times, known as the so-called “wonders of Morea’.
What remains at Mystras today is a series of Byzantine churches and a monastery as well as several ruins including the castle, some roads and the fortress walls, all set amidst an incredible landscape. The entrance to the site is particularly well preserved. There is a nearby Mystras Museum housing finds from the site. This site also features as one of our Top 10 tourist attractions to visit in Greece.
Surnames from the Mitroon Arrenon (Male Register) for Mystras, Laconia, and neighboring villages.
During my visit to the General State Archives office in Sparta in July 2014, I digitized several pages of the Mitroon Arrenon (Male Register) for Mystras, birthplace of my maternal grandmother (Aggeliki Eftaxias). The surnames below are extracted from the pages that I obtained, which is not the complete record. Villages included in these records are: Mystras, Vlachohori, Varsinikos, Pikoulianika, Parori, Katochora, Diaselos.
If your family name is listed below, please contact the GAK office in Sparta for assistance in obtaining copies of the records.
Mystras is very curious and often sneaks out to hear stories about the outside world. He wants to leave his conservative home nation and travel the world, something his father and the knights don't approve.
Mystras possessed a tantamount of bravery and conviction, he made great effort from his training to be stronger. He was willing to give up everything just to see the outside world and challenged fighting every knight up to high-ranking until to his father, the Knight King, even the consequence of death if he loses.
Mystras shares some similarities with Sinbad, both have fun-loving and childish personalities, both are brave and convicted with their goals, both have perverted side and are fond of women.
What You’ll See
Mystras is home to quite a few Medieval churches that are open to visitors. The oldest church in Mystras is the Church of Agia Theodoroi, a cemetery church. Next up is the 14th century Church of Agia Sofia, which served as the palace church. The most famous church is probably the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios. Built in 1292 CE, Agios Demetrios underwent a major expansion in the 1400s. Constantinos Paleologos (the last Byzantine Emperor) was crowned at the Cathedral in 1449 CE, putting Agios Demetrios on the map.
The first church to use the “Mystras-type” of architecture was the Church of Panagia Hodegetria, completed in 1322. Panagia Hodegetria is home to many frescos illustrating scenes from the Bible, including the healing of a blind man. Topped with a small dome, The Monastery of Panagia Perivleptos is decorated with frescos depicting the Virgin Mary.
Finally, head to the Pantanassa Monastery and speak with the nuns who live in Mystras! You can even make friends with the colony of cats that roam the mountainside. The Pantanassa Monastery’s decor includes beautifully preserved ornate paintings on nearly every wall.
There are two major attractions that aren’t churches. First up is the Palace of the Despots, a huge complex of buildings that would have housed the emperors’ second sons (the despots) and other nobles. The Palace of the Despots went through 4 different construction phases from the 1200s to 1400s CE. The Palace served as Mystras’ administration center and was a pretty significant part of daily life. The other major attraction is the Archaeology Museum of Mystras, found in the yard of the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios.
The medieval ghost town of Mystras
Mystras is an impressive fortified town in the southern Peloponnese abandoned for nearly two centuries, it immerses the visitor to a bygone era. Considered a site of "Outstanding Universal Value", it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1989.
History of the site
Often referred to as the "wonder of the Morea" (an older name for the Peloponnese), Mystras originated from a rock castle built by Frankish crusaders: by 1249, William II of Villehardouin had conquered the entire territory of the Peloponnese, and began the construction of a fortress on a peak, called Mystras (or Myzithras) by the locals, on the east side of the Taygetos Mountains, not far from the ancient city of Sparta.
About ten years later, Villehardouin was defeated and captured by the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos – the founder of the Palaiologan dynasty, who would then reconquer Constantinople from the Latin Empire in 1261. In order to be released, in 1962 Villehardouin ceded Mystras (along with two other important strongholds, Grand Magne and Monemvasia) to the newly restored Byzantine Empire.
Mystras became the seat of the governor of the Byzantine territories in the Morea. As William of Villehardouin renounced his oath and armed conflict continued between Fρanks and Byzantines, more and more people from the region of Laconia built their houses around the fortress for safety. The town gradually grew and was eventually fortified.
In 1348, the then-emperor John VI Kantakouzenos reorganised the territory as a the Despotate of Morea, with Mystras as its capital, to establish it as an appanage for his son Manuel Kantakouzenos, who became its first Despot following the latter’s death, the Morea was seized by the rival Palaiologos dynasty, and the Despotate came under the increasing influence of Constantinople. Its population increased due to a large number of Albanian settlers in the region. The Despotate became an important centre for the arts and letters, attracting eminent scholars and architects of the time it was also the hometown one of the greatest Byzantine philosophers, the Neoplatonist Gemistus Plethon.
Mystras was conquered by the Ottomans in 1460, following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and became the seat of an Ottoman sanjak. The Republic of Venice would occupy the Peloponnese, establishing the Kingdom of the Morea from 1688 to 1715, when the region came once more under Ottoman rule.
It was repeatedly raided by Albanians following the Orlov Revolt of 1770 it was one of the first places to be liberated in the Greek Revolution of 1821, but was heavily hit during the invasion of Ibrahim Pasha in 1825. In 1834, the newly-appointed King Otto of Greece issued a Royal Decree founding the modern city of Sparta the majority of Mystras’s population resettled there, while the rest set up their houses on the slopes of the hill, under the fortress, creating the modern village of Mystras, also known as Neos Mystras (New Mystras).
Churches and monasteries
The Metropolis (Metropolitan Cathedral) or church of St. Demetrios, was originally built as a three-nave basilica a little after 1264, and took its current form in the second half the 15th century. A marble floor tile with a double-headed eagle in relief marks the spot where Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor (and, until then, Despot at Mystras), was supposedly crowned. The church features impressive murals, and houses a small museum with sculptures, paintings and various relics.
The Peribleptos Monastery, is believed to have been established in the mid-14th century by the first Despot of the Morea, Manuel Kantakouzenos. It is built into the side of a cliff with a cave supporting the structure, in what came to be known as the "Mystras style", resembling a castle. Its extensive frescoes are attributed to artists of the Cretan and Macedonian art schools. These scenes depicted include the Ascension of Jesus, the Descent from the Cross, the Transfiguration and the Nativity.
The Pantanassa Monastery is the only monastery on the site still permanently inhabited. The nunnery’s name, Pantanassa, means "Queen of All", one of the traditional epithets of the Virgin Mary in Greek Orthodoxy. It was built around 1365 and consecrated in 1428. It features an ornate stone façade and sumptuous murals, including Assumption in the sanctuary and the Entry into Jerusalem in the central nave. It is the building with the most obvious Western influences in its architectural style.
The Brontochion Monastery was built in the 13th century and used to be one of the wealthiest, featuring a renowned library. Important figures, such as Plethon, would offer their teachings there. Its katholikon, dedicated to Panagia Hodegetria ("Our Lady of the Way"), is also called Afendiko. It is a basilica form with five domes and walls are covered with marble. Chapels were later added to the narthex.
The Church of Hagia Sophiaia was the katholikon of the Monastery of Christos Zoodotes ("Christ the Giver of Life") founded by Manuel Kantakouzenos around 1350. It is a cross-domed building with a two-storey porch.
Finally, the Church of the Hagioi Theodoroi is believed to be the oldest one in Mystras, built before 1296 in the octagonal style. Two chapels have been incorporated on its Western side, with one housing the tomb of Manuel Palaiologos.
Originally published on Griechenland Aktuel by A. Lambrou. Adapted into English by N. Mosaidi. (Intro photo: General view of the Palace of Mystras [by Aeleftherios via Wikimedia Commons])
Magnificent, but standstill in time, the silent city stretches on the slope of the strange hill with the imposing castle on top.
Mystras! The Byzantine castle-city! The last cradle of the Byzantine Empire!
A vast open-air museum in the heart of Laconia, at a short distance from the capital city of Sparta!
Time has stopped in this hill, but Mystras still lives in the historic memory with its palaces and churches, with its mansions and houses, with its gates and fortifications, with its streets and fountains.
The long restoration and preservation work keep over time this historic treasure, which is admirable in thousands of visitors and offers precious knowledge on the development, culture and art during the last two centuries of Byzantium. Mystras is on the UNESCO list of monuments of world cultural heritage.
Come, walk with us in this remarkable silent city and get to know its monuments and history.
Mystras is located just five km west of Sparta, capital of Laconia. The archaeological area stretches on the slopes of a hill with a height at 633 m, on the eastern foot of Mount Taygetos.
In front of Mystras is Neos (New) Mystras, a picturesque settlement with traditional colors and taverns.
Mystras is a popular destination for day excursions. Sparta is 225 km from Athens. We can come to Mystras from anywhere we are on holiday in Laconia. Gythio is 46 km from Sparta and Monemvasia 92 km.
In Sparta there are hotels so we can have plenty of time for our tour at the castle-city.
The history of Mystras began in the mid-13th century, a time when the Franks dominated in the Peloponnese. In 1249 the Prince of Achaia Guillaume Villardouine the 2nd built a strong castle on the hilltop with the name Mystras or Myzethras (which is the name of a Greek cheese in round form). Ten years later he was defeated and taken prisoner by the Emperor Michael Palaeologos and in return for his freedom ceded the castles of Mystras, Monemvasia and Maini.
In 1262 the castle of Mystras became the seat of a Byzantine general. Feeling safer, the residents of the neighboring Lakedaemonia, as Sparta was then called, began to build their homes on the slope near the castle. Thus, a settlement was created. It was named Chora and protected by a wall. Other houses were built on the outside and a new settlement was developed, also protected by a wall. It was named Kato (Lower) Chora, so the other was called Ano (Upper) Chora.
Since 1308 the Byzantine generals were permanent commanders. At the same time the seat of the Bishopric was transferred from Lakedaimonia in Mystras. In 1348 the Despotate of Moreas was founded and Mystras became the capital of the Peloponnese with permanent lord named Despot.
First despot was Manuel, second son of Emperor John Kantakouzenos second, Matthew in 1380. Then the turn of the family Palaeologos came. Theodore the 1st, the son of Emperor John Palaeologos, became despot. He was succeeded in 1407 by Theodore the 2nd and in 1443 by Konstantinos Palaeologos.
At the time of the Palaeologos dynasty, Mystras reached its peak. It experienced days of glory having under its authority throughout the Peloponnese and became the center of political and intellectual life of the empire. Culture and arts flourished. In 1410 the philosopher George Plethon Gemistos came as judge and adviser of despots and founded its famous philosophical school.
On January 6, 1449 at the church of Aghios Demetrius, Cathedral of Mystras, Konstantinos Palaeologos was crowned emperor of Byzantium and left for Constantinople for death and glory in the conquest of the city by the Turks in 1453.
Mystras was the last free area of the empire until 1468, when the despot Demetrius, Constantine's successor, handed without a fight the castle to Mohammed the 2nd. Mystras became the seat of the Turkish commander and remained thriving. It produced silk and had great commercial activity. In 1687 was conquered by the Venetians, but in 1715 the Turks returned.
At the time Mystras had 42,000 residents. After the Greek uprising in 1770, the time of the Russo-Turkish War (1768 – 1774), were only 8,000 residents. Mystras participated from the beginning in the Greek Revolution of 1821, but in 1825 the Egyptians of Ibrahim Pasha burned the Lower Chora and the residents began to leave. Others settled lower in the village of Neos Mystras and others returned to the banks of the river Eurotas to create the new Sparta, where after 1830 the authorities also were transferred. In the Byzantine city the abandonment gave way to the ravages of time.
Mystras is totally an outdoor museum, tangible evidence of a glorious era of power and culture, a source of knowledge about life and culture in the last period of the Byzantine Empire. The years that empire fell into decline, Mystras was its most flourishing center.
The tour in the silent state is a charming walk in the past and an acquaintance with the architecture and art of those years, especially painting, as expressed in the magnificent frescoes of churches that have been rescued, restored and preserved.
From Sparta we reach the village Neos Mystras. In the village square, as we stare on the hillside the first images of the castle-city, we stand in front of the statue of Constantine Palaeologos, despot of Mystras and last emperor of Byzantium.
The road ends near the gate of the outer wall, fortified with a tower. It is the entrance to the Byzantine city.
The outer wall was built last to protect Lower Chora. Higher is the inner wall, built to protect Upper Chora with the first inhabitants below the castle. Both fortifications have square towers.
Mystras had three entrances. The main entrance was the today entrance in the outer wall. High, at the northern part of the inner wall, was the Gate of Nafplion with an iron door that rose and fell and fortified with square and round towers. The third entrance was the Upper Gate or Gate of the Castle.
The Lower Chora and the Upper Chora communicated through the Gate of Monemvasia or Sideroporta (Iron Gate) in the inner wall.
Going up the winding streets of Mystras with the ruins of the mansions and homes you think that a world that's gone is waiting behind every corner of the silent city.
In the inner wall the Gate of Monemvasia leads to the Upper Chora. A square stretches in front of a complex of buildings. The Palaces of the despots of Moreas! The Square of Upper Chora was the place of official events at the time of glory, and the bazaar during the Ottoman years, a time of flourishing commercial life of Mystras.
The Palaces, built on a rocky base, form an impressive complex of buildings, which dominates over Mystras. Were built at different times and have been restored.
The first building is the palace of Kantakouzenos, the first dynasty that ruled Mystras. Perhaps was a Frankish construction. In the same period belongs the second building.
The third four storey building was built in 1350 to 1400. At the same time built the fourth two-storey building where the despot lived.
The fifth building, built after 1400, is the Palace of Palaeologos, the second dynasty of Mystras. It has a length of 38 m and a width of 12 m. The first floor was for the services of the Despotate. The second was the throne room.
High at the top of the rock is the Castle, built by the Franks in 1249. In the following years many repairs and additions were made.
It has two enclosures with one gate each. In the outer enclosure are distinguished a powerful round tower, a cistern and remains of Ottoman constructions. In the inner enclosure are the deserted house of the governor, a cistern, a round tower and a chapel perhaps the oldest building of Mystras.
The history as well as the daily life of Mystras over the centuries also emerges from the mansions and homes. Older and newer, the most have retained their original form constituting a source of knowledge about the architecture and the way of construction, but also the habits of life.
Most important, preserved in better condition, are the mansion of Lascaris near the gate Marmara and the mansion of Frangopoulos between the churches Perivleptos and Pantanassa also the Palataki (Little Palace), as is called the mansion near the church of Aghios Nickolaos in the Upper Chora the various phases of its construction date from the 13th to early 15th century.
Aghios Dimitrios and Evangelistria
More than twenty-five are the churches which add their architectural and historical significance to the particular character of Mystras. Others with more and others with less marks as time passed. Some are known only by their position.
Seven churches stand out. They are greater and better preserved, with distinctive architecture and beautiful frescoes.
Agios Dimitrios (St. Demetrius) is located in the north side, near the fortified gate-entry into the castle-city. Is the Metropolis (Cathedral) of Mystras. It was founded shortly after the concession of the castle by the Franks to the Byzantines. In the 15th century, significant changes were made. The result is a synthesis of a three aisled basilica on the underside and a cruciform church with five domes on top.
The cleaning and maintenance revealed frescoes showing the artistic blossoming in Mystras until early 14th century, with the exception of the dome, which probably belongs to the first half of the 15th century. It is estimated that ten artists worked on the decoration.
A marble plaque with the coat of arms of the Palaeologos family, the double-headed eagle, reminds the coronation of the last emperor of Byzantium held here in 1449.
Agios Dimitrios houses the Byzantine Museum of Mystras. Among the exhibits are paintings, icons, sculptures and inscriptions from the site of the city.
Near the Cathedral, on the north side, in the cemetery area, is Evangelistria (Annunciation), a small church with very interesting architecture and important sculpture decoration. Probably was built in the late 14th century.
Pantanassa and Aghia Sophia
The church of Pantanassa is located on the eastern side of the hill, in the inner wall near the Gate of Monemvasia. It is the newest church of Mystras and has the most complex form. It was built in 1428 and in architecture and decoration, except the elements of Mystras and Constantinople, are distinguished influences from Western art.
It has five domes and the ground floor of the four-storey bell tower is a chapel. The northern of its galleries has a dome. It is the only preserved intact in Mystras.
Inside, the painted decoration on the lower surfaces belongs to the late 17th and early 18th century. The original frescoes are preserved on the upper surfaces and are considered as the last representative work of Byzantine art.
Aghia Sophia is located near the Palaces of Despots. It was the church of the monastery of Zoodotou and built in 1350 by the first despot of Mystras Manuel Kantakouzenos. It is two-columned cruciform with a dome. It has narthex, gallery, chapels and three-storey belfry. With the restoration work largely regained its original form. The paintings belong to the second period of Mystras art after 1350.
The richest monastery of Mystras, with many privileges, was the Monastery of Vrontochiou on the northern side of the outer fortification. It had its own wall and was the center of spiritual life with a large library. Here despots were buried. There are two churches, Aghii Theodori (Saints Theodore) and Panagia (Virgin) Odigitria.
The church of St. Theodore was built in 1290 – 1296 and is octagonal as Daphni and Hossios Loukas, which are monuments of cultural heritage of UNESCO. It is one of the most beautiful churches. It has different levels on the roof and the wall paintings are characteristic of the first period of Mystras art. In the four corners are chapels, where probably were tombs of senior officials or members of the aristocracy.
The church of Panagia Odigitria reminds the architecture of Constantinople. It is also called Boss or because the monastery was administratively independent and reported directly to the Patriarch or because the despot Theodore the 2nd of Palaeologos was buried here (despot > afendis (effendi) > master>boss).
The church was founded in 1310 and is the first of complex form in Mystras, a three aisled basilica on the underside and four-columned cruciform with five domes on top. It was restored from 1934 onwards. Very important is the painting decoration revealed by maintenance work. It seems that three or four painters from Constantinople worked together creating beautiful murals like mosaics.
Particular significance for the art of painting of Mystras, have the murals in the four chapels surrounding with arcades the church. In the northwestern chapel, with magnificent frescoes, are the tombs of Theodore the 1st of Palaeologos and Archimandrite Pachomius, founder of the church and great ecclesiastical personality. In the southern chapel are the tombs of the nobles. And in the southwestern chapel are inscribed on the walls the imperial chryssovoula (golden bulls) with the privileges of the monastery the oldest edict is of 1312 and the newest of 1322.
On the opposite side of the monastery of Vrontochiou, in the southeastern corner of the outer wall, is Perivleptos (meaning “seen from all around”). Small monastery built in the mid-14th century at the base of a cliff.
The church of Panagia of Perivleptou took its name from the famous church of Constantinople. It is two-columned cruciform with a dome, much like the churches of Evangelistria and Aghia Sophia. There are also three chapels Aghios Pandeleimon and Aghia Paraskevi on the east side and Aghia Aekaterini (Catherine) on the west side in the rock.
Particularly important are the frescoes from the second artistic period of Mystras. The dome is actually the only one in Mystras in which the painting is kept intact. Of its exquisite frescoes the Heavenly or Angelic Liturgy is considered as one of the masterpieces of religious art.
Of the other churches of special interest are Aghios Christophoros near Marmara, St. George near Perivleptos, Aghii Taxiarches (the Holy Archangels) and Aghia Anna towards Pantanassa, and Agia Paraskevi in Upper Chora interesting are also the post-Byzantine Aghios Nickolaos (St. Nicholas), and Aghios Ioannis (St. John) outside the walls.
In 1204 the Western participants of the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, and founded the Latin Empire of Romania.
The most important state founded by the Franks was the Principality of Morea. In 1248 William II de Villehardouin, with the capture of the Fortress of Monemvasia, conquered Laconia. In 1249 he built a castle on the summit of Myzethra hill, a very steep foothill situated on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos.
In the Chronicle of the Morea, the following passage is found: ” After searching through these parts, He found a strange hill, as though cut off from the mountain, about 5 km. away, above Lacedaemonia (Sparta).
Wishing to fortify this hill, he ordered a castle built on its summit. and he named it Myzethra”. The name Mystra is thought to be derived from Myzethra, a popular Greek cheese.
Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1259, at the battle of Palegonia, captured William II de Villehardouin and held him prisoner for three years. Meanwhile, the Byzantines had recaptured Constantinople from the Franks. At this time the Byzantine Emperor asked Paleologus for ransom for his freedom.
In 1262 Paleologus purchased the freedom of his Barons and his own with the cession of the castles that the Byzantine Emperor wanted. From the Chronicles of Morea: To give to the Emperor in exchange for their liberty, the castles of Monembassia and le Grand-Maigne. And last of all, the most beautiful, that of Myzethra”.
The historical sites found in Corinth will leave you breathless. From Ancient Corinth to the Acrocorinth, the Archeological Site and Museum, as well Isthmus and Diakos, there so much to take in.
The historical sites of Ancient Corinth are a must see, as are the canal bridge views. The Monastery Saint Patapios is a must visit religious site and Beach Park Loutraki is wonderful place to take.
What to see in Mystras Archaeological Site
It would have been mind boggling and tricky deciding from where to start and how to go about touring the various sites of Mystras had it not been for the map they handed to us along with the tickets at the entrance. The map to a great extent helps to decide what to see in Mystras archaeological site.
The worn out paths were clear indications of the route to be taken. And we went from one point of interest to another, 17 of them! If you are curious and adventurous enough you will find couple of other unmentioned places too.
A minimum of 4 hours here can do some bit of justice to this archaeological treasure. You can leisurely walk through history here if you can afford to spare more time for breathtaking ruins of Mystras.
However if you are really short of time choose the highlights in the map and plan your route to explore the ruins and what to see in Mystras Archaeological Site. I have stressed on the must see sites of Mystras below.
Lakonia » Mystras, the Byzantine city-state
Magnificent, spectacular a glorious place, Mystras (5 Km north-west of Sparti) is one of the most exciting cities in Peloponnese. Standing still in time, the dead city lies on the slope of the sheer, strange hill with the fortress at its top.
The whole of Mystras is an open-air museum. A reminder of glorious era of power and culture.
Its fortifications and churches, its palaces and mansions, its roads and fountains, charm thousands of visitors daily and offers them valuable insights in the evolution and culture of the Byzantines.
For two centuries Mistras was at the forefront of developments and had a brilliant history full of glory, splendour and political, social and cultural contributions. Its story begins in the mid-13th century when the Franks were dominant in the Peloponnese. In 1249 Villehardouin II built an impregnable fortress at the top of a hill called Mistras or Mizithras. Ten years later Villehardouin found himself a prisoner of the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus and bought his freedom by handing over the fortresses of Mistras, Monemvasia and Mani. Mistras offered security, so that the inhabitants of neighbouring Lacedaemonia, as Sparti was then called, made their homes on the slopes surrounding the fortress.
The settlement and the Hora (town) were protected by a wall, but the new houses were built outside the enclosure. Another wall protected the new settlement, Kato Hora. The strategoi (generals) governed the town, and as of 1308, when the seat of the Diocese had been moved to Lacedaemonia.
Mistras became in the mid-14th century the capital of the Peloponnese and the seat of the Seignioly (Despotate) of the Moreas, with a ruler or despot who enjoyed a tenure for life.
The palaces of the despots of Morea dominate Mistras from their rocky foundations in the centre of Ano Hora where the Monemvasia gate leads from Kato Hora. It is a spectacular complex, comprised of buildings built at different times. The first, the "mansion of the Cantakuzenoi", was constructed in the first years, perhaps by the Franks. The second edifice dates from the same period (1250-1350). The third, a four-storey building, was erected between 1350 and 1400, as was the fourth, a two-storey mansion which was the residence of the despot. The fifth building (1400-1450) was the palace of the Paleologoi. Its length is 38 m. and its width 12 m. The first storey was intended for the departments of the Seigniory. The second was the throne hall. The abandoned palaces constitute an important attraction for the modern visitor. After their restoration, they are a vivid reminder of an era that has left an indelible mark on history. As is the grand square before them, the site of official displays during the days of Mistras' glory and a market in later years, when the town was a busy commercial centre.
At the top of the hill, at an altitude of 620 m., the fortress was built in 1249 by Villehardouin II. In later years many improvements and additions were made. It has two yards, with a gate for each. In the outer yard is a sturdy circular tower, a cistern and the ruins of buildings dating from the years of Turkish occupation. In the inner yard is the abandoned residence of the governor, a cistern, a circular tower and a small church, perhaps the oldest edifice in Mistras.
There are two lines of fortification in Mistras. The inner wall, which was constructed to protect the first inhabitants, encloses the Palaces of the Despots. The outer wall was constructed later, to protect the inhabitants of Kato Hora. The fortifications are complemented by square-shaped towers.
Mistras had three gates: the fortified Gate in the outer wall -today the main entrance for visitors, at the point where the road ends- the Upper Gate (Fortress Gate) and the Gate of Nafplion, high up on the northern side of the inner wall, fortified with square and circular towers and with an iron portal that could be lowered and lifted. Internal communication between Kato and Ano Hora was through the Gate of Monemvasia, also known as Sideroporta ("Iron Gate").
The Mansions and Houses
History and daily life in Mistras emerge from the centuries-old winding alleys and its mansions and houses. Old or more recent, most have retained their initial form and constitute a valuable source of information regarding architecture, the manner of construction and daily life in the 13th century and later. The most significant -because better preserved- are the Laskaris mansion near Marmara, the Frangopoulos mansion between the Perivleptos and the Pantanassa, and the Palataki near Agios Nikolaos in Pano Hora the various stages of its construction place it between the second half of the 13th and the first years of the 15th century.
More than 25 churches contribute with their architecture and history to the special character Mystras. Agios Dimitrios, Evangelistria, Agioi Theodoroi, Panagia Odigitra, The Perivlepos, Pantanassa, Agia Sofia.
The Byzantine Museum
The museum of Mystras is housed in the two-storeyed building at the west wing of the north courtyard of the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios. It was founded in 1951 and since then its collections have been considerably enriched.
It contains collections of Byzantine sculpture, jewellery, pottery, coins, fragments of wall paintings, portable post-Byzantine icons, and pieces of fabric.
Tel: +30 27310 83377
Mystras is sited on a steep hill on the north slopes of Mount Taygetos, 6km from Sparta. This remarkably intact Byzantine town is one of the most exciting historic sites in the Peloponnese which once had a population of about 20,000.
Mystras, the best preserved example of a medieval walled town in the Greek region, is today a standing ghost city that fascinates the modern traveler with its castle, churches and the palatial complex of the ruling Byzantine dynasty, bearing witness to its bygone greatness.
Private houses and mansions still standing today provide a rare source of information for the domestic architecture and urban planning of the late Medieval period.
Mystras became in the mid-14th century the capital of the Peloponnese and the seat of the Despotate of the Moreas, with a ruler or despot who enjoyed a tenure for life.
The castle was built in 1249 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, fourth Frankish prince of the Moreas, one of three fortresses (the others at Monemvasia and the Mani) designed to garrison his kingdom. It has two yards, with a gate for each.
In the outer yard is a sturdy circular tower, a cistern and the ruins of buildings dating from the years of Turkish occupation. In the inner yard is the abandoned residence of the governor, a cistern, a circular tower and a small church, perhaps the oldest edifice in Mystras.
In 1262 the Franks were driven out of Mystras by the Byzantines and by the mid-fourteenth century became the Despotate of Mystra. This was the last province of the Greek Byzantine empire and became its virtual capital.
In 1448 the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, was crowned at Mystras. In 1460 the hill was captured by the Turks and in 1464 Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini managed to capture the city but not the castle.
For a short time Mystras was under the control of the Venetians (1687-1715) but was again taken over by the Turks until it was one of the first castles of Greece to be liberated in 1821.
The founding of modern Sparta by King Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town's life. The site was evacuated after fires in 1770 and 1825.
Mystras had three gates: the fortified Gate in the outer wall, now the main entrance for visitors at the point where the road ends is the Upper Gate, called the Fortress Gate and the Gate of Nafplio, high up on the northern side of the inner wall, fortified with square and circular towers and with an iron portal that could be lowered and lifted.
Internal communication between Kato and Ano Hora was through the Gate of Monemvasia, also known as Sideroporta, the Iron Gate.
Restoration work started at the beginning of the 20th century was disrupted by civil war.
The Castle reached by a long climb direct from the upper gate, keeps the Frankish design of its original 13th century build. There is a walkway around most of the keep and with 360 panorama view from the very top it is worth the climb.
The castle itself was the court of Guillaume II de Villehardouin but in later years it was used mainly as a citadel.
The two strongly fortified circuit walls were strengthened by tall, rectangular towers, dated to the Late Byzantine period.
The Church of Agia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) is a domed, cross-in-square, two-column church, built in 1350. It has side chapels and a bell-tower. The floor is made from polychrome marble. Remarkable wall paintings are preserved in the sanctuary and the chapels.
This church is located in the Despot's palace and the square in the Upper city and it is presumed to have been the catholicon of the patriarchal monastery of Zoodotis Christos (Christ). It was built by the first Despot of the Morea, Manuel Kantakouzenos, circa 14th century.
The Church of Agios Theodore was built between 1290 and 1295 by the monks Daniel and Pachomios. It is in the shape of an octagon with lateral chapels and wall paintings from the end of the 13th century. It is the largest church in Mystras and houses the tomb of Despot of Peloponnese Theodore I.
The Church of the Hodegetria or Aphentiko, which are part of the Brontochion Monastery, was founded by the monk and megas protosynkellos Pachomios before 1309, and was completed before 1322. A new architectural type, the so-called Mystras type, was created for the first time in this church.
Specifically, its ground floor takes the form of a three-aisle basilica, while at the gallery level it has features of the more complex cross-in-square, five dome church.
Evangelistria, an inscribed-domed church, is located in the Middle city. Its frescoes are not in good condition, even though their quality in art is exquisite.
The Church of the Evangelistria is a two-column, cross-in-square domed church. Built at the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century, it most likely functioned as a funerary church. The contemporary sculptural decoration is likely the work of a local workshop.
The Brontochion Monastery was built in 1296 by Pachomius, a powerful abbot with strong connections to the Constantinople, thus ensuring him many grants and of course the support of the Patriarch. The chryssovoula (official documents bearing a gold seal) adorning the church of Aphentikon are proofs of this fact.
One of the churches that charm every visitor at first sight for its idyllic location and its unique architecture is the Monastery of Panagia Perivleptos. Literally hanging from the rocks amidst the lush trees, the 14th-century monastery hosts some imposing paintings and it is mentioned in many Byzantine sources.
The katholikon of the Peribleptos Monastery was founded by the first despot of Mistra, Manuel Kantakouzenos and his wife Isabelle de Lusignan. At the southeastern edge of the city, it was constructed as a two-column cross-in-square church between the years 1365 and 1374.
The frescos decorating the church are the work of four different artists. The wonderful paintings in the monastery are a reference to the exquisite frescoes of the churches in Constantinople. They are of Macedonian art and in pristine condition.
In 1834, the new Greek King Otto founded the new city of Sparta and the population moved gradually there. The place was abandoned. In 1921, Mystras was oficially declared an outstanding Byzantine monument. The last inhabitants were forced to leave in 1953.
When excavations were resumed in 1952, the last thirty or so families who still lived in the lower town were moved out to New Mystras. Only the nuns of the Pandanassa (Queen of the World) convent have remained they have a reception room where they sell their own handicrafts.
The convent's church, built in 1428, is perhaps the finest surviving in Mystra, perfectly proportioned in its blend of Byzantine and Gothic. The frescoes date from various centuries, with some superb fifteenth-century work. Other frescoes were painted between 1687 and 1715, when Mystra was held by the Venetians.
The main church belongs to a mixed architectural type and has exterior porticoes and a bell tower. Fine wall paintings dated to around 1430 are preserved on the upper floor and in the sanctuary, while the wall paintings on the ground floor date from the 18th century.
Along the path leading from Perivleptos to the lower gate are two small renovated churches, and, just above them, the Laskaris House, a mansion thought to have belonged to relatives of the emperors. Like the House of Frangopoulos, it is balconied its ground floor was probably stables.
The Metropolis (Cathedral) is the oldest church in Mystras dedicated to Agios Dimitrios. It was the cathedral of the fortified town and the See of Lakonia till the first years after its liberation from the Turks. Built around 1270, the church was restored a few years later to acquire its final form in the beginning of the 15th century.
It belongs to the Mystra type, because it combines the style of a three-aisled basilica on the ground floor with the cross-inscribed five-domed style in the gallery. The iconostasis and its carved ornament are exquisite, as is the flagstone underneath the dome depicting the double headed eagle.
The metropolitan was erected by the metropolitan Eugenios (1262-72), who is depicted in the diakonikon, where his tomb was also discovered. To his successor Theodosios are due a large portion of the wall paintings decorating the church.
The frescoes, dating from the 13th and the 15th centuries, are Macedonian art. Intense colours, movement, perspective, many expressive faces, garments with multiple draperies, etc.
The emperor of the Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was crowned king in the Metropolis in 1449. Next to the cathedral there are many edifices and a court encircled with columns in classical style. On the right there is a stone fountain with the double headed eagle.
Near the entrance of the wall surrounding the compound the Metropolitan bishop Ananias was murdered by the Turks in 1760, while he was trying to save the believers and the church.
The vast, multistoreyed, L shaped complex of the Despots' Palace built between 1249 and 1400 has undergone extensive rebuilding and restoration.
This photograph was taken in 1987 courtesy of Fotospoor on Flickr
The palaces of the despots of Morea are the most extensive ruins of Byzantine civic architecture in Europe. The complex is laid out around a vast square, the only one in town. In Byzantine times, the square was the place of all public ceremonies, whereas during Ottoman rule it was used as a market
Most prominent among its numerous rooms is a great vaulted audience hall, built at right angles to the line of the building its highly decorated windows dominate the skyline It was once heated by eight great fireplaces.
The palace was not open to the public the last time I visited Mystras as extensive restorations were still ongoing, however, I shall be returning in the near future and hope to take some photographs of the interior then.
The fortress, monasteries, churches, and palace of Mystras were in 1989 named a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The museum of Mystras is sited in the two-storey building at the west wing of the north courtyard of the Cathedral of Agios Demetrios. It was founded in 1951 and since then its collections have grown considerably. It is well worth a visit.
It contains collections of Byzantine sculpture, jewellery, pottery, coins, fragments of wall paintings, portable post-Byzantine icons, and pieces of fabric.
History and daily life in Mystras comes to life in the old alleyways and its mansions and houses. Old or more recent, most have retained their initial form and constitute a valuable source of information regarding architecture, the manner of construction and daily life in the 13th century and later.
When visiting Mystras you need at least 4+ hours. It is best to drive up to the top gate (the Fortress Gate) and start from there. If you visit in the summer months it is better to be there in the early morning, with good walking shoes, a hat and water are essential.. I have visited in August and November and the later visit was much better.
From the top entrance the climb to the castle is quite strenuous but the ruins and the views from the top are well worth the effort. From the top gradually work your way down through the town. About half-way down one or our party went back up to the top and took the car down to the lower gate and then met us as we walked down. The walking over stone is quite difficult at times and you seem to be looking at your feet a lot of the time.
Mystras is a wonderful place to visit, the ruins and the churches bring to life the town as it was in the past.
Tickets Full: &euro12, Reduced: &euro6 Opening hours: 01Apr to 31Oct Mon-Sun, 0800-2000. 01Nov to 31Mar Mon-Sun, 0800-1500