Photograph taken looking up to the Castle
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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.