Mystras. Along the foothill of Mount Taigetos...
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Mystras

Along the foothill of Mount Taigetos, known as Mizithra, just a few kilometres NW of Sparta, the ruins of a dead Byzantine city are spread. Its fortress, palaces, mansions and dwellings of the poor, its monasteries and churches are easily seen.

The castle - the last bulwark of Hellenism before the Ottoman conquest - dominates the surroundings from the summit, an excellent vantage point and an impregnable fortification, built in 1249 A.D. by William de Villehardouin, a regional leader of the crusaders, who, with the capture of the Fortress of Monembasia and the help of the Venetians, conquered Laconia having understood the advantages of this site's strategic importance in the area.

Ten years later, it passed into the hands of the Byzantines; the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1259, at the battle of Pelagonia, captured William II de Villehardouin and held him prisoner for three years. He made him give to the Emperor the castle of Monembassia, the castle of Grand-Maigne and finally, according to the Chronicles of Morea, "the most glorious and beautiful castle, that of Myzethra". Since then, Mystras is considered as a byzantine base and the seat of the governor of Peloponnese.


Μυστράς , Μοριάς

So Mystras, a Frankish castle, once again became the seat of the Byzantine commander of the Peloponnese. The inhabitants of Sparta, who felt insecure at that difficult time in the undefended plain, moved to this spot which consequently started coming to life and developed into a city. Houses were built, a Cathedral, monasteries, palaces and ramparts. Since 1308, the role of Mystras began to be more important when the emperor assigns permanent governors, coming from the emperor's family. At that time, Mystras is the seat of the Despotate of Moreas and the base of operations in order to recapture Peloponnese from the Franks. 

For the next 150 years, Mystras will be the pearl of the spiritual life in an empire that was crumbling. Later, in 1384, the Palaiologoi came and succeeded in the expansion of the Despotate virtually throughout the Peloponnese. During these years Mystras experienced its greatest fluorite. An intellectual centre developed were personalities in the arts and letters brought from the capital of the Empire. Mystras will reach at the peak of its glow in 1449, when Constantine XI Paleologus, the last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, was crowned at Mystras, inside the Cathedral of Mystras. Then, he went to Constantinople where he sealed the end of the thousand-year-old Byzantine Empire with his own life.


Μυστράς, Σπάρτη

A few years later, his brother, Demetrius, the last despot of Moreas, surrendered the city to the Turks.

Mystras will prosper during the Turkish domination as well; a commercial centre was created there and the people lived a life of comparative economic affluence based on the rich production of silk but Mystras was again taken over by the Turks. In 1687, Morosini and the Venetians will subjugate and plunder the area. In 1770, when Orloff's fleet anchored in the Mane, the Greeks were aroused and attacked the Turks of Mystras alongside the Russians.

They breathed the air of freedom for only a few months and then the wrath of the Albanians burst upon them. For ten years they butchered, broke down and burnt everything. It was liberated once again during the 1821 Revolution but in 1825 Ibrahem set fire to this much-tortured place for the last time.

By the time Othon came and built new Sparta, Mystras was already dead. The foundation of modern Sparta by king Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town's life. The people leave Mystras in order to settle in the new town.


Μυστράς 

The inhabited side of the hill of Mystras was divided into three zones that prove the gradual growth of the fortress-town during the times of its prosperity. The Castle was on the hill's top; in the middle of the hill is the Upper City (the Highlands), which contains homes and narrow roads surrounding the Bishop's Palace that was surrounded by bastions and then it was the Lower City or Midlands, which contains homes, monasteries and the Cathedral.

Each zone was safely protected behind the fortification walls that were strengthened by tall, rectangular towers and keeps. Then, outside the last walls there was the last quarter of the town. The entrance to the Lower City is made through the gate that is above the spring of Marmara or through the gate that is below the Cathedral.

The visitor is quite impressed by the number of churches in such a small quarter. We must not forget that, at that time, the churches were not only a symbol of piety but also a symbol of the powerful despots and leaders' flaunting and a propaganda means.


Παναγία Παντάνασσα

The Cathedral, which also constitutes the oldest church of Mystras, is dedicated in honor of St. Demetrios and is located at the gate near the Lower City. It is a three-aisled basilica on the ground floor with a narthex and a bell tower (dated to the second half of the 13th century), and a cross-in-square church on the upper floor (added in the first half of the 15th century). The Cathedral consists of a cluster of buildings, which are not dated from the same period. An inscription inside the Cathedral informs us that it was built in 1292 A.D. by the President of Crete, the metropolitan bishop Nikiforos. The interior is decorated with wall paintings representing many different styles, dated to the period between 1270/80 and the first quarter of the 14th century. The wall paintings of the dome date to the 15th century. There is also an engraved throne with Baroque carvings that must have been constructed under Venetian Rule. The floor of the middle aisle contains a sculpted slab that depicts a two-headed eagle. It is said that, according to the tradition, Constantinos Paleologos, the last emperor of Byzantium, stepped on this eagle when he was crowned "loyal king and Emperor of the Romans" here, in 1449.

The Archaeological Museum of Mystras is housed in the two-storeyed building at the west wing of the north courtyard of the Cathedral of St. Demetrios. It contains collections of Byzantine sculpture, jewellery, pottery, coins, fragments of wall paintings, portable post-Byzantine icons, and pieces of fabric, but mostly items of the religious art.


Μοριάς

Not far away from the Cathedral, it's the small Church of Our Lady Evangelistria, decorated with wall paintings of the end of the 14th century. The graves around the church prove that it was the church of the cemetary.

At the west of the small Church of Our Lady Evangelistria, it's the Monastery of Vrondohi, where the Archimandrite Pachomios,  Father Superior and Grand Senior Archimandrite founded the two churches of the monastery: the Church of Saints Theodore and the Church of Our Lady Hodegetria (the Leader of the Way).


Παναγία Παντάνασσα

The church of Saints Theodore was built in 1295. It is of the octagonal type, with lateral chapels. Its dome is based on eight props. The terraced roofs and the decoration of the east side, with the brickwork, the fascia and the inlaid plaques impress the visitor.

An inscription informs the visitor that the grave of Emmanuel Paleologus is found at the northeast chapel.  The church of Our Lady Hodegetria (the Leader of the Way) was built in 1310. It belongs to the mixed architectural type with a narthex and lateral chapels and is decorated with excellent wall paintingssuch as the healing of the blind man, Kana wedding, the prelates and the dance of the martyrs. It had the sumptuousness of an imperial monument and it is said that the master builders who built this church came from Constantinople. The dear departed professor Orlandos restores the dome.


Μυστράς

Walking in the stone-paved, arched streets, the visitor can go to the Upper Hora passing through the "Gate of Monemvassia" that had this naming because it was the gate that those coming from the sea had to pass in order to enter the city as opposed to the "Gate of Naflio" for those coming from the land.

The visitor could visit important churches such as the Church of Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It's a domed, cross-in-square, two-column church, built in the middle of the 14th century by the first Despot of Mystras, Emmanuel Kantakouzinos. It has side chapels and a bell-tower. Remarkable wall paintings are preserved in the sanctuary and the chapels.

Then, it's the Monastery of Our Lady Peribleptos; the catholicon (main church) is a domed, two-column, cross-in-square church with chapels. Beside it stands the Tower-Refectory. The church is decorated with wall paintings of exceptional artistic quality, made by various artists of the third quarter of the 14th century.

Finally, it's the Monastery of Our Lady Pantanassa (the Queen of all).
The catholicon belongs to the mixed architectural type and has exterior porticoes, many domes and a four-storeyed bell-tower. It's the last costly church built in Mystras in 1428.


Μυστράς

In the Upper Hora, the visitor can see the famous palaces - the houses of the aristocrats (Franks or Byzantine ones) of Mystras. One could see the houses of the families of Kantakouzenoi and Paleologoi, who ruled the fortress-town and the entire Peloponnese. Going uphill, the visitor arrives at the Castle of Villehardouin, the form of which has changed due to the continuous alterations. These days, the traveller could visit the ruins of the commander's house and the ruins of a chapel.  There is also a big water-tank that was used for the needs of the people in times of a siege. On the Castle, the visitor could have a full view of the fortress-town and a view of the valley of Sparta spreading on the distant horizon.


Μυστράς

The gloomy world of the ruins remained as a testimony of a state which in its day constituted the unique hope of the revival of an empire which was slowly dying and which is today the sole example of a medieval settlement with its castle, the fortification walls encircling it, its palaces, churches and mansions.



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