Today we’re going to explore yet another Byzantine castle town of the Peloponnese: Mystras, which played an important role in the Byzantine Empire during its final centuries, until it fell to the Ottomans in 1460. Mystras location and view are breathtaking as you get to see the plains of Sparta (the hometown of King Leonidas and the 300 warriors who fought at Thermopylae)! Mystras is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mystras was founded in 1249 by the ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea William II of Villehardouin, who built a strong fortress atop the naturally fortified hill of Myzithra in Sparta. Byzantines reclaimed the Peloponnese (and Mystras) in 1262 and became the rulers of the fortress. From then onward a brilliant period started for this medieval fortress state: the hill filled with houses, mansions and palaces, churches and monasteries and the densely populated city was enclosed by two walls.
After the mid-14th century, when members of the imperial family of Constantinopole assumed rule over Mystras – the Kantakouzenoi (1348-1383) and the Palaiologoi (1383-1460) – the Despotate (as it was called) flourished and developed into an important cultural center closely connected with Constantinopole.
Mystras’ decline started after 1460 when the Ottomans took over the Byzantine empire. 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 1834.
Unlike Monemvasia, Mystras was attacked and destructed many times and with the creation of Sparta the historical town was abandoned. Today the visitor gets to wander (and literally hike) among the ruins and visit the churches that are preserved and marvel the Byzantine frescoes. The Pantanassa monastery (prominent in the post’s first photo) in the middle of the “town” provides the visitor with amazing views over Sparta’s plain.
The archaeological site has 2 entrances: one for the lower part of the city and one for the upper part of the city the fortress (because hiking can take a really long time). The latter entrance provides access to Hagia Sofia church and the ruins of the church mint. In this upper part of the city one can also see the Palace where the lords of Mystras resided, but unfortunately entrance is prohibited due to ongoing restoration.
Mystras is a 2,5 hour drive from Athens and just a 10 minute drive from Sparta. It’s beautiful during spring time, but I found it equally imposing in late summer/early autumn. Practical information about the archaeological site can be found in the Ministry of Culture’s website.
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