This week, I would like to take the opportunity to write about some of the spectacular sites of mediaeval Greece, as preparation for an article on the same topic for a students’ history journal. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!
Today’s site is Monemvasia, a bare, imposing island off the Aegean coast of Greece whose history is almost as complicated as that of the region itself. The island itself only separated from the nearby mainland in historical times, after an earthquake in 375 CE, and was thereafter accessible by a singe narrow causeway built in the 6th century.
Because of its natural defenses and its proximity to the sea, Monemvasia has charted its own unique course through history, often acting independently despite falling under the control of diverse regional powers.
Settlement on the island traditionally split between a lower town, spread around the skirt of the outcrop, and the upper, fortified town perched on the island’s peak.
This was first fortified in the 6th century to defend against the Avars, and allowed the town’s inhabitants to find refuge against a host of enemies. In the 12th century, for example, Normans based on the island of Sicily raided Monemvasia, already a prosperous exporter of Malmsey wine.
Ruins of the island’s defenses visible today date back to the 13th century, a time of Frankish occupation of the Peloponnese. One family in particular, the Villehardouns, dominated the region from their base at Mystras. Although they had designs on Monemvasia, the island only surrendered to William Villehardoun in 1248/1249 after three years of siege.
For the next 250 years, the city switched hands between the various factions trying for dominance in the Peloponnese, then known as the Despotate of the Morea. Michael VIII Paleologos gained control of it for a time, as did local notables, the Venetians, and Pope Pius II.
At all times, the military infrastructure was seen as the island’s main asset, as reflected in the practice of using the property of all those who died on Monemvasia without relatives towards the upkeep of the citadel. This allowed it to shelter the local despot when the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, made his first campaigns into the region in 1458, but it also served as a refuge for pirates.
Not all of the island’s history is reflected in war, however. It was also the home of a Greek bishop, honoured by the Byzantine emperor with the title ‘Exarch of all the Peloponnese’ in 1293.
During the period of Venetian occupation (1463-1540), Monemvasia even had two bishops, one Latin Catholic, the other, Greek Orthodox, which reflects the fraught history of Christianity in the mediaeval Mediterranean.
Its strength allowed Monemvasia to remain in Venetian hands until the treaty of 1540, which brought the second Turco-Venetian war to a close. In this treaty, the last Venetian possessions on the Peloponnese, including Monemvasia, were transferred into Ottoman control, where it would remain until the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century.
As a site, it reflects the importance of the military presence in the landscape of mediaeval Greece, a place where empires and local rulers completed for dominance. Its reliance upon the sea as a source for revenue, support, and defense also speaks to the inter-connectivity of the Mediterranean world, bound together by sea-lanes and shipping.
Dry, austere, its ruins testify to the great ingenuity of Monemvasia’s people, who invited governments in and kicked them out with equal frequency, using the unique qualities of their city to their own advantage.
Miller, William, ‘Monemvasia,’ The Journal of Hellenic Studies 27 (1907), pp. 229-241 provides a somewhat exuberantly philhellenic, but still factually sound, overview of the city’s history in the Middle Ages.
This Google Maps aerial satellite photo of the island of Monemvasia shows both the built-up area of the town, the zig-zag ascent of the path to the castle (centre), and the tan structure of the Agia Sophia Church (top side of the island.) The green colour is a result of seasonal vegetation.