A wonderland of ruins rising in steeply ascending rows along the slope of a hill, Mystras provides a land-bound parallel to Monemvasia. Instead of the Aegean Sea, Mystras commands a view over the plains of Laconia, encompassing both ancient Sparta and her modern namesake.
Mystras’ location in the heart of a fertile and long-inhabited area also captures its divergent historical experience. Unlike Monemvasia, Mystras served as the power-base for several regional dynasties whose strength allowed them to exert their influence across the Peloponnese.
Although the name ‘Mystras’ may refer to the origins of the site as an agricultural estate, the history of the city properly begins with the Frankish presence in Greece. The Franks (or Western Europeans, in this context,) had first shown an interest in Greece during the 11th century, when Norman adventurers from Southern Italy made raids on Byzantine territory.
They only gained a viable foothold in the Peloponnese after 1204, however, when the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade dramatically weakened the Byzantine Empire. In the following years, Frankish rulers agreed to share out the empire’s lands among themselves, leading to the establishment of the Principality of Achaea as a feudal realm in the Peloponnese.
The Franks fortified many places in their new realm, not only to guard their new-won power against the locals, but also to defend it from Venetian interest. The citadel of Mystras, built in 1249, expressed the aspirations of the Principality to dominate the landscape. Visible from all sides, it was also an unavoidable reminder of the foreign presence.
Despite Frankish ambition, however, their presence in Mystras was short-lived. The same ransom which saw Monemvasia transferred into Byzantine hands also returned Mystras to Greek rule. A succession of governors then expanded the city throughout the following decades as houses, churches, and streets colonised the lower slopes of the city.
In 1308, control of the city shifted from an annual position to one held for life. Several decades later, it became hereditary, and the Despotate of the Morea was created. Ruled by powerful local families (the Kantakuzenoi and the Paleologos family,) the Despotate presided over a flowering of Byzantine art and culture in the Peloponnese. This is reflected in the abundance of Mystras’ religious architecture, and the fine frescoes which still remain in some of the buildings.
Their wealth, authority, and claims to cultural superiority are reflected not in the castle, but in the Despot’s Palace, a structure currently being reconstructed to reflect its original state. The Palace not only provided a stately residence for the despot, but also had a courtyard for staging events and for holding a market-place.
Infighting between various Palaeologos brothers, however, resulted in the surrender of Mystras to the Ottomans in 1460–long before Monemvasia–under whom the city declined in importance. Its fate reflects larger truths about the rhythms of history in the Peloponnese.
During the last Byzantine decades, for example, the decentralised nature of political power allowed Mystras to rise to regional prominence, producing well-known intellectuals and patronising the arts. When it became incorporated into the centrally administered Ottoman realms, however, the aristocratic ambitions that had sustained it waned.
The ruins of Mystras thus evoke a fleeting historical and cultural moment, when local power and regional culture combined to create a flourishing city, as marvelous in its churches and civic architecture as in is military fortifications.
Karpodini-Dimitriadi, E., The Peloponnese: A Traveller’s Guide to the Sites, Monuments, and History, (Athens, 1984).
The Google Maps aerial satellite view of Mystras shows the citadel (at the bottom of the frame) and the Byzantine ruins fanning out towards the top of the image. The roofed rectangular building is part of the Despot’s palace, and the square complex to the right is the Mani Pantanassas Church .