ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Forgotten Mystra: Byzantium’s Last Flowering

An ancient Greek fortress city still holds the keys to its Byzantine past.

Mystra, the beautiful Greek fortress city above ancient Sparta was the scene of Byzantium’s swan song. All that remains of past days of glory when it was the hub of intellectual and commercial life are its expertly restored churches where Greek Orthodox nuns now reside.

Mystra is located on the Peloponnesos, a peninsula forming the southern part of mainland Greece. In the 13th century the Peloponnesos was known as Morea after the Latin word Morus for mulberry leaf – the shape of which the Peloponnesos resembled.

Morea was the Byzantine principality and Mystra the residence of the despots (rulers). During its heyday in the 13th century, Mystra boasted of a population of 40,000.

A castle built by the French Crusader, Guillaume des Villehardouin is credited with giving the city its name. Villehardouin decided to build his home on the cone-shaped hill leaning against the mighty Taygetos mountains. The castle soon became known as Maistessa or mistress in medieval French.

Fourteen years later he had to surrender his fortress to the Byzantine forces. This marked the beginning of Mystra’s short and intense history. It was also an age where the life of the farmer and craftsman changed little from the serfdom he had known for many centuries.

Mystra was a place where scholars met and found stimulation and inspiration among each other. It was also an important center of trade, primarily famous for its silk.

Today, little is left of Guillaume des Villehardouin castle that crowned the hill. The houses and buildings of the once thriving town are in ruins, leaving traces of roads, portals, foundations and some individual mansions that climb up the steep hill.

The only aspect of Mystra’s history that remains are its churches. Seen from afar, the churches and the surrounding crenellated walls of the fortress are still imposing.

Magnificent frescoes cover the walls and cupolas of the six churches. The frescoes are among the best examples of icons from the late Byzantine era. When human elements and influence from the West were introduced the severe style of the early Byzantine painters was softened. There is a new-found dynamism that adds movement to the large wall paintings making them more lively. Along with drama and details added to the scenes, the colors have new nuances contributing to diversity.

The Metropolis or St. Demetrius church is the first among equals of the religious architecture on Mystra. The frescoes, like those in other Byzantine churches follow strict rules. The upper-most part of the walls and cupolas are reserved for the scenes demanding the highest reverence; paintings of Christ and Mary, surrounded by angels, prophets and apostles. Just below are the scenes from the Dodekaheortaon, the twelve major liturgical feast days of the church year. These days are the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, the Entrance of the Mother of God to the Temple, the Nativity, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the Entrance of Our Lord to the Temple, the Annunciation, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Transfiguration and the Doromition of the Mother of God. In the lower region of the fresco there are scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints. For the devout churchgoer, the fresco in its entirety was not only a vision of the universe but also a vast picture book.

All of the six churches are grand in their own right. At the Evangelistria it is the single majestic dome that captures the eyes. At the Church of the Saints Theodoroi it is the elaborate Byzantine brickwork around the windows that is unique. To the northwest lies the Hodegitria, the main church of the Brontochio monastery. It is a richly decorated church, chosen by the noble families of Mystra as their burial chapel.

The monastery of the Pantanassa was built in 1428 and the rows of nuns cells can still be seen. It is the only church property in Mystra that has been in continuous use to this day. The nuns living in the cloisters will, as their forebears undoubtedly did, offer a cool drink of water, a glass of ouzo, a spoonful of homemade sweets to the tired visitor.

The small Perivleptos church lies at the perimeter of the city, overlooking the fertile plain of Sparta. Its frescoes, on a striking’ deep blue background, are counted among the masterpieces of Byzantine painting.

Amidst all the churches and monasteries, there is one grandiose and rather rare example of secular Byzantine architecture which reminds a visitor that Mystra was a worldly city also. Even as a ruin, open to the sky, the Grand Palace, once the Despot’s residence, gives an idea of the splendor of the courtly life led by Mystra’s ruling class.

Mystra’s role as a center of political and intellectual life contined long after the fall of Byzantium. It became a bastion of Greek nationalism in the fight against the Turkish rulers. Finally abandoned in 1834, excavations began in 1894.

Nearly a century later Mystra’s ruins spill down the hillside providing a glimpse of an age that was a fond farewell for the waning days of Byzantium.

Margot Granitsas is a freelance writer and photographer.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español