Located five kilometers west of Sparta, at the foot of Mount Taygetos, Mystras is considered to be one of the most important historical sites in the Peloponnese. The site boasts a rich history that stretches from the 13th to the 19th century, being an important political, religious, intellectual, and financial center. Many buildings survive to this day, as Mystras continues to attract visitors from all over the world.
Visiting Mystras Archaeological Site
History of Mystras
The history of the site begins with the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire by the Latins in 1204 and the subsequent fragmentation of its territories. In 1249, a castle was constructed on the top of the hill by the Frankish leader William II de Villeharduin.
The Byzantines managed to regain control of the area in 1262 and to turn the site into the seat of the Despotate of Moreas, the center of Byzantine power in southern Greece. Many lavish palaces, monasteries, churches, and libraries were added, while it is also interesting to note that the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos was crowned here.
In 1460 the hill was captured by the Turks, and for a short period, it came under the rule of the Venetians (1687-1715), before it was taken over again by the Ottoman empire. The prosperity of Mystras lasted up to the 18th century since the riots that broke out during the Orlov Revolt and the Greek revolutionary war caused frequent attacks and wide destruction by the Turks.
It is also interesting that during the revolution, which began in 1821, Mystras was one of the first castles to be liberated. During the reign of King Otto, in 1834, modern Sparta was founded and the site was abandoned, marking the end of the centuries-old town. The last few inhabitants that remained on site left in 1955. In 1989, the ruins of Mystras were named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Intellectual significance of Mystras
Among others, Mystras grew to be an important intellectual center of the Byzantine period, since the city was a famous center for copying manuscripts. In the 15th century, the famous Neoplatonist philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon settled in Mystras, where he managed to arouse the interest of the West for his interpretation of Platonic philosophy and the study of ancient Greek texts.
His work proved to be a great contribution to the European Renaissance. Gemistos’ disciple, the Cardinal Bessarion, accompanied the Byzantine emperor John Palaiologos to the Ferrara Synod of 1438, while later he donated to the Republic of Venice around 1000 volumes of work, which later on formed the core of the famous Marciana Library.
Financial significance of Mystras
Apart from being an important intellectual center, Mystras was also a financial hotspot. This was to a large part due to the four urban monasteries which owned large stretches of land in the area, mainly producing wool and silk.
The economic activity in the city was reinforced by the Jewish community that had existed there since the 14th century, and which gradually managed to gain control of the trade in the wider area.
Artistic significance of Mystras
The so-called “Helladic” school of Byzantine architecture, as well as the architecture of Constantinople, projected great influence on the distinct architecture of Mystras. This is evident from the elaborate spatial planning organization, and the complex urban planning of the town, which included palaces, residences and mansions, churches and monasteries, as well as constructions related to the city’s water supply and drainage and to commercial and craft-based activities.
Furthermore, the painting of the churches and monasteries, such as the monastery of Brontochion and of Christos Zoodotes, deeply reflect the high quality and the eclecticism of the art of Constantinople.
At the same time, elements of Romanesque and Gothic art are also evident, proving the fact the city had several contacts with the wider area of the Mediterranean and Europe. During the Ottoman period, the palace of the Upper City of Mystras was transformed into the seat of the Ottoman commander, while the temples of Hodegetria and Hagia Sophia became mosques, thus retaining their religious importance.
What to see in Mystras
Monastery of Panagia Perivleptos
This monastery was built into natural rocks, a small distance from the main sights. It has fine wall paintings of the 14th century, while the catholicon has a cross-in-square style.
Cathedral of Agios Demetrios
Considered one of the most important churches of Mystras, the cathedral of Agios Demetrios was founded in 1292. It is particularly famous for its combination of architectural styles since it is composed of a 3-aisled basilica, with a narthex and a bell tower on the ground floor. The interior of the temple is richly decorated with wall paintings of different styles. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine Palaiologos, was crowned here in 1449.
Palace of Despots
Located on the highest spot of the site, the palace of Despots was the second most important palace of the Byzantine empire, after Constantinople, serving as the house of the Despot of Mystras.
Church of Panagia Hodegetria
Built in 1310, the church of Panagia Hodegetria (she who shows the way) boasts colorful interiors with paintings depicting several scenes from the Bible, such as the healing of the blind man and the wedding in Kana. Inside the chapel also lies the grave of emperor Emmanuel Paleologos.
The archaeological museum of Mystras was founded in 1952 by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Laconia in the west wing of the metropolitan complex, right next to the Agios Demetrios Cathedral. It mostly hosts ecclesiastical items from the early Christian era to Post-Byzantine times.
Information for visitors
Mystras is located 218 km south-west of Athens, a 3 hours’ drive by road. You can stay in Sparta overnight to give yourself an early start before crowds arrive. It is advised to avoid the period from July to September since the temperature in the Laconian plains is extremely high.
Full: €12, Reduced: €6
Free Admission Days
last weekend of September
every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
The site opens at 08:30, closes at 15:30 in the winter, and it opens at 8:00 and closes at 19:00 in the summer.