Tuesday 24 June 2014

Mystras: The History

The History of Mystras: Eight Churches and a Castle

The Upper town with Agia Sophia and the castle. (Wiki Commons)

Mystras, a World Heritage Site since 1989, is a ghost town.  It boasted well over twenty churches and countless houses in its heyday and now the churches deemed most important or at least salvageable have been restored in an effort to breathe life back into this last gasp of Byzantium.

 Built out of necessity in a provincial backwater after 1262, its real potential as a repository of Byzantine hopes and culture did not become immediately apparent. It was only in 1308 that a governor elected yearly was replaced by a governor for life, and it was not until 1348 that it became a Despotat – an appanage - created by the emperor in Constantinople as a private fief to be ruled by members of his own family.

 By 1400 or so Mystras had become important. Its fortunes rose as Constantinople’s fell; its boundaries grew as the empire’s shrank, and it was here that intellectuals, courtiers and theologians abandoned the capital and coalesced partly because it was safer but also in a last attempt to gather up the physical and intellectual forces to salvage a way of life that had once seemed ordained by Heaven.

 By 1460, the idyll of Byzantine Mystras, if idyll it was, ended abruptly as the Turks took over:  it had lasted a mere two hundred years.

The Background 

Mystras’ story really began in 1204 and, if you do not understand the significance of that date, you really cannot understand anything that happened after. In 1204, thanks to the plotting of a Venetian Doge with a grudge, the Fourth Crusade got diverted from its Jerusalem destination and hordes of Franks (or ‘Latins’, the terms are interchangeable) from the west flooded into Constantinople, looted it for days, mocked the great church of Hagia Sophia by putting a prostitute on the bishop’s throne as they stole its treasure, and established a Latin Empire in Byzantine lands including what is modern day Greece. The Byzantine court was forced to flee to Nicaea across the Bosphorus and watch helplessly as these parvenus first got the approval of the pope in Rome, established their own Duchies and principalities, put in Roman Catholic bishops, and switched the liturgies in Greek churches to the Latin rite.

It wasn’t a very successful empire but it lasted almost 60 years in the capital. Ironically the most successful principality was the Principality of Achaia which comprised the entire Peloponnese, and the Duchy of Athens. These would last long after the Byzantines managed by an alliance with Genoa, a rival of Venice, to wrest the capital back in 1261. By then the empire was in tatters. Greeks have never forgiven this betrayal by allies. 1204 changed everything.

Meanwhile at Mystras…

If the Peloponnese were a stage, then hiding behind the curtains and peeking out for any opportunity to enter stage right were the Venetians, the villains of the piece. Their reward for 1204 along with trading concessions and loot were the two ports of Methoni and Koroni in the south Peloponnese. They took them in 1206 and got the rubber stamp of approval in 1209 by treaty with the Principality of Achaia. So important to Venetian sea trade were these two ports that they called them the eyes of the Republic.
From these two outposts, Venice was ever looking for an opportunity to gain even more.

 Stage left were remnants of the Byzantine forces in Monemvasia, an important port that they managed to hold on to until 1249 when William de Villehardouin, the Prince of Achaia, left his secure palace at Chelmoutsi in Elis and drove them temporarily off the stage while he took over the castle at Monemvasia, and built two more – one in the present day Mani  (no one is sure which one that is today), and the  ‘all business’ one  you see today on the 630 metre promontory of the steep hill then called Mizithra just 6 kilometers west of Ancient Sparta. It was intended to keep all of Laconia, or Lacadaemonia as it was then known, firmly in the Latin sphere. 

The Castle
( from: www.kastra.eu)

This might have been curtains for a Byzantine Peloponnese were it not for a series of Byzantine successes elsewhere, - and a bizarre feudal incident.  The Byzantine emperor  Michael VIII Palaiologos’ immediate aim after recapturing Constantinople in 1261 was to get all the lost lands back.  It turned out that the first foothold in the Peloponnese was a doodle because of French feudal law!

Williams’ castle may have been impregnable, but he was not. In the Battle of Pelagonia (in present day FYROM) in 1259, the same battle that gave the Byzantines victory over the Latins and led to the recapture of Constantinople, William de Villehardoiun was captured and held for several years until a ransom could be arranged. Now, according to French feudal law, in the absence of husbands, wives got the vote. Villehardouins’ wife, against the advice of her courtiers, decided she wanted her husband back. The price was three castles: Monemvasia, the mystery one in the Mani, and Mystras.

So by 1262 a wife’s loyalty had gained the Byzantines a small but important wedge of the Peloponnesian pie – a triangle pointing straight at the principality’s capital in Elis and with Mystras its northernmost point, Monemvasia, the all important seaport and lifeline, at its eastern point  and that elusive castle in the Mani peninsula to the west.



The value of this ready-made castle at Mystras does not have to be laboured. Immediately after its capture, the citizens of Lacadaemonia who had hitherto lived unprotected in the valley around the low Acropolis of ancient Sparta, began to move up the hill under the protection of the castle garrison. They took their churches with them. I mean this literally. Mystras churches are full of odds and sods from valley churches, spolia, if you will. There was not much point in leaving anything of value behind in these troubled times with enemies and looters everywhere – and not just the Venetians and Franks:  Many Slavic tribes who had immigrated to the Peloponnese earlier had felt disenfranchised by the depredation of the Byzantine tax collectors and formed hostile enclaves in the mountains around Mystras.  And internal unrest was no stranger to the Byzantine way of life either. The so called archons – big land owners were always a threat when unhappy. These were troubled times with a capital T. If a local leader had the nous and a loyal army, relative peace might prevail because he could cajole, coerce, or out-manoeuvre his opposition.  Shifting alliances were a fact of life in this era and citizens and their leaders had learned to cope with them and get on with their lives. Venice, that expert in shifting alliances, had by 1265 signed a new treaty, this time with the ascendant  Byzantines, to keep Koroni and Methoni!

 The town of Mystras slowly took form during the relatively peaceful years of 1262 to 1300. It was brand new and that was important psychologically.  This tabula rasa of a hill came to mean a new start as time passed– at least to its more philosophical inhabitants.  Here was the possibility of creating a miniature of the now diminished capital on the Bosphorus.  The Peloponnese, as time passed, would begin to seem like a defensible fortress from which Byzantium might be reborn or at least preserved from its many enemies.

But  Mystras’ mystique and potential were not the focus in the 1260s. Building an Episcopal church for the new town was. In 1264 the Metropolis was built – a simple three-aisled basilica whose style and decoration were typical of bishops’ cathedrals in Greece at the time.

The apse of the Metropolis as it appeared in 1264

Monks moved up the hill too and it wasn’t long before Agioi Theodorioi was built sometime between 1290 and 1295 almost next door to the Metropolis. It too was a typical church of its era in Greece both in design – a domed octagon- and decoration. It belonged to the Vrondochion monastery, an institution whose origins are mysterious but one that would grow along with the city.

Agioi Theodorioi 

At this time, Monemvasia would have been considered the more important center but Mystras’ geographical position and defensibility was slowly turning it into a powerhouse as the city became more populated and defensive walls were begun.

By 1308 Mystras’ governor was appointed for life and it is no surprise that he belonged to the extended family of the Palaiologoi, the dynamic dynasty that would produce all of the emperors from 1259 to the end.  All subsequent Byzantine emperors took a personal interest in Mystras and there were a lot of comings and goings between Mystras and Constantinople.  It was in this period of growth and optimism that the abbot of the Brondochian Monastery built the Hodegetria – a truly impressive church which echoed the capital city in many ways and put Mystras firmly on the architectural and cultural map of the empire for the first time.

The Hodegetria

In 1318 the Byzantines got some castles in Arcadia back but were losing ground elsewhere in the empire. This just made Mystras more important.

In 1348  Mystras’ success and relative defensibility caused the emperor to take a further step and name Mystras a Despotat (1)a personal appanage – of the royal family, feudal in nature, grand in style, and ruled by despots who were either sons or grandsons of the emperors. Thus Mystras stayed in the royal family and was of prime importance to the emperors from that date on. 

This was the period when the palace was first expanded and two new churches were built:  elegant Agia Sophia apparently was first built as the palace chapel and then later converted into a monastery, and the Peribleptos, the Katholikon of a new small monastery in the south- east corner of town. They were different in style but both apparently under the aegis of Manuel Kantakouzenos Palaiologos – an able Despot who ruled until his death in  1380.

Agia Sophia                          Peribleptos

Why so many monasteries? Well piety I suppose but there were tax reasons too. Usually monasteries were granted lands, labourers, and mills by Constantinople or the Patriarchate so they were self sufficient economically and usually had special tax arrangements that eliminated their need to pay local taxes at all. Add to that the fact both the government and invaders often (not always) respected a monastery’s property more than private holdings, so investing one’s wealth in a monastery made good economic sense. And then there was the tendency of Byzantine leaders to prepare for the next world by a short sojourn in their favoured monastery (absolutely necessary in some cases!) before Judgment Day arrived. And they liked to be buried in ‘their’ monasteries too. So, in this God saturated era, funding a monastery was respected by the population and did much to boost the donor’s prestige. 

In 1385 the Turks raided the Peloponnese in earnest for the first time. It was more to flex their muscles and loot than anything and also to remind the Despot that nominally he was a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan.

 These vassalages were a fact of the politics of the time. If you lost a battle, you swore allegiance to the winner and paid tribute – until you won and could exact the same terms in reverse from the conquered enemy. At times, the ‘enemies’ were on fairly good terms with one another.  Although some Greek historians tend to downplay both these seesaw allegiances and the permeable blood boundaries between Franks and Byzantines in this era, they were a fact and the latter goes a long way to explaining the fusion of Byzantine and western styles that became the norm in Mystras. The truth is that the concept of “pure” Greek never really did apply to the Byzantine Empire as a whole let alone in the Peloponnese at this particular time.  The word Greek was not in contemporary use, nor was the word “Byzantine”.

Mystras had a substantially mixed population, even a Jewish quarter, and although the mixing between west and east may have been ‘elite heavy’, there were enough mixed Frankish-Byzantine offspring around for them the acquire a name: gasmoules. Almost all of the Palaiologan despots and emperors had Frankish wives. That fact may have been what made it easier for the elite to contemplate a union of the Byzantine and Latin churches when the time came in 1438. It was an idea that would have made more practical sense to an already mixed nobility than it ever would to the average citizens who still equated their ‘Roman’ identity with the Greek language and Orthodoxy.

 By 1400, there had been two Turkish raids, one in 1395 and one in 1397. In the last one, thousands of slaves were taken from Argos and considerable damage incurred. But there were too many castles for the Sultan to try a takeover - too costly - and these raids were starting to become as acceptable as a regular visit by a plague virus:  frightening, but temporary. The Emperor was less sanguine.   By this time he was seriously looking to Europe for help which never came and the Franks and Greeks and Venetians were forgetting their differences temporarily to join forces against the Ottomans.

At this critical point, Mongol raids on his eastern flank distracted
the Sultan, - just in time to give Mystras another peaceful interlude.

The 1400s

What was living there like in the first thirty years of the 1400s? Nicolas Cheetham in Mediaeval Greece attempts to explain:  it was still desirable with a trade in metals, silks and cotton, and pretty well populated even if most of the population preferred to live near a handy mountain retreat.  In the period between 1400 and 1430 which may have been the apogee of Mystras two new churches were built, one elegant but rather plain and apparently not belonging to a monastic house: the Evangelistria:


and yet another Katholikon for yet another monastery– this one called  the Pantanassa, a church so grand and displaying such a fusion of east and west features that it is hard not to see it as symbolic of what Mystras had culturally become.


Mystras pulsed with thinkers and courtiers at this time as the emperors visited more and more often.  Although we know it as the twilight of the empire, they still seemed to believe that it had vitality and recuperative powers left. But even the most optimistic knew that Byzantium needed a new Myth. The idea of the emperor as God’s vicar on earth and ruler over the entire known world might be an idea that nobles paid lip service too, but they also knew it was ridiculous.  Circumstance and maybe just the proximity of the heartland of ancient Greece offered a solution a return to the cradle from which it was born: Hellas and all it stood for.

This was indeed an about face. When the emperor Theodosios banned paganism and made Christianity the law of the land in the late 390s and early 400s, Hellenism was a despised name – akin to ‘pagan’ and ‘heresy’.  Ancient Greek writers may eventually have been enjoyed by the elite, but they were not for general consumption. It is ironic that the Byzantine Empire – so well known in the west as Greek – was not philhellenic at all for almost a thousand years.

 Only when their own myth was shattered, their holdings so shrunken that the Peloponnese was one of the larger bits, did Georgios Gemistos an advisor to the royal court who had became a resident at Mystras about this time, become the epicenter of a revival of an interest in Plato and the possibility of a new and smaller empire. It would be Hellenic in tone and led by a Christian emperor - along the lines of the state envisioned by Plato in his Republic. This new city state was perfect for Mystras, or so he believed. The synopsis of his Book of Laws, all that has come down to us, make his new Utopia seem like a cross between National Socialism and the ancient Spartan Constitution to me. Not too inviting today, but it did give the peasants (whom he actually called helots) some land rights. It was nationalistic in tone, and, interestingly, would give no rights at all to monasteries. He considered monks ‘a swarm of drones’.  Maybe Mystras did have too many monasteries in the 1400s…. His fascinating theories and tendency to call God Zeus are well beyond the scope of this small history; suffice it to say that he was close to the last Despots and his vision of a smaller more viable  ‘Hellenic ’ state gave them hope.

 What all this would have come to had the Turks not conquered Mystras is a moot point. That Gemistos, or Plethon, as he is known in the west became a hero of the Renaissance and of historians recording the story of Mystras, is not.  He died in 1452, a year before Constantinople fell. Mystras followed in 1460 proving that it was more defensible than Constantinople, but not defensible enough.  Ironically the end came just after the forces of the despot had pretty much eliminated the Franks from the Peloponnese.

 It makes you think…

Mystras After 1460

 Mystras carried on as a well-to-do Turkish town of over 40,000 with the exception of one or two short interludes when it was captured by the Venetians. In fact its population grew. True, some churches were turned into mosques, but some were not and the Turks even allowed for the construction of the sizable  Agios Nikolaos in the area near the palace in the 1600s. It is the last church of our big eight.  

 Agios Nikolaos (Wiki Commons) 

An Albanian uprising in 1770 badly damaged the city and further raids made things even worse. The remaining citizens took part in the Greek struggle for independence when the time came and the city was destroyed in retaliation by Ibrahim Pasha after 1825.
Mystras fell into ruins, its churches looted by whomever (In 1863 the dome of the Aphendiko collapsed when some bright light tried to steal the columns supporting it!). The city was officially abandoned in 1832 when King Otto rebuilt Sparta and everyone moved back down to the valley floor.

In a way, Mystras’ story had come full circle.

 Mystras Today

 In 1952 all properties were expropriated by the state. It was only left for its fortress, palaces and churches to become a World Heritage Site in 1989. The ruins are extensive and quite beautiful.  The video below is a short thumbnail sketch of the site and shows just how lovely it is.

I wish that some of the houses had been rebuilt instead of only the palace and churches.  Those ghosts I mentioned at the beginning are so shy. The site allows us to see pretty clearly what Mystras was, but, for me at least, the how it was is still tantalizingly elusive. I once wrote that how future generations interpreted  ancient Sparta, was something of a Rorschach test – revealing more about the onlooker than the picture presented. Maybe it is the Laconian atmosphere, but that seems to me to be true of Mystras as well.  

 It titillates and fascinates as it draws you up and down its narrow lanes, it invites endless speculation about the way things were, but in the end it simply refuses to give up all of its secrets.


(1) Despotat is often spelled Despotate but Google seems to manage. This Despotat ( my choice) was called the Despotat of the Morea meaning the entire Peloponnese but it only managed to cover that area for a brief moment in time.








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