Byzantine Fort City of Mystras, Greece
So many European cities are jumbles of art and architecture, a testament to the evolving history of the urban area. Beneath these modern cities are fractured layers of a Renaissance, Gothic and Ancient past, but you have to try hard to imagine how things looked during any one period. It’s truly amazing to find a city that retains its character from one specific age. The abandoned Byzantine city of Mystras in the mountains just above Sparta in the Southern Peloponnese, is one such frozen city. You can walk through the ruined streets and largely intact religious buildings of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and be right back in 1350 AD.
Mystras began in 1249 with the construction of the Castle on the summit of Mt. Taygetos by the Frankish ruler William II Villehardounin. The Byzantine city grew as it consolidated local power through the 13th and 14th century. The walled city contained several religious communities and churches, domestic and commercial areas and a large palace for the regional lord. After the fall of Constantinople, Mystras was absorbed into the Turkish empire in 1460 and was then traded several more times between the Venetians, Turks and Greeks. The city remained inhabited until the 1826 when it was abandoned for the more accessible, modern city of Sparta.
Below the Castle on Mt. Taygetos, the ruins of Mystras are divided into an Upper City and Lower City. The churches are Byzantine in design but constructed with a mix of stone blocks, stone pieces and brick enhancing the rustic look of the ruined city. The architecture is quite sophisticated; the Metropolis (cathedral) is three stories tall with upper viewing galleries. The churches have elegant domes, arches and are all unique in design which is surprising given the density of religious buildings.
Several of the churches and monasteries still contain brightly painted frescoes. The most impressive paintings are in the Hodegetria showing detailed scenes from the Life of Christ throughout the side aisles. Some interior marble paneling survives suggesting the church was richly decorated when constructed.
Visiting Mystras is an exhausting day trip but well worth the effort. Since you must either park below the Lower Town or just below the Castle, you will be walking a lot to see the entire city! In addition to the impressive painted churches, there are numerous small churches and manor houses in the Lower Town that deserve slow exploration. It’s also fun to visit the nuns and their cats who live in an active convent in the Upper City (the Monastery of Pantanassa). Lastly the views of Sparta and the valley from the Castle are incredible.
Given the size of the archaeological site, it is very possible to find yourself alone in this well preserved Byzantine city imagining daily life within this rugged, fortified mountain city buoyed on by its exquisite churches.