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Byzantine settlements

MYSTRAS (Byzantine settlement) PELOPONNISOS

Byzantine Castle-Town of Mystras

Tel: +30 27310 83377, 23315, Fax: +30 27310 83377

Like a replica in miniature of the majestic form of Mt. Taygetos, Mystras rises above the verdant valley of Eurotas. Historically, the medieval fortress town of Mystras moves to the forefront after the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, when the crusaders establish the Latin empire (1204-1261) and other states in the Byzantine lands they conquered. The region of the Peloponnese was occupied by the Frankish knights and hence became the Principality of Achaea under the reigning family of the Villehardouins. William II of Villehardouin fortified Mystras and built the castle on the top of the hill in order to subdue the unruly mountain dwellers of Taygetos and to secure the defence of the fertile Lacedaemon. The castle had barely been completed when the Prince of Achaea, defeated by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus at the battle of Pelagonia and made prisoner in 1259, was forced to cede as ransom to the Byzantines the three strongholds of Peloponnese, among them Mystras.

Mystras soon evolved into a major centre of the Byzantine empire, second only to the capital Constantinople. It was in Mystras, actually, that the Byzantine art and literature flourished for the last time before the spread of the Ottoman conquests in the mid-15th century. As a cultural phenomenon, this creative flourishing in arts coupled with the revival of the classical letters and especially philosophy in Mystras was named by the scholars the Palaeologan Renaissance.

Highlights


Mystras, the best preserved example of medieval walled town in the Greek region, is today a standing ghost city that fascinates the modern traveler with its castle, churches and the palatial complex of the ruling Byzantine dynasty, bearing witness to its bygone greatness. Private houses and mansions still standing today provide a rare source of information for the domestic architecture and urban planning of the late Medieval period.The 13th to early 15th centuries frescoes of Mystras churches represent the peak that the Byzantine religious painting had reached: Some of the most important works of the 14th century will be found at Afendiko (Panagia Odigitria), Perivleptos includes a synthesis of rare aesthetic quality and deep theological significance, while at Pantanassa, the visitor is struck by the lengths to which the Byzantine painting has gone in respect of color range.

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  • UNESCO World Heritage List

  • The hill

      The first edifice to be raised at Mystra was the Villehardouin castle on the summit of the cone-shaped hill. The outer wall begins to descend from the north, follows the side of the hill until it reaches the foot, then turns right, passing behind the Marmara restaurant, in the direction of the Peribleptos. At frequent intervals the wall is fortified with high square towers.
      The second line of defense, which begins at the Nauplia Gate, may be discerned on the lofty ground where the Palace is situated. Following the contours of the hill in an eastward direction, it then continues south as far as the Monastery of the Pantanassa, after which it continues to descend as far as the level of the Peribleptos. At this point, it turns west and, still following the contours of the hill, climbs up to the level of the castle.
      The hill on which Mystra is built was thus defended by two strongly fortified walls, dominated by an impregnable castle. Within the lower and larger enceinte, i.e. the lower city, dwelt the urban classes. Higher up, in the Upper City, was situated the aristocratic quarter, with its palaces, mansions and government offices.
      Only two gateways led to the Upper City; the Monembassia Gate, with towers, gun embrasures and an iron doorway; and the Nauplia Gate similarly fortified.
      The whole fortification system is crowned by the Castle, which served as an observation post in peace, as a last refuge in times of siege.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    The Town of Mystras

      Mystras today is a silent town that lifts its ruins in the west side of Taygetus, just above the valley and the city of Sparta. The Mystras is built at the base of the Parorion Gorge within a dazzlingly beautiful landscape. It was established in 1249 by the Francs and is an excellent example of a Byzantine city dated between the 14th and 15th century. Although it was founded by the Francs, it soon came under Byzantine Rule and began to gradually develop resulting in its transformation into a prosperous city occupied by 20.000 inhabitants. In the year 1348, it became the seat of the Despotate of Moreas. It comprised one of the last significant spiritual institutions of the Byzantine in light of the fact that it constituted a point of attraction that enticed intellectuals and artists from Constantinople and Europe. The Mystras' ruins are divided into three sections: 1) the Castle, the primary fortification on the hill's peak, 2) the Upper City, which contains homes and narrow roads surrounding the Bishop's Palace that was surrounded by bastions and 3) the Lower City, which contains homes and monasteries safely protected behind the third wall.
      The most significant Mystras' architectural works in their entirety include:
    •The Cathedral, which also constitutes the oldest church of Mystras, is dedicated in honor of St. Demetrios and is located at the gate near the Lower City. The Cathedral's wall paintings belong to three different religious painting schools and were discovered by G. Mille in 1896, since the subsequent people that followed covered the wall with asbestos. There is also an engraved throne with Baroque carvings that must have been constructed under Venetian Rule. The floor of the middle aisle contains a sculpted slab that depicts a two-headed eagle. It is said that in 1449, Constantinos Paleologos was crowned Emperor here.
    •The Monastery of Vrontohiou was the spiritual center of the Mystras Town. The philosopher George Gemistos or Plithon (1355 - 1452) taught at this Monastery. The complex consists of the churches Panagias tis Hodegetreas, that is, the Virgin Mary, Leader of the Way ("Proprietor") and the church of Saints Theodore.
    •The church of Our Lady Perivleptos is located on the southeastern point of the exterior wall. It is two-columned, cruciform and maintains a small dome that illustrates the Pantocrator including the Virgin Mary and prophets. It is founded upon a cave-like cliff. There is also the reflection of an unknown, noble couple that appears to have built the church in the early 14th century. The small chapel of St. Ekaterini is found within the cave. It is said that it comprised the Elefsinion cave that was commemorated by Pausanias. The wall paintings' artwork is considered to be a forerunner in the "Cretan" technique and is a masterpiece, particularly in the figures that are filled with life and the elegance in their movements. There is even a peculiar sculpted slab in which Alexander the Great is depicted ascending into the heavens, assisted by two greedy birds. Visitors will even notice the strong tower with the bastions that bring to mind the Italian architecture, as it rises above the table.
    •The Monastery of Our Lady Pantanassa (the Queen of All) was built in 1428 by Theodore Paleologos II master builder and is located at the mouth of the cliff on the east side of the hill. It is the most well preserved monument in Mystras. It comprises a luminous example of the architecture evident at the time. The wall paintings are remarkable whilst the view of the Evrota Valley from the Monastery is breathtaking. The visitors are ecstatic as they absorb the landscape at their feet and rest from Mystras' uphill trail.
    •The palaces of Mystras' bishops are massive structures that are shaped in the form of the Greek letter "G", that is, Gamma. Each building maintains its own use and they are each comprised of two aisles, which have been renovated recently. Egemon's grand Throne Room is located here. The courtyard in front of the palaces was used for public assemblies during the period of the Byzantine Empire whilst it was used as an agora or market under the Turkish Empire. The illiterate wanderers of the Turkish Empire describe these structures as the "Sanctuary of Menelaos" and the common tradition refers to them as the "Princess' Palaces." The Throne Room is worth visiting with the Gothic windows and skylight. There are also the ruins from 2.000 noble homes as well as churches, towers and palaces, which exemplify life in those days.
    •The Castle was built in 1249 and still maintains its original scheme even though it later undergoes many changes. It is located at the peak of the Upper City and surrounded by sudden trenches on its west and east sides that served to protect the structure. It may be accessed only from the path that leads from the entrance located above the Church of St. Sophia. A secondary interior wall surrounds the highest section of the Castle. The door opens under the protection of a tall tower constructed, as was the Gate, by the Byzantines. The exterior surrounding wall leads to a platform above a cistern and a circular bastion. A tower extends above the shelter, a great majority of which has been demolished, that the Francs built above a cistern.

    This text is cited May 2003 from the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs URL below.


    Mystras

    , , 1249 - 1460

    Castles, fortresses & fortifications

    The Castle of Mystra

      The most important group of buildings associated with the city's defense system are to be found within the Castle area. The wall with battlements and towers was built in 1249 by the Franklin prince, William II de Villehardouin. Later, it was repaired by Byzantines and Turks who also made additions to it. The main entrance is protected by a large square tower.
      Ruins of buildings erected during the Turkish occupation are scattered about the entire declivity extending between the outer enceinte and the southern section. A strong still fairly well preserved round tower rises on the north-east side, near a large underground cistern which supplied the fortress with water in times of siege. The tower formed part of the fortification system of the castle and also served as a look-out post whence the movements of the population dwelling on the slopes of Taygetos could be observed.
      Both from this side of the hill and from the one overlooking Taygetos the rocky eminence of Mystra rises sheer from the revine below and is thus rendered impregnable at this point. Returning towards the tower, one encounters - just before reaching the tower - the entrance which pierces the second line of defense, and beyond which extends the highest and most inaccessible part of the castle. The building with the underground cistern served ad the residence of successive garrison commanders. A little higher up are the ruins of a twin chapel, one side of which is embedded in the southern battlements of the fortification wall. This little edifice, the oldest at Mystra, existed before the Frankish conquest and the building of the castle. Still higher up, the west end of the ledge is crowned by the ruins of another round tower with an observation post overlooking the opposite slope of Taygetos, from which wild tribes of Melings, issuing out of their mountain fastnesses, would make sudden hostile irruptions. The view from this part of the castle is superbly impressive. In front extends the Lacedaemonian plain, across which flows the Eurotas, with Sparta in the middle; to the west tower the savage and grandiose contours of Taygetos; to the east the ruined city descends the hill, dotted with the outlines of a variety of charming churches and the shells of ancient mansions whose shattered masonry, pointing skywards, conjures up an image of human hands raised in prayer.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    Fountains

    Fountain

      Left of the path leading to a level spot shaded by a plane tree are the remains of a Turkish fountain with a pointed arch and an ornamental marble frieze. The paved path that starts near the fountain climbs the hill as far as the Pantanassa.
      In Byzantine times water for these fountains, which are encountered up to the Palace level (higher up there are only cisterns for rain water), was supplied from the wooded ravine on the opposite slope of Targets.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    Houses

    Lascaris Mansion

      The edifice constitutes a fine example of a Byzantine mansion, which is traditionally believed to have been the property of the Lascaris, one of the most distinguished families of Mystra.
      Two-storied, it was built with considerable taste, if one is to judge from the surviving series of small arches which supported the balcony. The small floor with a vaulted roof was probably uses as a stables. Clumsy repairs of a later period have spoilt the original aspect of the edifice. Ruins of Byzantine houses, approximately contemporary to the main mansion, are scattered around it.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    The Palataki (Mansion)

      The earliest and largest aristocratic mansion, which is in a relatively good state of preservation, rises immediately above the Church of St. Nicholas. The building consists of two sections belonging to different periods. The north section, including the tower, was built 1.300 a.c.; the south one was added later - some time during the 14th century. The exterior sides of the edifice are plain. Those of the tower, however, possess a lavish decoration superior to any encountered of the exterior walls of other mansions of Mystra. The tower was three storied; and foreign archeologists, impressed by the mansion's numerous arches, chambers, cellars and attics, christened it "Le Petit Palais" (Palataki).

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    Palaces

    The Palaces of Mystra

      The still imposing bulk and monumental height of the buildings on this high-lying terrace immediately indicate that these edifices were once palaces. In spite of the ravages of time and the poor quality of the materials used, there is an awesome air about the group of ruined buildings, which, for a span of nearly three centuries, formed the seat of two Byzantine dynasties and of numerous foreign and Greek princes.
      The various buildings of the Palace comprise two wings, which almost form a right angle whose apex is at the northern section of the level space, thus shutting off any approach from the north and east sides. The level space thus formed - unique on this conical hill - was the scene of numerous public assemblies. Later, during the Turkish occupation, it served as a market place.
      On public holidays the inhabitants assembled here to watch solemn processions; on the Prince's name-day they came to wish him 'many years of life'. Here strolled Plethon, the famous philosopher, surrounded by students who had journeyed from the four corners of the Byzantine world to listen to his teachings. The ruins which now occupy the two other sides of the terrace and confine the open space considerably belong to the Turkish period. The only building of the late Byzantine period is a fountain, commissioned by the Cantacuzenoi, the ruins of which may be discerned at the north-west of the terrace.
      The various apartments of the Palace were not all built at the same time. The first apartment on the right of the level space has pointed Gothic windows and a small balcony. It is the oldest section of the whole group of buildings and betrays Western European architectural influences. Although named the palace of Cantacuzenoi, it undoubtedly dates back to the short period of Frankish rule.
      The next edifice - on the same side, and extending as far as the north-east of the whole complex - is dated to the period of the Cantacuzenoi (1350-1400) and includes the Despot's private apartments which consisted of spacious chambers on each storey, a palace chapel on the top floor and, on the east side, overlooking the alley of the Eurotas, an open colonnade supported by five pilasters and decorated with a series of small arches similar to those on the mansions of the local aristocracy.
      The north side of the Palace built during the period of the Palaeologoi (1400-1460), is a single structural unit. The facade recalls the Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus in Constantinople, as well as Early Italina Renaissance palaces. Its present aspect is very unprepossessing; gone are the grace and beauty provided by the two-storied colonnade of the facade, of which all that remains are the bases of pilasters. On the level above the ground floor are eight vaulted chambers which do not communicate with each other.
      These probably served as the headquarters of various state services, and must have been crowded with gorgeously robed signatories and courtiers. The whole of the second story forms a single large hall. Between two large windows, embellished with late Gothic arches, overlooking the level space, projects an apse in which the throne was placed.Here were held the assemblies and solemn ceremonies; here foregathered the foreign emissaries. A stone beach, on which visitors and courtier sat, still surrounds the walls of the entire chamber.
      A series of large rectangular windows runs along the length of the facade surmounted by another row in the form roundels and squares. The hall was consequently well lighted. Along the north wall eight fireplaces which, connected with hearths in the vaulted apartments of the first storey, heated both the hall and the entire building during the winter.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains images.


    Walls

    The Monembassia Gate

      This gate is the only entrance that pierces the city's second line of defense and leads to the Upper City, the aristocratic quarter where the palaces were situated. A solid square town with gun embrasures, still existent, protects the gate which had a portcullis; this slid smoothly up and down the jambs of the doorways, protecting the passage way in times of danger. Immediately above this fortified gateway survives a rare type of three-storied Byzantine mansion with numerous arched apertures. The paved path which begins here was called the "middle road". It climbed the hill, passed across the rerrace of the Palace and reached the second great gateway, the so-called Nauplia Gate, which, like the Monembassia Gate, had a portcullis, but was defended with stronger and higher towers.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below, which contains image.


    The Nauplia Gate

      The name derives from the fact that travelers bound for Nauplia and Continental Greece passed through this gate, whereas the Monembassia Gate was used by travelers on their way to Monembassia, the port of Mystra at the time. Apart from the portcullis, which slid up and down the jambs, the gateway possessed impressive fortifications consisting of a group of strong defense towers, both round and square, of very considerable height in relation to the gate itself. Two alternative theories have been advanced regarding the great strength of this fortification. According to one, it constituted a defense post for the nearby Palace; other conjecturers believe it served as the main entrance to the city.

    This text is cited Apr 2003 from the Laconian Professionals URL below.


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