The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had its grand capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul). However, after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Byzantine Empire came to an official end. Nonetheless, there were a few provincial Byzantine capitals that held out for some time. One of these cities was Mystras, the capital of Morea, a province that covered most of the Peloponnese in modern-day Greece. Mystras was considered one of the most important cities of the empire, and its fall to the Ottomans in 1460 marked the last stand of the Byzantines. Today, Mystras is a fascinating site to visit as it still retains many of its historic buildings, showcasing the grand architecture and exquisite Byzantine art that made the city such an influential center.
Mystras was once a significant city in the Byzantine Empire, not due to its size, but because it served as a center of power and intellectualism. The remains of the city display this importance through its grand architecture adorned with stunning Byzantine art. Unfortunately, Mystras suffered severe damage during the Greek Revolution in 1823. After the formation of the new Greek state, the decision was made to establish a new city nearby called Sparta, and the majority of the population was relocated there. Despite its abandonment, Mystras is definitely worth visiting. The collection of historic buildings and the preserved artworks inside the churches and other monuments make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great significance.
Situated atop a peak on the lower slopes of the majestic Taygetos Mountain, Mystras offers a picturesque backdrop of green forests, rocky outcrops, and snow-capped peaks in the cooler months. As you explore the historic site of Mystras, you’ll feel like you’re walking through a ghost town. Many buildings lie in ruins, but there are still several intact structures that allow you to get a glimpse into the city’s vibrant past. The collection of churches, in particular, stands out. Their frescoes and other artworks are captivating, providing a unique perspective into the cultural evolution of the Byzantine Empire.
While Ancient Greece receives much attention when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Greece, it’s important to recognize the significant influence of the Byzantine Empire on the country. Mystras, along with other sites such as Daphni Monastery near Athens and the churches of Thessaloniki, highlights this lesser-known period of Greek history. Mystras is not just about aesthetics; it played a crucial role in the cultural development of the Byzantine Empire and in Greek history as a whole. Visiting Mystras allows you to walk in the footsteps of philosophers, artists, and rulers from one of Greece’s most important eras.
Although the Byzantine Empire played a major role in shaping Mystras, the city wasn’t actually founded by them. It was the Franks, specifically Prince William II of Villehardouin of Frankish Greece, who established Mystras. However, the Byzantines quickly regained control of the city in 1962, just 13 years after its founding. This marked the beginning of a prosperous period for Mystras, during which it became a prominent center of Byzantine culture and learning. It even served as the capital of the Despotate of Morea under Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos in 1349. As Mystras grew in importance, more churches and monasteries were built, further enhancing its grandeur. The city eventually fell to the Ottomans, seven years after the official end of the Byzantine Empire, but it continued to be an important cultural center for the Greek Orthodox Church. It even came under Venetian control between 1687 and 1715. However, the Greek Revolution in 1823 led to the destruction of Mystras and the establishment of a new town called Sparta. Despite neglect, Mystras was eventually restored, and in 1989, it was recognized as a World Heritage Site.
Mystras is a vast site with numerous sections and important buildings to explore. To make the most of your visit, it’s recommended to start at the top of the city and walk downhill, visiting key landmarks along the way. One of the highlights is the Mystras Castle, which was the core of the city and offers breathtaking views from its walls. The Church of Hagia Sophia, built in the 14th century, served as the royal palace church and features impressive frescoes and other decorations. As you descend, you’ll come across the Church of Saint Nicholas, a lighter and more modern structure compared to earlier churches. Other notable sites include the Church of Pantanassa, the Metropolitan Palace, and the Palace of the Despots. Each of these buildings offers unique insights into the history, art, and architecture of Mystras.
In conclusion, visiting Mystras is a journey back in time to one of the most important eras of Greek history. Despite its abandonment, the city’s preserved buildings and artworks provide a glimpse into the grandeur and cultural significance of the Byzantine Empire. From the Mystras Castle to the churches and palaces, every step in this UNESCO World Heritage Site reveals the legacy of a bygone era. So, make sure to explore Mystras and immerse yourself in the history and beauty that this unique destination has to offer.