• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Mystras: Kosmikos & Apokosmos

“William found a remarkable hill, a fragment of a mountain” and “called it Myzithras because they shouted it thus, and he made it into a glorious castle.”

Chronicle of the Morea, 2990-2991[1]

Four miles NW of the modern town of Sparta, a steep foothill (cut off from the main massif) rises on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos. Its summit climbs 621 metres above sea-level and is inaccessible from the S/SW where the cliffs fall away into ravines. On its plateau Mystras spreads itself, master of the gorge below, which leads to the inner fastness of Taygetos – a region inhabited in the medieval period by Slavic tribes, the Melingoi.

First erected as a stronghold by – whisper it – Franks, William II of Villhardouin, Prince of Achaia (1245-78), built Mystra’s first castle (1249) only a decade or so before Michael VIII retook Constantinople (1261). The rest of the village, bounded by the Monemvasia gate to the east and Nauplia gate to the west, was built at roughly the same time.

On the lower northern slopes sit two churches: SS. Theodore and the Hodegetria (AKA the Aphendiko), which together constitute the Brontochion. These are among the earliest churches of Mystras, dating from the end of the thirteenth century. Further to the east the Metropolis (or Cathedral) was built in the last decades of the same century and dedicated to St Demetrios. Later, the Monastery of the Peribleptos was constructed against the rocks of the south-east slope. The church of the Evangelistria, which lies between the Metropolis and Brontochion, dates from the end of the fourteenth century.

The builders of Mystras brought most of their building material from the ruined houses of Sparta, the medieval Lacedaemonia (in the same way that medieval Spartans had built their houses from the ruins of ancient Sparta and, later, when the modern town was founded in 1831, they pilfered material from the ruins of Mystras). The town’s label predates the town, however. Myzithras having been the locality’s name – probably called after a regional landowner whose occupation or family trade was cheese-making.

The Franks did not enjoy the fruit of their labours for long. Having lost the Battle of Pelagonia (1259) against the Byzantines of Nicaea, William was forced to cede the fortresses of Monemvasia, the Great Maina and Mystras. The settlement was still little more than a tiny village, however, until the battles of Prinitza (1263) and Makryplagi (1264) forced the inhabitants of Sparta to up sticks and move to the shelter of Mystras’ citadel, taking the seat of the bishopric of Lacedaemonia with them.

Long before “Paddy” Fermor popularised Mani as a place of wild isolation pricked with incorrigible Greeks and their equivalents of England’s peles, fourteenth-century Mystras shared in the divisions that ruptured most of the empire. From protests against the imposition of levies for the fortification of the despotat to local interests vying with imperial orders (themselves riven by the plots of the Kantakouzenoi and Palaiologoi) a situation only ended when John V despatched an army under the command of his son Theodore to rule as despot.

While life from 1384 was hardly easy (there were still external enemies such as Turks, Navarrese and Venetians, as well as internal difficulties like the formulation of the Albanians as a separate national element) it was certainly more stable. This relative tranquility (in a polity wallowing in all the difficulties typically encountered by an empire suffering everybody betting against it) allowed outstanding figures such as Nikephoros Moschopoulos, Pachomios and Plethon to flourish.

Nevertheless, there were uprisings. The most serious occurred in reaction to the construction of the Hexamilion (near Corinth). Though this paled in comparison to the Albanian revolt when Constantinople fell (1453). Without the help of Mehmed II, the Palaiologoi would have failed to suppress the rebellion. A fact that produced two very different responses from the ruling house.

Demetrios at Mystras (like Scholarios) was well-disposed to the Turks and disliked the Franks. While Thomas at Patras (like Bessarion) sought aid from the Latins while despising the Turks. An awkward standoff ensued that was ended by the sultan in 1460 when he invaded, reducing Demetrios to a placeholder at the Ottoman court and Thomas to the life of an exile in Italy.

After this, Mystras become the seat of an vilayet (comprised of 118 villages) until – after an odd turn of events in Italy – the tyrant of Rimini, Sigismund Malatesta captured the town’s castle in 1464 on behalf of the Venetians. It wasn’t for another two centuries, however, that the Venetians would manage to successfully conquer and hold the possession, transferring the government of Laconia over to Monemvasia in the process.

In 1715, the Turks retook the town and used it as a military base for their operations against the Mani. A dynamic ended by the Orloff uprising (1770), which liberated Mystras for a few months (there’s a great fresco of the martyrdom of the metropolitan, Ananias Lambardis, over the entrance of the metropolis depicting his execution for supporting independence) only to be put down by Albanians who subsequently ruled over it for a decade.

The see-saw motion continued for a number of years with Greeks repossessing the town in the War of Independence and the Egyptian army of Ibrahim torching it in 1825. The real nail in the coffin for Mystras, however, was the foundation of modern Sparta in 1831. The few distinguished families who remained in the area moved to the new capital, and others descended to New Mystras, a well-wooded village built in the plain.

Not that it’s totally abandoned. The Monastery of Pantanassas was reclaimed in 1885 and is today occupied by six nuns who’re more than happy to dish out tea, spoon sweets and liker vissino (cherry liquor) to the faithful.

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