Mystras: The last haven of Byzantine civilization

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In 1249, William II of Villehardouin, the Frankish ruler of the Peloponnese, began building Mystras, a fortress on a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt Taygetos, 6 kilometers northwest of the present-day town of Sparta, the capital of Laconia. 

Though it was not his capital, Mystras was the prince’s favorite residence, offering unparalleled views of the fertile plains below and the purple mountains surrounding it. However, in 1259, during the Battle of Pelagonia against Byzantine-led forces, he was captured and was only released three years later, after having first surrendered Mystras as part of his ransom. The battle signaled the end of Frankish rule of Greece and opened the way for the Byzantine princes to retake Constantinople, the capital which had fallen to the Crusaders in 1204. 

The hill town increased in importance as a haven of Byzantine civilization at a time when the empire was set on a course of decline, its power eroded by internal feuding and pervasive corruption. High-ranking officials arrived from Constantinople and architects built richly decorated churches. By the early 15th century, Mystras was a recognized seat of learning. 

Politically as well, the city grew in importance as the Ottoman Turks drew an ever-tighter ring around Constantinople. The last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine Palaiologus, was crowned here in 1449. Four years later, he fell fighting the Turks on the wall of the capital. 

Mystras fell six years later. For a short period (1687-1715), it came under Venetian control, but was again taken by the Turks. The foundation of modern Sparta by King Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town’s life. 

Today, unlike any other Byzantine site, it is an entire medieval walled city, where the main monuments have been carefully restored and steep, narrow alleyways climb between ruined chapels and roofless houses. The fame of the site, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, rests mainly on its church frescoes. Expert say these reflect the Hellenistic tradition in terms of Christian art and influenced Giotto via the Greek iconographers who began migrating to Italy in the 14th century. But it was probably a case of two-way traffic, as the perceptions of resident artists must have also been influenced by Byzantine scholars returning home from Italy. 

Source: ekathimerini [April 15, 2011]

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