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Monday, November 16, 2015

Mystras: Walking the history of Byzantium

Although Sparta is notorious for its ancient history, with citizens who were the best warriors in all of the then-known world. But hidden in this region’s long past is a jewel of the most recent times that has made it into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and is definitely worth visiting: Mystras.

Mystras is located on the foothill of Mt. Taygetos, around 6km. away from Sparta. We traveled there from our hotel Alas Resort on car, that the front desk booked us. The road was great and really pleasant on a sunny day to drive. During our trip, we gathered all info we had on this “ghost town”.

Founded by the Frankish leader William II de Villeharduin in 1249, the castle on top of Mystras served as the seat of the Despotate of Moreas, hosting royalty and nobles. For two centuries the town became very prosperous, rich and powerful, second only to Constantinople, in the Eastern Roman Empire, what we now call Byzantium.

In 1460 Mystras was captured by the Ottomans and with the short exceptions of 1464, when Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini capture the city but not the castle, and 1687-1715 that it came under the control of the Venetians, the Turks held in until the Greek War of Independence in 1821, when it was one of the first castles of Greece to be liberated.

While under the Otto rule, people fled from this rocky terrain, seeking better places to build houses, that would allow them to cultivate earth. This led to many early scholars and western travelers belief that these were the ruins of ancient Sparta, thus turning the town into a sightseeing place. When Greece became independent, people knew what Mystras was, however it still was dropped in favour of the modern-day Sparta and its ruins were left unattended.

Today, a walk on Mystras helps us better understand the elaborate Christian art during Byzantium, and finding from here have helped historians better define periods of the Empire. One can visit the Metropolis of Mystras, the Hodigitria church, Upper and Middle City, the gates and countless more sites.

Better visit Mystras on an afternoon or early in the morning, better yet, skip it during a hot day and prefer a cloudy one that will help you during your strolling among the pebbled streets. Comfy shoes and light fabrics are mandatory, as is a bottle of cold water, that will prove essential!

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