A Journey to Byzantium: The Mountain Ruins of Mistras
by Michael Goodyear
Evangelistria's church, Mistras. Image: Sailko CC BY 2.5
For most, Greek history conjures up images of the glories of ancient Greece and the country’s most storied ruins, such as the Acropolis in Athens or the great amphitheater at Epidauros. Yet Greece has a much richer history than just the ancients: indeed, for over a millennia it was one of the core provinces of the Roman Empire.
Once the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Eastern Roman Empire (referred to as the Byzantine Empire by historians) maintained Greece as one of its central territories for centuries. The Peloponnese in Southern Greece was of special importance as the last province of this Roman Empire, even surviving when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. At the core of the Byzantine Peloponnese, called the Despotate of the Morea, was the provincial capital of Mistras.
History of Mistras
Drawing of Mistras, 1686
Nestled along the slopes of the Taygetos Mountains, Mistras was first established by a Frankish prince, William II of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea, in 1249. William built an impressive castle on top of a hill that rose 2,000 feet above the Laconian plain, making it an ideal position for monitoring the surrounding area. Following a military defeat to the resurgent Byzantine Empire, William was forced to hand over the castle to the Byzantines in 1262. Despite being an isolated Byzantine outpost in a Frankish Sea, Mistras became a beacon for the Greek-speaking Roman population of the region. The population of the neighboring town of Lacedemonia, ancient Sparta, moved to Mistras, turning it into a significant town.
Under the rule of semi-autonomous despots during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, Mistras became a center of Byzantine culture and learning at the twilight of the Byzantine Empire. It was the site of an intellectual renaissance, with the greatest philosopher of late Byzantium, George Gemistos Plethon, living there for decades and the scholar emperors John VI Kantakouzenos and Manuel II Palaiologos both spending time in the city. It was even where the final Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was crowned emperor of the Romans.
The city of Mistras survived the demise of the Byzantine Empire and remained the main town of the region during the Ottoman period until it was sacked in retaliation for a Russian-backed Greek uprising in 1770. Once Greece became independent in 1832, the new king, Otto, decided to re-found the ancient town of Sparta nearby rather than restore Mistras. Today, Mistras remains virtually uninhabited, except for a small community of nuns.
Travelling into the Morea
View of modern Mistras. Image © Michael Goodyear
The ruins of Mistras are one of the best kept secrets in Greece. Despite the ravages of war and time, many of the walls, streets, and edifices of medieval Mistras have been preserved. Conservation work has further restored the palace of the despots along with other buildings. With this remarkably preservation, a journey to Mistras is practically a step back in time to the forgotten era of Byzantine Greece.
However, Mistras’ isolated location makes it more challenging to reach than more major tourist centers. There are daily buses that go from Athens to modern Sparta (Sparti) operated by KTEL starting from the Kifissos Bus Terminal, which take approximately three and a half hours to reach Sparti. When I was traveling to Mistras, the ticket booth operator at the Kifissos Bus Terminal questioned why I would want to visit Sparti, which, given the limited archaeological record and lack of major ancient monuments, is infrequently visited by tourists. I am not sure he thought visiting Mistras instead was an acceptable answer, but he reluctantly handed me the bus ticket.
Once in Sparti, you can hail a taxi to drive you the four miles to Mistras, just to the west of the city. A modern town of Mistras has developed at the base of the hill where the medieval ruins are located. The modern town is compact, centered around the square, but immediately you can tell that here Byzantine heritage is preserved and honored. Flags with double-headed eagles, an insignia of the late Byzantine Empire, fluttered from the rooftops. Souvenir stores sold icons of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, who had served as despot of the Morea, ruling from Mistras in the 1440s. At the edge of the town was a statute of Constantine, dedicated in his memory.
Streets Where Emperors Walked
View from the Villehardouin Castle, including the Palace of the Despots. Image © Michael Goodyear
From the base camp of modern Mistras, the medieval ruins of Mistras rise above you, with the hill dominating the landscape. It is a two mile hike from the base of the hill to the top, but you can enter Mistras from either the base or the top of the hill. Outside of the walls, the roads are paved, while inside Mistras the roads are cobblestone, making the uphill hike far easier than from the outside. From either route, once you reach the top, you can see for miles over the Laconian plain, practically to Sparti, where you took your first steps in Laconia.
At the very top of the hill is the castle built by William of Villehardouin. Although only ruins remain, you can still walk along the ramparts and see how the fortifications would have been difficult to assault for even the most redoubtable attacker. From the castle, you can wind your way down through cobblestone-lined streets flanked by stone walls until you arrive at the upper part of the city. The Byzantine churches of Agia Sophia and Agios Nikolaos, as well as the Palace of the Despots, dominate the upper town. They are superb examples of Byzantine architecture, with rounded tile roofs, tightly packed stone walls with distinctive red brick bands, and vaulted windows and ceilings. The upper town is surrounded by its own walls, with gates on both the outer and inner sides.
Views of Mistras, from top left: City Gate, Image: Sailko CC BY 2.5; Cobbled street, Image © Michael Goodyear; Hodigitria church, Image: Sailko CC BY 2.5; The Aga Sophia church, Image © Michael Goodyear; Inside the Pantanassa Monestary, Image © Michael Goodyear; The Pantanassa Monastery, Image: Ed88 CC BY-SA 3.0
As you continue your trip down the hill, head to the right as you come to a fork in the road to reach the Pantanassa Monastery, the only currently inhabited part of old Mistras. Nuns still live here, but you can visit the interior of the Pantanassa Monastery, which boasts stunning Byzantine frescoes. After departing from the Pantanassa Monastery, you can enter the middle town, which is much more sprawling than the upper town. Be sure to travel both to the east and west of the Pantanassa Monastery, as there are several churches and monasteries, excavated houses, and ruins throughout the middle town.
At the far southern end of Mistras, you can explore the ruins of the lower town, including some dwellings that have been excavated. The northern end of the middle town boasts the ruins’ museum, which has some of the artifacts that have been discovered on site. However, while the museum provides some context, the ruins themselves are the main attraction. The lack of tourists only adds to the unique atmosphere of walking through the ruins of the town.
Dubbed the “wonder of the Morea,” Mistras is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking complexes of ruins in all of Greece. For lovers of medieval or Byzantine history, Mistras is one of the most important sites in medieval Greece, and one of the only ones to not have been built over by later construction. While the thousands of islands in Greece enchant tourists from across the world, mainland Greece has its own gems to share.
Mistras was a beating heart of late Byzantine culture, and through those streets walked Byzantine emperors, despots, the leading Greek thinkers of the day, and the townspeople that made Mistras what it was. The experience of hiking through a ruined medieval hill town that is lush with trees, flowers, and vegetation and being able to see across the plain for miles is a journey like no other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael has a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School and an B.A. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations from the University of Chicago, where he specialised in Byzantine history.
He has been published and has works forthcoming in a variety of academic and general-interest publications on history and law, including Le Monde Diplomatique and The Medieval Magazine, as well as law journals at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and the University of Michigan.