The ruins of the medieval city of Mystra are 3 miles (5 kilometers) northwest of modern Sparta in the Peloponnese. In 1204 the Fourth Crusade, turned aside from its original purpose by Venetian bribes, sacked Constantinople and established Frankish dominion over Greek territories. Among the most important states they founded was the Principality of the Morea, or the Principality of Achaea, governed from 1210 by Geoffroi I de Villehardouin. In 1249 his second son, Guillaume II de Villehardouin, built a castle atop a steep cone-shaped foothill overlooking the fertile valley of Eurotas and strategically commanding the Taygetos Range to the west and the valley of Laconia to the east.
Over the next few centuries the city of Mystra grew on the slopes below. Its name probably comes from the shape of the hill, which resembled a Myzethra cheese. Mystra, with a population that once exceeded 42,000, has been dubbed the “wonder of the Morea.” Like Venice, but for different reasons, it occupies a site that is totally inappropriate for a city, and its construction was a significant architectural achievement.
In 1261 the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus regained Constantinople. The following year, Guillaume II de Villehardouin paid his ransom—he had been captured in 1259—with a number of castles including Mystra, and Michael VIII installed a Byzantine despot. The Villehardouin line survived until 1301, when Philip of Savoy became Prince of Morea. Throughout most of the fourteenth century the principality was in the hands of the Angevin House of Naples, and then controlled by the Venetians. The Byzantines regained it through matrimonial and political alliances and in 1448 Constantine XI Paleologus, the last Byzantine emperor, was crowned at Mystra. For about 350 years after 1460 Turks and Venetians took and retook the city. In 1821 it was among the first places the Greeks liberated from their Turkish oppressors. Ironically, the demise of Mystra was brought about by the foundation of the modern town of Sparta in 1834. The first inhabitants came from the old city; others built the modern village of Mystra.
Mystra has had a tumultuous history, and the different traditions of its occupiers account for its hybridized architecture. In the mid–thirteenth century, the Byzantines’ persistent attempts to expel the Franks caused anxiety among the local populace. Many left the Eurotas plain to settle closer to the castle of Mystra. Houses were built on the lower slopes of the hill, and soon churches were constructed, clinging to the mountainside. This precipitous medieval city was surrounded by inner and outer circuit walls, commissioned in 1249 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, and later repaired and augmented by the Byzantines and the Turks when they occupied the city. The walls were fortified by high rectangular towers, and of course dominated by the castle. They can hardly be described as concentric, because they snaked along contours and plummeted down steep slopes; nevertheless, they contained and defended the city. On its northeast and west sides the craggy hill of Mystra climbs sheer from the narrow valley. The defensive walls divided Mystra into the lower and upper quarters: the urban classes lived in the former, while the aristocracy occupied the latter with its palaces, two- or three-story vaulted mansions, and various administrative buildings. Two heavily fortified gates—the Monembassia and the Nauplia—linked them.
The L-shaped Palace of the Despots, possibly begun by Guillaume II de Villehardouin and built in stages between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, occupies an incongruously flat terrace overlooking the Eurotas Valley to the east. The two wings housed many different functions: the private apartments, a palace chapel, an open colonnade, and a large well-lighted hall for assemblies and ceremonies. Just north of the palace stood the mid-fourteenth-century church of Hagia Sofia, a centrally planned funerary chapel for the despot Manouil Katakouzenos. The winding streets of Mystra, as they followed the contours of the hillside, are lined with churches, many built after the metropolitan bishop of Lacedaemonia—the medieval name for Sparta—transferred his cathedra to Mystra. Chief among them is the “mixed architectural type” cathedral: the Metropolis of St. Demetrios (ca. 1309) is a three-aisled basilica at its lower level; the fifteenth-century upper floor, consisting of a women’s gallery, is a cross-in-square roofed with five cupolas. Many churches—the thirteenth-century Church of St. Theodore, the Church of the Virgin Evangelistria, and the Peribleptos Monastery (both fourteenth century)—were purely Byzantine in form. Apart from the fifteenth-century Pantanassa Convent, which is still in use, the buildings of Mystra have been reduced to ruins, some by fire, others by being used as quarries when modern Sparta was being built. A few fine frescoes survive; many more have been destroyed.
Extensive restoration work has been undertaken over many years by the Committee for the Restoration of the Mystras Monuments and the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. Mystra was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1989.