Mistra – medieval Sparta
Five miles west of Sparta, in the foothills of Mount Taygetus, is the romantic town of Mistra. Today it is an abandoned city, and has been made into a World Heritage Site, and for the tourist, there is far more to see in Mistra than in Sparta itself.
Mistra was founded in 1249 by William de Villehardouin a Frenchman from Champagne, one of Frenchmen who were trying to carve out empires in the eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of the ignominious Fourth Crusade. William did not hold it for long, for only 10 years later in 1259 at the battle of Pelagonia, he was defeated by the Byzantines and captured and was forced to give up Mistra as part of his ransom.
Mistra was a far more defensible site than old Sparta, There was a good water supply, the air was pure, and despite its steepness, it rapidly thrived while old Sparta was abandoned, and it soon became the capital of the whole of the Peloponnese. Indeed in the 14th century it became one of the principal towns are the Byzantine empire. Following the disastrous fourth Crusade, when the Christian crusaders sacked Christian Constantinople, Constantinople shrank to a shadow of its former self, and Mistra became one of the biggest of part of what remained of the Byzantine empire. Indeed some of the best late Byzantine art is to be found in Mistra.
It became the tradition for the emperors in Constantinople to send their sons and successors to being the rulers of Mistra as a stepping stone to becoming rulers of Constantinople itself and thus in the 14th century it became rich and powerful. Indeed Mistra survived for some 7 years after the fall of Constantinople itself in 1453 and it was not until 1460 that Mistra fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks.
Under the Turks it became a provincial backwater, though with a flourishing silk industry, and though it was captured by the Venetians from 1687 to 1715, the Venetian were in many ways even worse than the Turks. The final straw came in 1770 when the town was pillaged by Albanian Mercenaries, brought in by the /Turks, who then failed to pay them.
Then with the liberation of Greece in 1832, a new city of Sparta was founded down in the plain over the top of the classical city, and Mistra was abandoned though a modern town of Mistras has been formed at the foot of the hill outside the mediaeval town. In 1952 the last 30 inhabitants were finally moved out and now only the nuns remain in the old city. The ruins are now being spruced up as Mistra takes on the trappings of a thriving World Heritage Site.
Above. The Pantanassa (Queen of all) church on the border of the Middle town is the highlight of any visit to Mistra . It was the last church to be built, in 1428, and is the best preserved and it is the only building to be still occupied as a convent with half a dozen nuns. Each nun has her own room — see the photos below — while the rooms have a magnificent view as can be seen in the photo above where they are a row of windows just below the balcony.
These are the nuns’ rooms. Visitors are even allowed into this part of the monastery and it was fascinated to see how nuns actually live. In one of the end rooms one of the nuns was displaying their embroidery, samples of which could be purchased.
The main building was the Despots Palace — despot being the Greek word for Lord. In this aerial photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, we can see how far the mediaeval town structure had broken away from the classical Greek structure, for nowhere in classical Greece except perhaps in Macedonia does one see a Lord’s Palace. This demonstrates well the very different political, one might almost say the Barbarian, structure of the mediaeval world.
This is the largest and most grandiose of all the buildings at Mistra. It is an L-shaped structure on two sides of the only land flat enough in the city to be called a square. The oldest part is in the corner and may date back to the time of the Franks (1259 to 1262) or the first Byzantine administration. Subsequent buildings were erected to the right. The latest building is the large building to the left which dates from the time of the Palaiologoi, the most famous dynasty of Mistra and indeed of Constantinople, probably early 14th century. It consisted of a semi-basement used for storage, a raised ground floor used for barracks, and an upper story which was unpartitioned and was the throne room. The building has fallen into ruin and is now being totally repaired and will soon be the principal building in the town.
Another well preserved church is the church of the Peribleptos which is a traditional Orthodox style church partly quarried out of the rock. The church dates to between 1348 and 1389, and in the interior are some splendid wall paintings.
The frescos are the best surviving examples of this period. Steven Runciman says “ The drawing is still excellent . . . there is still an austere dignity in many of the figures, but here and there a touch wistfulness comes in. There is a slight loss of vigour. People seem not so much to move as to float. Nevertheless the decoration of the Peribleptos is the most interesting and successful of all those in Mistra. Some of the individual scenes are among the greatest of Byzantine works of art”.
Not all the buildings at Mistra were churches, – there were also the houses, though these on the whole are less well preserved. This is one of the finest, the ‘Laskaris’ house which is currently being preserved and almost rebuilt. “This fine mansion, write Steven Runciman, traditionally supposed to have belonged to the Lascaris family, juts out from the hillside. To the east end, over huge vaulted chambers, used for stores and, perhaps, stables, there were two floors, one for servants and offices, and an upper floor which opens on to an elegant balcony looking out over the valley below”.
No trace remains here of the classical tradition of architecture. This is surely firmly in the medieval tradition, the sort of house which might well be seen in Venice, overlooking the canal.
The story of the alternation between Sparta and Mistra provides an interesting example of the differences of what I call barbarism and civilisation.
Although there have been some recent Neolithic excavations, the first major settlement was that of the Mycenaeans, high on the hills above Sparta, though on the other side of the Valley from Mistra, where the site is of a palace, or at least a big house, followed by a hero’s shrine.
Then with the advent of Greek civilisation the site moves down into the fertile valley — though as we have argued, it does not really become ‘civilisation’ but remains five isolated villages. ‘Civilisation’ only begins with the Romans, from whom the remains of a theatre and a large stoa have survived, while the only known temple of the classical period, to Artemis Orthia, was itself turned into a theatre.
However Mistra presents what I would regard as all the criteria of a “barbarian” settlement. It moves out of the flat and fertile valley bottom onto a steep hillside. There are numerous churches on which all the artistic skills and economic surplus are lavished. Civic activities are focused on the Despot’s palace – no sign of democracy. There are no signs of any entertainment either, no theatre, no baths, unless that is with Marx one calls the churches the ‘opium of the masses’. There is no market place either, though Runciman records the suspicion that the Jews, who may represent the nearest one can call a market function, had a settlement outside the walls.
It is only with the liberation of the Greeks from the Turks in 1832 that the new King Otto decided to move the town down from the hills back onto the plain, and symbolically placed it over the top of the old town, much to the disappointment of the modern archaeologist – the same happened with his other new town, Athens.
What we really want to know is what went on in classical Sparta. Was it really the bare city that Thucydides envisaged? Modern archaeology can of course investigate the ordinary houses of even a small village, and it would be fascinating to open up a wide area in the centre of one of the villages of classical Sparta to see what it was really like. Perhaps we would be able to learn a lot.
On to Modern Greece