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Byzantine Mystras – The jewel of the Peloponnese


The old city of Byzantine Mystras was once a thriving hub of Byzantine culture and politics. From the 13th century until the 19th century, when the foundation of modern Sparti sounded the final death knell for the citadel, Mystras was one of the most important cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although time and seismology have taken their toll, Byzantine Mystras is still an impressive sight, blending crumbling ruins with a cascade of wildflowers.


Mystras, as we know it, was founded in 1249 by Frankish crusaders, who were trying to strengthen their hold on the Peloponnese. They occupied the area, in 1204, after the capture of Constantinople during the IVth crusade. Guillaume II de Villehardouin was responsible for building the castle here, but the Byzantines regained control of the area in 1262. During the Battle of Pelagonia, in 1259, when the Principate of Achaia fought against the Greek Empire of Nicaea, Guillaume was captured. Mystras, along with Monemvasia and Greater Mani, formed part of his ransom payment, and was ceded to the Greeks. Although sporadic outbursts of fighting continued, the Greeks dominated the Peloponnese for many years.


After 1262, the entire district, known as the Morea, was governed by a Byzantine general based at Mystras. Fighting with the Franks continued for many years, resulting in the inhabitants of the city of Sparta moving behind the protective city walls of Byzantine Mystras. The increase in population was the primary reason for the development of the site, from defended village to full blown town and centre of culture. Instead of being solely a military garrison, monasteries, churches and a library were built, and the See of the Bishop of Lacedaemonia was established here. In addition, the governorship of Byzantine Mystras became a permanent and hereditary position. Gradually, the site was tied to Constantinople, by bonds of blood and religious hierarchy.


Throughout all periods of history, the strategic importance of the Peloponnese, as a crossroads for the eastern Mediterranean, influenced its cultural and political development. This significance was no different in the mid-fourteenth century, when Franks and Turks continually attempted to seize the area. This, coupled with labyrinthine Byzantine political manoeuvring, led to Emperor John VI Katakouzenos sending his son, Manuel, to stop the continual infighting. This task he performed admirably and he continued to develop the growing settlement. Again, political power struggles led to changes in the balance of power in Byzantine Mystras. The nephew of Manuel, Demitrius, tried to declare independence from the new emperor in Constantinople, John V Palaiologos, and was ruthlessly defeated. The son of the emperor, Theodore, took the reins of command in the area, and Mystras was bound ever more tightly to the Byzantine sphere of influence.

Under the Palaiologoi, the influence of Byzantine Mystras grew, encompassing the whole of the Peloponnese. Despite continued internal wranglings and external pressures, the city thrived for nearly 80 years, until 1460. Throughout this period, the strengthening Turkish presence in the Middle East was a major threat, not just to Mystras, but to the whole Byzantine Empire. In 1423, the Turks raided the Peloponnese and caused mayhem, until Theodore II stabilised the area, with the aid of his brother Constantine. After yet another Turkish invasion, in 1446, and a revolt of ethnic Albanians in the Peloponnese, the tensions bubbled to the surface. Some elements of the ruling class agitated for alliance with the Turks, others advocated seeking aid from the Latin powers. A large army of Turks, under Mohammed II, invaded Byzantine Mystras, and a new period of Turkish rule began.


For a long period of time, until the Greek War of Independence, in 1825, the town of Mystra remained under Turkish dominion. Without the authority of the Byzantine church, it no longer wielded the same amount of influence, but it was still an important provincial capital. In 1464 and 1687, some attempts were made, by the Venetians, to capture the citadel. The 1687 assault was successful, and the town reached its peak population, of about 42 000 people. In 1714, the Turks recaptured Mystras, and used it as a base against the troublesome Maniots. This was the beginning of the end for the town, and by the end of the War of Independence, it was a shadow of its former glory. The building of the modern town of Sparti, in 1831, delivered the final blow to Byzantine Mystras.

Article from articlesbase.com

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