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At Mystras, abandoned gold and stone palaces, churches, and monasteries line serpentine paths; the scent of herbs and wildflowers permeates the air; goat bells tinkle; and silvery olive trees glisten with the slightest breeze. An intellectual and cultural center where philosophers like Chrysoloras, "the sage of Byzantium," held forth on the good and the beautiful, Mystras seems an appropriate place for the last hurrah of the Byzantine emperors in the 14th century. Today the splendid ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive sights in the Peloponnese. A pleasant modern town adjoins the ruins.
In 1249 William Geoffrey de Villehardouin built the castle in Mystras in an attempt to control Laconia and establish Frankish supremacy over the Peloponnese. He held court here with his Greek wife, Anna Comnena, surrounded by knights of Champagne, Burgundy, and Flanders, but in 1259 he was defeated by the Byzantines. As the Byzantines built a palace and numerous churches (whose frescoes exemplified several periods of painting), the town gradually grew down the slope.
At first the seat of the Byzantine governor, Mystras later became the capital of the Despotate of Morea. It was the despots who made Mystras a cultural phenomenon, and it was the despots—specifically Emperor Constantine's brother Demetrios Palaiologos—who surrendered the city to the Turks in 1460, signaling the beginning of the end. For a while the town survived because of its silk industry, but after repeated pillaging and burning by bands of Albanians, Russians, and Ibrahim Pasha's Egyptian troops, the inhabitants gave up and moved to modern Sparta.
Among the most important buildings in the lower town (Kato Chora) is Ayios Demetrios, the mitropolis (cathedral) founded in 1291. Set in its floor is a stone with the two-headed Byzantine eagle marking the spot where Constantine XII, the last emperor of Byzantium, was consecrated. The cathedral's brilliant frescoes include a vivid depiction of the Virgin and the infant Jesus on the central apse and a wall painting in the narthex of the Second Coming, its two red-and-turquoise-winged angels sorrowful as they open the records of Good and Evil. One wing of the church houses a museum that holds fragments of Byzantine sculptures, later Byzantine icons, decorative metalwork, and coins.
In the Vrontokion monastery are Ayios Theodoros (AD 1295), the oldest church in Mystras, and the 14th-century Church of Panagia Odegetria, or Afendiko, which is decorated with remarkable murals. These include, in the narthex, scenes of the miracles of Christ: The Healing of the Blind Man, The Samaritan at the Well, and The Marriage of Cana. The fluidity of the brushstrokes, the subtle but complicated coloring, and the resonant expressions suggest the work of extremely skilled hands.
The Pantanassa monastery is a visual feast of intricate tiling, rosette-festooned loops, and myriad arches. It is the only inhabited building in Mystras; the hospitable nuns still produce embroidery that you can purchase. Step out onto the east portico for a view of the Eurotas river valley below.
Every inch of the tiny Perivleptos monastery, meaning "attracting attention from all sides," is covered with exceptional 14th-century illustrations from the New Testament, including The Birth of the Virgin; in a lush palette of reds, yellows, and oranges; The Dormition of the Virgin above the entrance (with Christ holding his mother's soul represented as a baby); and, immediately to the left of the entrance, the famous fresco the Divine Liturgy.
In the upper town (Ano Chora), where most aristocrats lived, stands a rare Byzantine civic building, the Palace of Despots, home of the last emperor. The older, northeastern wing contains a guardroom, a kitchen, and the residence. The three-story northwest wing contains an immense reception hall on its top floor, lighted by eight Gothic windows and heated by eight huge chimneys; the throne probably stood in the shallow alcove that's in the center of a wall.
In the palace's Ayia Sofia chapel, the Italian wives of emperors Constantine and Theodore Palaiologos are buried. Note the polychromatic marble floor and the frescoes that were preserved for years under whitewash, applied by the Turks when they transformed this into a mosque. Climb to the castle and look down into the gullies of Mt. Taygettus, where it's said the Spartans, who hated weakness, hurled their malformed babies.
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