Following the road from Sparta which passes through plane trees, cypresses, olive trees, mulberries and orange trees we reach Mystras. In the distance, mount Taygetos looms proudly. We scan its innumerable peaks, precipitous slopes and deep gorges until our gaze suddenly rests on a hill, detached from the mountain range. On the naturally defended hill of Myzithras in Lacedaimon, the ruler of the Frankish Principate of Achaia Guillaume de Villehardouin built in 1249 a strong medieval castle the "Oriokastro" which was to play an important role in the history of the last centuries of the Byzantine empire.
In 1262 the Byzantines made themselves masters of Mystras, inaugurating a brilliant period for the medieval fortress-state. Houses covered the hill, mansions and palaces, churches and fortified monasteries were built and the densely settled city was encircled by two enclosure walls.
High on its summit stands an impregnable fortress and on its flanks extends the erstwhile glorious Medieval state of Mystras, now in ruins and silent.
We go back into time, to the era of the Frankish Occupation of Greece, the time when the Crusaders, having conquered Constantinople in 1204, shared the rest of the country between themselves, thus creating small states. The most significant of these, the French Principality of Morea, was much retarded in spreading throughout the entire Peloponnese and so in 1249 the Frankish Prince of Achaia, Guillaume de Villehardouin, managed with the help of the Venetians, to take Monemvasia and so pass through the whole of Laconia. There it was that he came and built a castle on this wisely chosen inaccessible hill in order to rule over the whole of Lacedaemonia. However, the sovereign with his iron-clad knights did not enjoy this land for long. A decade later Guillaume was taken prisoner while fighting against the Emperor Michael Palaiologos at Pelagonia, nowadays in Yugoslavia, and was forced to surrender his castle in return for his freedom.
So Mystras, a Frankish castle, once again became the seat of the Byzantine commander of the Peloponnese. The inhabitants of Sparta, who felt insecure in the undefended plain, moved to this spot which consequently started coming to life and developed into a city. Houses were built, a Metropolis, monasteries, palaces and ramparts. Mystras developed at such a rate that a hundred years after the building of the castle, in 1348, it became the capital of the Despotate of Morea with Manuel Kantakouzenos as first Despot, son of the Emperor John VI.
Later, in 1384, the Palaiologoi came and succeeded in the expansion of the Despotate virtually throughout the Peloponnese. During these years Mystras experienced its greatest fluorite. An intellectual centre developed were personalities in the arts and letters brought from the capital of the Empire, which was then in decline, congregated. Distinguished among them was the Neoplatonic philosopher Georgios Gemistos, Plethon who attracted many pupils around him and taught them the ancient authors as well as his own innovative ideas concerning the social and religious organization of the state.
However, the disaster which dogged the sovereign was not slow in reaching here also and so when Konstantinos Palaiologos, Despot of Mystras, left for the capital wearing the martyred crown of the last emperor, his brother Demetrios who succeeded him after the legendary Fall of Constantinople in 1453, surrendered the castle to the Turks in 1460.
The splendor and grandeur of Mystras ceased but a commercial centre was created where in 1687, after Morosini had subjugated and plundered the area, 42.000 souls lived a life of comparative economic affluence based on the rich production of silk. In 1770, when Orloff's fleet anchored in the Mane, the Greeks were aroused and attacked the Turks of Mystras alongside the Russians.
They breathed the air of freedom for only a few months and then the wrath of the Albanians burst upon them. For ten years they butchered, broke down and burnt everything. It was liberated once again during the 1821 Revolution but in 1825 Ibrahem set fire to this much-tortured place for the last time. By the time King Othon came and built new Sparta, Mystras was already dead. The gloomy world of the ruins remained as a testimony of a state which in its day constituted the unique hope of the revival of an empire which was slowly dying and which is today the sole example of a medieval settlement with its castle, the fortification walls encircling it, its palaces, churches and mansions.
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