Mystras: The Byzantine Castle City
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Evocative medieval ruins hug the steep hillside as if trying to hold tight to their city's glorious past. And Mystras was glorious. At its zenith, it was a dynamic intellectual and artistic center of 20,000, with gates and fortifications, palaces and churches, mansions and houses, and streets with decorative fountains. Wandering those streets today, you imagine a city with a brilliant destiny. Yet it was abandoned to the ravages of time.
It all began with a vision for a great castle. In 1249, a Frankish lord constructed his castle on the hilltop overlooking Sparta. It would be strong enough, he hoped, to resist attacks by the Byzantines. But he was barely finished before defeat in battle forced him to trade the castle for his freedom. Mystras' landmark would pass to myriad conquerors over the centuries.
A Byzantine general took over in 1262, and by the mid-1300s Mystras was capital of the Peloponnese. In this commanding role, it reached its glory days as a fine Byzantine town. Culture and arts flourished. Great thinkers from Constantinople and the West gathered. Then, in 1449, Byzantium's last emperor was crowned at the Cathedral; four years later he was killed when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. The 1500-year-old Roman Empire was over.
The castle was handed the Turks, to the Venetians, then to the Turks again. By 1830, the city was forsaken. Miraculously, the ruins have left Byzantium's last spiritual and artistic center impressively intact. Mystical Mystras clung to its history. Its thinkers lit a spark that continues to illuminate the Greek world. And this castle town still ignites the imagination of all who see it.
Lighting the spark in Mystras
Among Mystras' influential thinkers was Plethon, a 15th-century devotee of Plato. As the Byzantine Empire waned, Plethon reintroduced Plato's ideas and urged the Greeks to rediscover the glories of their ancient past. They listened. Plethon's teachings are credited with the rebirth of classical culture in Greece and beyond. His ideas helped to revive learning in Western Europe and gave momentum to the Renaissance.
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