Ancient Sparta & The Byzantine Castle of Mystras

Is the capital of the prefecture. A simple town built in the Evrotas river valley, in the same site where the ancient city stood. Some ruins remain of the ancient acropolis: The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (6th c. BC), The Tomb of Leonidas (5th c. BC) and the Menelaion. The museum with findings from the area is housed in a neoclassical building in the centre of the town. The plain of Lakonia spreads out around Sparta, green and cool. A few kilometers distant is the ascent for Taigetos. Snowy peaks and precipitous rocks. Plateaus and ravines. Olive groves on the gentler slopes. Porlars, willows and plane trees line the banks of the Evrotas. Gardens of every shade of green. And the series of villages continues. Some drenched in chestnut trees (Anavrito), or enormous plane trees (Karies), or perched in precarious sports– real eagles’ nest (Georgitsi). Some boasting castles and Byzantine churches (Geraki, Vresthena, Vrondamas) and others simply bucolic. The succession of villages makes you want to wander and poke about them. Every instant is different. You need love and an adventurous spirit to walk this land but who would not love it?

MYSTRAS

Occupies a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos, 6km. northwest of Sparta. The castle on the top of the hill was founded in 1249 by the Frankish leader William II de Villeharduin. After 1262 it came under Byzantine control, and at the middle of the 14th century became the seat of the Despotate of Moreas. In 1448 the last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, was crowned at Mystras. In 1460 the hill was captured by the Turks and in 1464 Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini managed to capture the city but not the castle. For a short period of time Mystras came under the control of the Venetians (1687-1715) but was again taken over by the Turks. It was one of the first castles of Greece to be liberated in 1821. The foundation of modern Sparta by king Otto in 1834 marked the end of the old town’s life. The most important monuments of the site of Mystra are:

THE CASTLE

a) THE FORTIFICATION: The Frankish castle with the battlements and towers was founded by William II de Villeharduin and was later reinforced by the Greeks and the Turks.

b) THE WALLS: The two strongly fortified circuit walls were strengthened by tall, rectangular towers, dated to the Late Byzantine period.

THE CATHEDRAL OF SAINT DEMETRIOS

It belongs to a mixed architectural type: it is a three-aisled basilica on the ground floor with a narthex and a bell tower (dated to the second half of the 13th century), and a cross-in-square church on the upper floor (added in the first half of the 15th century). The interior is decorated with wall paintings representing many different styles, dated to the period between 1270/80 and the first quarter of the 14th century. The wall paintings of the dome date to the 15th century.

CHURCH OF SAINTS THEODORE

It was built between 1290 and 1295 by the monks Daniel and Pachomios. It is of the octagonal type, with lateral chapels, and is decorated with wall paintings dating from the end of the 13th century. Church of Our Lady Hodegetria (the Leader of the Way). It was built in 1310 by abbot Pachomios. It belongs to the mixed architectural type with a narthex and lateral chapels and is decorated with excellent wall paintings, dated to 1312-1322, some of which are connected to the Constantinopolitan art.

CHURCH OF AGHIA SOPHIA

Domed, cross-in-square, two-column church, built in the middle of the 14th century. It has side chapels and a bell-tower. Remarkable wall paintings are preserved in the sanctuary and the chapels.

MONASTERY OF OUR LADY PERIBLEPTOS

The catholicon (main church) is a domed, two-column, cross-in-square church with chapels. Beside it stands the Tower Refectory. The church is decorated with wall paintings of exceptional artistic quality, made by various artists of the third quarter of the 14th century.

CHURCH OF OUR LADY EVANGELISTRIA

Domed, cross-in-square, two-column church decorated with wall paintings of the beginning of the 15th century.

MONASTERY OF OUR LADY PANTANASSA

The catholicon belongs to the mixed architectural type and has exterior porticoes and a bell tower. Fine wall paintings dated to ca. 1430 are preserved on the upper floor and in the sanctuary, while the wall paintings on the ground floor date from the 18th century.

PALACES OF THE MYSTRA DESPOTES

Large building complex, L-shaped in plan. It contains many buildings of different functions, erected in different phases between the 13th and the 15th centuries

THE CULTURE OF SPARTA

Sparta was in many regards the opposite pole to Athens from a cultural perspective. Lycurgus’ training and rule offered the city a formalized system of mandatory military training, as well as a constitution and social structure which allowed all Spartans some form of equality. Sparta was patriarchal (like Athens) and militaristic (unlike Athens). Lycurgus’s precept required military service for nearly a person’s entire life, and was excluded to the helots and the perieoki. Only the male spartiate were admitted into Lycurgus’ training, where at the age of seven, a male child was taken from their mother, and until the age of 30 and possibly beyond were dedicated to their training and to their service to the state.

When a male child was born in Sparta, they were washed in wine rather than water, to see if it induced a fit which in turn was a mandatory test for the child’s strength. From then on, nurses rather than mothers, primarily brought up the child with little coddling, and only simple food. When the child reached the age of seven, they were ready for their education and were organized into age groups or Agelai (relatively meaning flock or flocks of animals). Once introduced into the age groups, they were introduced to communal living with their age group and with others. From then on once assigned the Agelai, the children became subject to the Agoge. The Agoge was what allowed a Spartan child to become a homoioi or equal, which meant they were not reserved to work for the rest of their lives, and could have the political freedoms of a citizen. The training that went on throughout the Agoge was brutal. Always under the control of someone older than themselves, the specific Agelai were subjected to numerous competitive events and staged battles. Regardless, a child’s education did include choral dance, reading, and writing, but athleticism and strength was stressed. No small wonder that the Spartans themselves won many of the Olympic events in Athens. After the Agoge, the Agelai, were reintegrated into society slowly, by undertaking the krypteia. The krypteia was partaken of by select individuals rather than by the entire agelai, during it, armed with a small knife, no shelter, clothing, or food, the youths hid during the day, and in the evening as a sort of ‘secret police’ patrolled the helot land plots in search of potential revolts, and roamed the mountainside. Once the krypteia was complete, the individuals who survived it were given high standing in the army, and potentially became a part of the Three Hundred Knights. After the krypteia, the men were expected to marry. Marriage was stressed highly in Spartan society, specifically in the proliferation of young healthy children. However, the marriage ceremony for a Spartan man and woman was not highly ritualized. The woman was abducted in the night, her head would be shaved, and she was made to wear men’s clothing and lye on a straw pallet in the dark. The groom afterward would return to the barrack of young men, and would have little or no contact with the bride from thereafter, save for purely procreative visits. A Spartan male could have multiple wives, (anthropologically known as polygamy) but lived mostly amongst his mess and barrack mates with little connection to the opposite sex. Until the age of thirty or onward, a Spartan man’s life was entirely dedicated to his state and to the army.