Mystras: last outpost of Byzantium – the Palaces of the Despot

The first church we visit is Agia Sofia (originally dedicated to – Christos Zoodotes – Christ the giver of life) in the Upper town. Built between 1350-65 by the Emperor Manuel Cantacuzenos, it was the official church of the palace of the Despot and the burial-place of several Emperors’ wives.

The picture above shows one of the issues encountered at this amazing site: the two ladies chatting under the portico. There are no guides to the architecture and history of the churches or to the frescoes. So we are left to wonder round in admiration but with little understanding of what it is we are looking at. The two ladies, and similar presences at the other churches on the site, seem just to be there as custodians, rather than guides.

However, there are some wonderful frescoes in this church.

From the Upper town you can also look down on the L-shaped Palace of the Despot, currently undergoing major renovation work. It sits on the only natural plateau on the site.

The unroofed building on the right is the first palace that was built either by the Franks or by the first Byzantine military governors of Mystras. The middle section of the right hand wing is the Palace of the Cantacuzenoi, built in the 14th century, and the left hand wing is the Palace of the Palaeologoi, built in the fifteenth century.

The upper floor of the Palace of the Palaeologoi, called the Golden Throne Room, was a huge room for ceremonies, receptions and audiences and had a low bench running round the walls where visitors sat. It was heated by eight fireplaces on the ground floor and was lit by two rows of windows on the inner side, eight large rectangular ones and 8 round ones above them. The large balcony was used by the Despot to address the local people assembled on the plateia in front of the Palace at official gatherings.

The scale of the building work raises a second issue, which seems to be a particular feature of Greek sites: restoration vs rebuilding. When does restoration cross the line and become rebuilding? If you look at earlier pictures of the Palaces before the current work was started, you see that they are all in the same state as the first Palace on the right hand side, ie just shells of buildings with no roof. Judging by the work in hand at Mystras the Cantacuzenoi and Palaeologi Palaces now look like a Russian oligarch’s modest dwelling. In other words they have gone beyond restoration and become completely new buildings. Even if they are built with total respect for historical accuracy, I don’t think it’s authentic. For me it’s almost as bad as the vandalism of Arthur Evans at Knossos.

Right, rant over!


4 thoughts on “Mystras: last outpost of Byzantium – the Palaces of the Despot

  1. Is the rebuilding the bit that’s also a different colour from the surrounding brick? If so, that’s a LOT!
    Great post, by the way!

  2. Hi robpacker,

    Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

    Yes, you’re right it is a different colour, though it may be that the stone might weather back over time to mach the older buildings. On the other had, it might not…

    It makes about as much sense as us rebuilding Stonehenge to the time when it was actually being used as a temple / gateway to the next world / celestial computer (delete whichever doesn’t fit the archaeological current theory). It’s theme park history.

    BTW, I’m interested in your work for KIVA. I’ve just started reading the relevant parts of your blog. It is similar to what my wife and I were trying to do in Belarus with Credit Unions, but on a much bigger scale.

    (apologies – still ranting!)

  3. Pingback: Recent wordscene posts about Mystras « Byzantine Blog

  4. Pingback: Review of 2013 posts | wordscene

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