So why not something completely different? On a 2004 visit to Greece we found that nature is very much present inside, around and among not only ancient classical structures, but also Frankish, Byzantine and Venetian buildings and in contemporary urban and village contexts too. Nature and its bounty is honoured and represented in cultural practices and artefacts from antiquity to modern times.
In the Peloponnese town of Sparti and the nearby Byzantine site of Mystras (or Mystra), nature is impossible to ignore. The town of Sparti is dwarfed on three sides by a high ridge of mountains that are part of the Taygetos mountain range. And construction at Mystras commenced in 1249 with the building of a Frankish castle on the summit of a natural citadel on a high ridge adjoining the Taygetos mountains. Taking advantage of the natural fortress, the castle (or Kastro) has a 360 degree view over an enormously wide and fertile plain below and towards the mountains behind. In 1262 Mystras was taken over by Byzantines, becoming the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of Morea, an important political, religious and cultural centre of the Greek Byzantine Empire for two centuries.
A view from an olive grove on the outskirts of Sparti of the Taygetos mountains still showing traces of snow on the highest peaks in early May
When we visited in 2004, Sparti was a pleasant town featuring palm and orange trees in its streets. After arriving by bus and settling into our B&B we had a look around the town. When passing a fresh produce market we were charmed when a stall holder, noticing that we were strangers, gave us each a fresh apple and she was most amused that we were surprised and touched by her unsolicited kindness.
Around the corner from the market we were window shopping when a man approached us and with great enthusiasm said that we must follow him as he had something to show us. Of course we were most sceptical and thought we would likely be scammed if we followed him. But he said he wanted to show us Europe – well that is what we thought he said – and we were able to understand from his Greek-accented English that he mentioned something about archaeology and mosaics.
So we gave in to his enthusiasm and followed him half a block down the street and into a small plain building where we found an archaeological restoration project in progress. There before us was a large floor mosaic that had been painstakingly uncovered and restored to reveal a beautiful and almost intact mosaic featuring Europa riding on the back of a bull. Our guide told us that this particular image of Europa riding a bull appears on the 2 Euro coin. He explained that the mosaic had first been discovered when the small building was undergoing renovations.
I have since learned that the mosaic was first discovered in 1872 under half a metre of earth in a townhouse garden. In addition to the ‘Europa and the bull’ mosaic a second mosaic featuring ‘Orpheus with the animals’ was also found there – the site is known as the ‘House of Europa’. As recently as July 2020 an agreement was signed to upgrade the Archaeological Museum of Sparta and to better showcase and conserve the ‘House of Europa’ site.
We were given permission to take only one photograph of the floor mosaic depicting Europa riding a bull. According to Greek mythology, Zeus transformed himself into a beautiful bull in order to attract and abduct the young maiden named Europa. The room housing the mosaic was very dim and a patch of bright sunlight on the floor appears very white to the left of the frame
There are variations on the mythic story of Zeus being attracted to the lovely young maiden Europa who was possibly a daughter of a Phoenician king. In order to disarm her while she and her attendants were gathering flowers at the seashore, he transformed himself into a beautiful and gentle bull and lay down at her feet. She was charmed by the animal and when she climbed onto his back, Zeus in his guise as a bull ran down into the sea and swam away with her to Crete. There he revealed himself to her as Zeus. Different versions tell how she willingly or not became his consort and she had three sons with him. Eventually Europa became Queen of Crete. How her name became the name for Europe is complex and there are many accounts and interpretations as to how this occurred.
There are also complex links between Zeus and the significance of bulls in mythology and religious practice, and of course sacred cows (and calves and bulls) are quite literally prevalent across many regions and traditions throughout the world. In ancient Greece as elsewhere deities are commonly strongly identified with animals and nature, as are monarchs and other leaders too.
It is likely that most people associate Sparti with the militarized Spartans of legend and Hollywood fame. Reflecting the bravery of the ancient Spartan soldiers, at the end of the main street in contemporary Sparti there is a large and impressive statue of the Spartan warrior king Leonidas. At first I assumed that the image on the shield is of a stylised lion perhaps reflecting the name Leonidas, which means ‘son of the lion’. But I have since read but been unable to verify that the image is of a gorgon, in honour of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, who was married to Leonidas.
Leonidas led a small Spartan army at the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC, where they made a last stand against the Persian army of Xerxes, an army that vastly outnumbered them. King Leonidas and most of his men died in the battle.
The image on the shield of the 3-metre tall statue of Leonidas in Sparti. The statue was erected in the late 1960s
On the outskirts of Sparti on the old Acropolis the remains of buildings from ancient Sparti, which was a prominent power from about 700 BC to 371 BC and also during a subsequent period of Roman occupation, are evident. The shell of a large Roman theatre that was built into the side of the hill can still be seen even though most of the stone used to construct the theatre was taken to be used for later projects with much of it taken for the building of Mystras.
Only a few rows of seating at the Roman theatre at the old Acropolis outside Sparti remain within the now empty curve that housed the amphitheatre that was built into the hillside
Around the ruins of the Roman theatre and the remains of other ancient buildings, nature is coming back in in the form of wild flowers and other plants that provide food and habitat for a variety of creatures. And as the walls crumble the undressed rocks that were used to create them are exposed.
Wild grasses and olive trees grow around crumbling walls – all that remain of what were once impressive buildings
We came across this tortoise munching on vegetation on the edge of the Roman theatre. There are three species of wild tortoises in Greece. Threats to their survival include fire, habitat loss and the pet trade even though trading in wild tortoises is illegal
Red poppies form part of the tapestry of wild spring flowers. As far as I have been able to find out the field poppy with the black cross at the centre is Papaver rhoeas
These chickens were quite literally in clover that was flowering underneath the olive trees. I used a pictorial effect for this photo to emphasize its sylvan aspect
Large olive groves surround the base of the old Acropolis where the remains of the Roman theatre are situated
We walked back into town and visited the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil dedicated to history, culture and technology relating to olives and their cultivation. Amongst the many artefacts and pieces of equipment on display was this old olive press. The ongoing importance of olives as a natural resource in the region is immeasurable
Our main reason for going to Sparti was to visit nearby Mystras, famous for its Frankish castle and numerous Byzantine churches, monasteries and a palace built for the rulers of the Byzantine Despotate of Morea. In its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries Mystras was an important centre of Byzantine power housing over 20 000 inhabitants.
We travelled to Mystras by bus from Sparti to be dropped off at the base of the steep hillside on which Mystras was built, with the nearly 800-year-old Frankish castle at its crown.
A view from the road at the base of the ridge on which Mystras was established. The Frankish castle, the Kastro, at its summit is visible against the skyline. Some of Mystras’s many residential buildings and shops that are now in ruins can be seen peeking up through the vegetation on the hillside
As we walked up the steep road flanking the old Byzantine town we got some idea of its scale – and the steepness of the hillside. Luckily for us, a passing motorist stopped and offered us a lift to the top, which not only saved us time but saved our legs for what would be a long and engrossing day exploring Mystras.
Perhaps because our visit in early May was ahead of the main tourist season many of the buildings were locked to visitors, but the trade-off was that there were very few other visitors there so early in the season. The L-shaped Palace of the Despots was surrounded by scaffolding and closed to visitors during a lengthy period of major renovation. As far as I have been able to find out that restoration work is still ongoing.
At the summit the sheer walls of the Kastro towered above us, and on a lesser scale we were dwarfed by the numerous tall yellow plumes of giant fennel (Ferula communis) plants that were splendidly in flower
A double row of walls encircle the main part of the palace. From the inner of these walls the panoramic view across the wide and fertile valley below is impressive
A view over the lower tessellated wall fortifying the Kastro with the decorative presence of the tall stands of flowering giant fennel lining the pathways where we started our descent
This view to the one side of the castle shows the deep ravine providing protection from any potential intruders
And walking further round within the top wall encircling the castle, this is the view of the Taygetos mountain range behind
There are many churches and monasteries at Mystras, most with rather fanciful-looking domes and decorative brickwork. The architecture is said to reflect Mystras’s cosmopolitan influences. Mystras was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988
This close-up of the roof-tiles of one of the churches shows how the curved tiles are designed to effectively channel away rain water – a clear example of how the forces of nature are important components informing architectural design and building strategies
Due to weathering the brickwork on the interior of a dome is exposed. Sadly many of the gorgeous frescoes have been destroyed and only remaining fragments can be seen on the walls in this photo
Although many frescoes do remain largely intact, the subtle pastel colours of other frescos are marred by substantial damage due to weathering
The only section of Mystras that is still inhabited today is the Pantanassa convent where a small community of nuns reside. In a discreet corner below the church we saw this collection of bonsai trees that presumably are tended by the nuns
The convent’s gorgeous church, built in 1428, is still in use
The frescoes in the Pantanassa church display a wonderfulness richness of colour
When we visited Mystras in 2004 there was absolutely no commercialisation of the site other than a restaurant situated at the carpark at the bottom of the hill. We took our own refreshments and topped up our water bottles with spring water from a tap in the courtyard of the convent
A stone bench under an old tree and pausing for a simple lunch of bread, cucumber, tomato and cheese gave us a chance to rest and enjoy the freshness of the air and the sanctity of the site
I was captivated by the buildings of the relatively small Perivleptos monastery including this section that is partially carved into the adjoining rock face
Our visit to Greece was in the shadow of the passing of my dad who died about three weeks before our departure for Greece. At the end of our day at Mystras, we reached the lower part of the old town and went to one of the oldest churches on the site. The church is named for Saint Theodoroi and we stopped at the gate, which was locked, admiring the unusual dome. My dad’s name was Theodore so obviously our thoughts were very much with him at that moment.
Gradually we became aware of a barn owl flying slowly and low in a circle around us. We watched it flying, surprised to see it out in the open during broad daylight. It circled twice and then flew up onto the top of the dome of Saint Theodoroi church and turned its head and looked at us.
The dome of the Saint Theodoroi church at the top of which we watched the barn owl perch. The church was constructed during the years 1290–1295 and the building has benefitted from substantial restoration work
An owl is the emblem of the city of Athens. I did not even think about photographing the barn owl that we saw at Mystras, but below is a photograph I took of a sculptured owl in the Acropolis Museum near the Parthenon in Athens.
I have appreciated thinking about our visit to Sparti and Mystras from a naturebackin perspective. There are other places we went to in Greece that will be good to ‘revisit’ from this perspective too, so I may well find myself posting about some of these places over the next few weeks.
P.S. Well I had this post ready to publish on my (mostly) customary Thursday. Last week we were pleased that the fibre network finally went live after a delay of several months and we were at long last fibre-connected to the Internet. But on Wednesday morning the fibre network went down. It turns out that one of the cables somehow sustained significant damage and the repair work was time consuming. The network was finally restored only last night.
For many people who are relatively isolated during pandemic-related restrictions, access to the Internet represents a lifeline. So three days without a connection was disturbing. Although we do have limited mobile data on our phones, the signal is weak and fluctuating – one of the downsides of being surrounded by hills and trees – not helped by almost constant rain over the three days that the network was down.
So anyway, the network is restored and I am now able to publish this post!
Posted by Carol