It is a narrow promontory on the southeast coast of Lakonia, Peloponnese, today a small island that used to be a peninsula in the distant past, according to ancient Greek traveller Pausanias’ “Guide to Greece”.
The meaning of the name ‘Monemvasia’ is explained in the “Chronicle of Moreas”, a historical document written in the late Byzantine period. Monemvasia is “the only [mone] entrance [emvasis]”, the only access point to the island over the bridge. The town’s location was strategic; it was a safe port, and a busy trading station for ship supplies.
The Byzantine emperor Maurice founded Monemvasia in the first year of his reign in 582 AD. The town survived the attacks of Goths, Avars and Slavs and became a major harbour on the trade routes shared by the Mediterranean basin ports and Levant (Western Asia).
The four golden seal decrees of the emperor Andronicus XII awarded Monemvasia with privileges and lands and the island was used as the port area of Mystras, the then capital of the Moreas Byzantine despotate [administrative division] in the Peloponnese.
The town’s wealth increased as a result of a thriving trade in top quality Malvazia (Venetian name for Monemvasia) wine with the royal courts of Europe, as well as in grains, wood, leather, furs and textiles.
The town became self sufficient, and during its heyday the population reached 40,000. After Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Monemvasia was the only resisting Byzantine stronghold. During the Ottoman – Venetian war, the locals decided to surrender to Venetian rule in 1463. For one hundred years, the town has been known as ‘Napoli di Malvasia’; in 1540 Venetians handed Monemvasia over to the Ottoman Turks for approx. 100 years (until the end of the 17th century). The town was then evacuated when Venetians withdrew their troops and the Greek population followed them west, in fear of Ottoman retaliation.
The town’s new Ottoman name ‘Menexes’ [meaning Violet] sounded more poetic, as in the springtime the town is filled with violet flowers. The Ottomans started building impressive fortifications and many state buildings were restored during that time.
In late 17th century, the Venetians returned; locals, however, were not thrilled to see them back. By the end of the 18th century, population numbers rose back to normal; local archives include a record of 10.000 inhabitants who contributed by 17% to Venetian revenue coming from the overseas dominions in the Peloponnese. The Ottomans occupy the island in 1715 and will remain there for approximately 100 years until the 1821 Greek revolution which led to national liberation.
Monemvasia is a typical example of a town founded by Greeks, then changed significantly by Venetians, the experts on fortification construction, and rebuilt further by Ottoman rulers. Its imposing fortifications were commissioned by the Ottoman rulers; they were constructed by local Greek masons who applied the art and techniques they had learnt from Venetian master architects.
The town is also well known for its Byzantine monuments:
- The church of Agia Sofia on the upper town quarters, perched on the cliff, dates to the 11th century and it is a rare octagon-shaped Byzantine church, possibly sponsored by a Byzantine emperor. The location affords a breathtaking view of the Aegean Sea, and when the skies are clear one see as far as the island of Crete.
- The church of Jesus Christ in Chains, facing the central town square, is the cathedral. Built on the ruins of an early Christian Basilica, it bears quite a few elements of Venetian architecture.
A walk in the picturesque town offers visitors views of impressive nature and architecture, interesting shopping, enjoyable coffee breaks or meals in traditional tavernas and an opportunity for taking some truly amazing photos.
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