Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!