Ancient Messene, Delphi, and Mystras

On the Go

Mahendra, accompanied by his trusty camera, continues his Greek adventures, visiting the ruins of ancient Delphi and Messene, and the medieval Byzantine city of Mystras.

Greece, my second home for quite a few months during 2020-21, bears witness to a long and tumultuous history. Classical Greece, the period from c. 800 to 150 BCE, was shaped by a constant rivalry between many small city states, notably Athens and Sparta. Conquest by Rome turned Greece into just one province of a much wider empire, of which, from the 4th century CE, nearby Constantinople was the capital. More than a millennium passed before Constantinople itself was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans. The Greek Orthodox Church, however, proved remarkably resilient, and since Greek independence in the 19th century, this has continued to provide a mainstay of national culture.

Ancient Messene

Visiting Messene, close to Kalamata on the Peloponnese, I marvelled at the excavated and partially-restored remains of an ancient city, complete with Stadium, Gymnasium, Theatre, Odeon and various temples dedicated to the classical Greek gods. Originally named Ithome, it had been founded in the Bronze Age by Achaean Greeks. After a long struggle, the city was conquered by nearby Sparta, notorious for its militarized society, and allowed to fall into ruin, its population dispersed. However, Spartan supremacy was eventually broken by Thebes and its allies at the battle of Leuctra (371 BCE). The abandoned site was refounded as Messene, which was to become an independent, flourishing city-state, well-capable of defending itself from behind an impressive circuit wall, 9 km long and 7-9 metres high. Most of the substantial buildings and monuments surviving into modern times come from this era.

To see the slideshow fullscreen click on arrows top right

The Messenian plain and Voulcanou Monastery
The central area of ancient Messene with stadium, marketplace, temples and theatre
The Ekklesiasterion (Assembly Hall)
The Northern – now roofless – hall
The Asklepeion, sanctuary of the Greek god of healing, Asklepeios
Gymnasium for the practice of physical exercises
Stadium for athletic competitions
Temple of a Greek goddess
Theatre for performances and political mass gatherings
Isis Pelagia, a goddess of the seas
Statue from the adjacent museum
The Arsinoe Fountain House
Gate of the stadium
A small temple next to the stadium
Mausoleum of a wealthy family
Voulcanou monastery

The population of the reconstituted city was largely drawn from returning exiles who had, remarkably, maintained their identity – and their peculiar Doric dialect – over three centuries of diaspora existence.

Subsequently, Messene’s fortunes continued to ebb and flow. Like the rest of the Peloponnese, it was badly affected by the major Cretan earthquake of 365 CE; a period of recovery in the early Byzantine era was followed by a century or two of Slavic invasions, the so-called Byzantine dark age; later still, Frankish invaders moved across the region. Through the long centuries of change, a small village persisted amongst the ruins, centred around an ancient fountain in the upper city.

Since the late nineteenth century, successive archaeological excavations have systematically worked across the site, to reveal all that is currently on display.


Ancient Delphi
19th century speculative illustration of ancient Delphi by French architect Albert Tournaire

Delphi is situated in the South West of continental Greece, on the slopes of the Parnassos mountains, about two-hours from Athens on the tourist coach. It is a place shrouded in the mists of time, revered by the ancient Greeks as the very centre of the world. Here was the omphalos, or navel of the earth, a huge stone, by which the will of the gods might be consulted or divined (picture 3).

It was a sacred space, administered by a privileged caste of priests and priestesses. It was they who controlled access to the voice of Apollo: the head priestess, known as the pythia, would fall into a trance, and her resulting utterances would be interpreted by her manager, doubtless with a canny view as to what might be an appropriate message.

Seeking special favour, or the desired answer to a carefully posed question, kings and despots would come from near and far to shower the shrine with treasure and precious things. Not surprisingly, from time to time it would be looted and despoiled by less respectful visitors. This cycle of accumulation and demolition was to repeat itself through many ancient centuries, until the advent of Christianity finally silenced the voice of the old gods in the 4th century CE.

To see the slideshow fullscreen click on arrows top right

View of the ruins
Temple of Apollo
The omphalos
Small building to house offerings to Apollo
Row of ancient columns
Columns in Delphi
Ruin of column with Ionic capital
Ruins in Delphi in landscape
Sanctuary of Athena
Rocky mountains in background
Relief in the Delphi Museum
Sphinx of Naxos in the Delphi Museum
Head of statue in ivory and gold, possibly representing Apollo
Head of statue in ivory and gold
Exhibit in the Delphi Museum

What you can now see at the sanctuary site is largely the product of modern (since 1880) excavation and restoration projects. There is not a lot left to see of the great temple. Nearby you can see the ruins of the theatre, the stadium, and at some distance the sanctuary of Athena. Many of the statues and objects that surfaced during the excavations are now on display at the nearby museum.

Walter Burkert, in his book Greek Religion, describes how the Oracle ceremony would be conducted:

“After a bath in the Castalian spring and after the preliminary sacrifice of a goat, she enters the temple, which is fumigated with barley meal and laurel leaves on the ever-burning hestia [Greek for ‘hearth’], and descends into the adyton, the sunken area at the end of the temple interior. That’s where the omphalos is situated and where, over a round, well-like opening in the ground, a tripod cauldron is set up… Seated over the chasm, enveloped by the rising vapours, and shaking a freshly-cut bay branch, she falls into a trance.”

Clearly there is much more to ancient Greek culture than logical thinking, philosophy and mathematics!

Socrates, according to Plato’s account in Phaedrus, had this to say about the oracle of Delphi:
“In reality, the greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed madness that is heaven-sent. It was when they were mad that the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona achieved so much for which both states and individuals in Greece are thankful; when sane they did little or nothing.”

It is not quite clear what caused the divine madness of the pythia, but one can speculate that the prophetic utterances were induced by a combination of the mind-altering gases rising from deep within the ground together with other herbally-based psychotropic substances. Even though the messages were often ambivalent they were widely believed to be divinely inspired, so that the fame of the Oracle spread far beyond Greece itself. Even Emperors came seeking for guidance.

Just one famous example should be sufficient to demonstrate the dangers of acting on such ambiguous authority:

The Lydian king Croesus, he of the legendary wealth, was tempted to wage war against the mighty Persian Empire. He sent to the Delphic Oracle for advice. The answer duly came: should he proceed with his plans, then he would destroy a great Empire. Only too late, after his armies had been crushed by the Persians in two great battles and he himself was chained in captivity, did the drachma drop: it was his own empire that would be consigned to oblivion.

Mystras – Medieval Monasteries in Laconia

Pantanassa Monastery
Pantanassa Monastery, founded in the 15th century

We now skip down the centuries to a relic from more recent times, relatively speaking. The Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, was to persist for more than a millenium, but in its final stages its authority was running threadbare, controlling little more than a ragtag of territories under threat both from the muslim Ottoman Empire and marauding Frankish knights keen to pursue their version of crusade. Amongst these holdouts was the Despotate of Morea (as the Peloponnese became known in medieval times).

On the eastern slopes of the Taygetos mountains (pic 1), not far from modern day Sparti, are the ruins of the fortress of Mystras, from whence the Despot asserted Imperial authority over the region. Nowadays (since 1989) it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, to which I paid a visit one wonderful sunny day in 2022.

To see the slideshow fullscreen click on arrows top right

Slopes of the Taygetos mountains
In the Taygetos mountains
Fortress built by William II of Villehardouin
In the Fortress
Byzantine palace
Monastery within the city walls
Medieval artwork
Medieval artwork
A second monastery within the city walls of Mystras
Medieval artwork
Medieval artwork
Pantanassa Monastery
Medieval artwork

The Franks, keen castle builders, had erected the original fortress in the late 13th century, right at the top of a craggy hill overlooking the Laconian plains (pics 2 and 4). Subsequently, in those uncertain, dangerous times, the walls were extended to encompass a sizeable town (pic 3), complete with four large monasteries (pics 5,8,13), as well as the Despot’s palace. It became, in those twilight years of the Byzantine Empire, a notable centre of learning and culture, as well as a power base for the ambitious Palaiologos dynasty. It was a golden age: in the words of one authority, Mystras “witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance, including the teaching of Plethon, and attracted artists and architects of the highest quality.”

Mystras was eventually captured by the Ottomans in 1560, shortly after Constantinople itself. Its subsequent fortunes were mixed; finally, in the course of the Greek war of independence in the early 19th century, the town was comprehensively destroyed, its population either massacred or fled.

Thanks to Unesco’s patronage, and substantial restoration of the site, tourists can now appreciate this exceptionally well-preserved example of a Byzantine city. Most of the important churches are still standing, and the Palace of the Despots has been significantly reconstructed. The monastery buildings and murals provide vivid testimony to the colourful artwork of the medieval Greek monks and artisans (pics 6,7,8,9,10,14). There are even a few nuns still resident at the Pantanassa monastery (pics 11 & 12).

Text, video and photos by Mahendra, text edited by Hafiz Ladell


Mahendra Myshkin is a Bavarian Yogi, and researcher of the Inner and Outer Universe.

Comments are closed.