The medieval castle of Monemvasia

The castle-town of Monemvasia comprises the housing settlements of Upper and Lower town, together with the area of Gefyra(bridge), the single access strip of land bridging the gap between the rocky isle with the coast of Laconia opposite.
The Upper and Lower towns are linked by a fortified winding pathway known as “voltes”. There was one more gateway on the northern slope of the rock which was inextricably linked to the fort of the acropolis. The Upper town was built on a sloping plateau atop the rock, which is naturally fortified and inaccessible by land, and covered a surface of approximately 30 acres. During the Byzantine period, it was the castle-town’s administrative and military center where the ruling class and the nobility resided. So far, written sources and archaeological excavations have revealed no other activities, commercial or otherwise. In the period of Ottoman rule (1715-1821) the Upper town was the part of the city reserved exclusively for Turkish officials and dignitaries. Following the establishment of the Modern Greek state under the governance of Kapodistrias, some of the extant buildings were repaired to serve as a prison and as the garrison’s quarters.
The Lower town was the castle-town’s trading center where the workshops, shops, and houses of the merchants and sailors were locates. Apart from the houses, also extant are 27 churches which, according to written sources, were parish churches, monastery katholikos, chapels and family churches. The ruins of buildings located on the southwestern side of the rock indicate that the Lower town extended beyond the fortification’s confines.

Houses

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The houses were developed in two or three levels and brought wooden pitched roofs. The ground floor, everything vaulted with separate entrance, consists of a single room, often with wooden loft, which was used for storage or auxiliary purposes and at least one cistern for collective rainwater. On the floors, where the family’s daily life is evolving and were formed by trinclinos, access achieved by an external stone staircase in the courtyard. Divided into individual apartments, they had hearth-fireplace and connects directly with auxiliary outbuildings (an oven for cooking, a toilet and waste depositories). Usually they had a yard with auxiliary outbuildings. In the Upper town as reported by the Ottoman travelers\ Evliya Celebi(1688), there were 500 houses beautifully built and rich, which were rising one higher than the other with a view to the sea. The lack of natural water sources in Monemvasia dictated the creation of a highly organized water-supply system, involving the construction of cisterns for collecting rainwater. Three large public cisterns are preserved in the Upper town. These are rectangular, barrel-vaulted constructions, the walls of which are coated with hydraulic mortar to render them impervious. Rainwater was channeled from the collecting surfaces and stored inside the cisterns, from which it was drawn from wellheads formed in the vault. In additions to the public cisterns, there are private cisterns constructed at the lower level of the houses. Rainwater is stored through a system of clay ducts and it was drawn from wellheads, carved with relief decoration.

Circulation in the town

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The Lower town preserves its main thoroughfare focus of commercial activities, and a street virtually perpendicular to it, which links the gate in the south sea wall with the Upper Town. Branching off from the central street, there is a maze of little streets, many of which have been formed as a result of later interventions. These streets are generally narrow and coble or paved with stones. Frequently, due to lack of space and the density of building, they pass under vaulted passages- dromikes or diavatika. To facilitate the traffic of pack animals and to economize space in the ground floors of buildings, beveled corners were formed. In the upper Town, basic street axes of the urban tissue connect the better-preserved monuments and make it possible to tour the greater part of the area.

Fortification

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Monemvasia is distinguished by a tripartite organization of its fortifications. At the highest point lies the citadel and lower down, two lines of defensive walls. The inner circumvallation supplements the natural fortification of the rock encloses the Upper town at points vulnerable to enemy attack. The outer enceinte protects the Lower Ton on three sides. The walls are topped by battlements and have eyelets for rifles and canon emplacements. At intervals along their course there are towers, sentry-posts and bastions, to ensure the most effective defense. Inside the walls lies the ambulatory, which facilitated the movement of soldiers. The first constructional phase of the fortifications is dated to Byzantine times. Innervations were made to these during the periods of Venetian and Turkish rule, in order to adapt them to the new defensive needs imposed by the use of artillery weapons. The town communicates by land and sea through gates opened in the walls. In the Lower Town four gates are preserved, while in the Upper town is the central gate, accessed via a fortified zigzag cobbled path.

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