The enormous castle of Monemvasia takes its name from the fact that it can only be reached via a single bridge (monè embasis “single approach”). Pausanias mentions the peninsula Minoa, possibly indicating Cretan influence in the Mycenaean period. In the Middle Ages, its name (known from the export of a sweet wine) would be corrupted into Dutch Malvezij, French (Vin de) Malvoisie, English Malmsey.
After the Slavic invasions in the 6th century, the peninsula became a refuge for the Greeks from Laconia, who founded a city there, which was not visible from the mainland. Under the name of Monemvasia, the city developed into an almost impregnable stronghold, which from the Middle Ages and later became the last defence against successive conquerors. In the 10th century, the city was able to fend off a raid by Arab looters and in the 12th century by Norman pirates. In 1249, the Frankish crusader William II de Villehardouin managed to force the city to surrender after a three-year siege. A few years later, William had to surrender the city to the Byzantines, along with the castles of Mystras and Maina in exchange for his freedom. Thus began the period of its greatest prosperity for Monemvasia: the imperial army used it as a naval base for the reconquest of the Peloponnese, turning it into the main port of the despotate of Morea, of which Mystras was the capital.
The city remained in Byzantine ownership until 1460, when Monemvasia first passed into papal hands, only to be ruled by the Venetians afterwards (1463-1540). In 1540, the latter surrendered the city without a fight to the Turks, who remained in control until 1690, when the Doge of Venice, Francesco Morosini, recaptured the city from the Turks.
The second period of Turkish rule lasted from 1715 to 1821. During this period Monemvasia was initially still an important center for the export of agricultural products, but the heavy looting of Monemvasia after the defeat of the Russian troops in the so-called Orloff revolt against the Turks gave the city the death blow. After that, only 150 Greek families lived in the badly damaged city. In the war of independence, the Turkish garrison, which had surrendered, was murdered by Greek freedom fighters. Later mainly new inhabitants from Crete settled in the city, which, however, continued to decline. In 1911, the last residents left the upper town,which was then seriously neglected for many decades. Only recently have we seen a clear revival of the city (partly under the influence of tourism) and many houses and churches are being restored.
Photos: Minoa peninsula, the town’s main street, Christos Elkomos Cathedral and the gates and walls of the upper town