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F + 20 : Small Harbor - Safe Harbor - Good Business - Monemvasia

Coffee at 6.30 am - just before the Sun Rise - the giant Rock of Monemvasia in the back

Our bet yesterday paid off. We sailed all night and reached Monemvasia very early on Sunday morning. There was a gentle breeze when we woke up, a spectacular sun rise and no clouds. The sea was completely calm. Our captain had anchored next to the ancient town of Epidaurus Limira, a place now called Old Monemvasia. Epidaurus Limira was a Greek town which gained some prominence in the Spartan Wars but otherwise is barely mentioned. Its walls and acropolis are easily visible from the sea though. Its citizens abandoned it in the 6th century to move to the safer Monemvasia.

The Citizens of the old Greek Town of Epidaurus Limira moved to Monemvasia in 6th century

Could not find out when Monemvasia was founded. Somewhere in the 5th or 6th century, probably as a reaction to the Goth, Vandal and Slav raids in the 4th and 5th century. Once Rome’s mighty field army was gone, towns had to protect themselves with mighty walls. We have seen this earlier on our trip in Constantinople. Emperor Theodosius had to build mighty double walls built to protect his capital. The people on the east coast of the Peloponnese had a better choice. They moved to the "Minoan Promontory", a giant rock 100 meters high with a plateau that was 1 kilometre long and 300 meters wide. It is one of the oldest, permanently settled places in Greece. The town today is a bee hive of activity during the summer months when tourists come and go but otherwise quiet and lovingly peaceful.

Rounding the Corner of Monemvasia - the Citadel and Hagia Sophia are already visible

Called the Gibraltar of the East and taking its name from “mono” single and “emvasis” access, it became Monemvasia or Malvasia (Italians did not know how to pronounce the name). Located on its unassailable rock, Monemvasia did rather well in the turbulent times after the defeat of the Byzantine Army at Yarmouk in 636 AD. This victory enabled the Arabs to conquer the Levant, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and North Africa. It changed the Mediterranean forever. The Mare Nostrum was gone. It would be a divided sea going forward. Within less than 40 years, Arab fleets showed up in the Aegean and raided Roman ports. Not built for defense, they were easy prey. Except Monemvasia – It withstood Arab raids for centuries. Not even the fearsome Normans managed to conquer it – not for lack of trying though.

Tourists replaced the traders - the Town is still inhabited and has charming Boutique Hotels

With the loss of the Levant, Egypt and North Africa, Byzantium's long-distance trade more or less collapsed. During our many trips, we saw dozens of port towns abandoned in the 7th century. But a small trickle of long-distance trading remained – there was still demand for Asian spices, clothes and jewelry albeit on a much lower level. Kings and Royals craved for that stuff and had the gold to pay. It was a niche activity for small Byzantine towns like Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, Venice or Ragusa who had only tiny, well-fortified or inaccessible but safe harbours. Monemvasia was one of these towns. It flourished and became quickly the most important trading center in the Aegean. Without a proper harbor it could not protect the commercial vessels but offered large and safe storage facilities for the goods traded. Thanks to its cisterns and graneries, Monemvasia could resist even year long sieges.

Monemvasia as seen by our Drone - the perfect Tool to explore such a large Town

The town was so precious and important that everybody wanted it. The Franks of the 4th crusade ruled it for a while after Constantinople was sacked (1204 AD), but the Byzantine Emperor got it back again. Venice got it for a while as a trade and custom concession. Its independence ended when its strategic purpose faded away. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Within a few years, he rewrote all trading treaties with Venice and Genoa and conquered their towns and islands when necessary. He made sure that the Ottoman Empire became the key beneficiary of the spice trade. Monemvasia saw the flow of trading dwindle. In 1540, Venice gave it up in the peace treaty ending the 3rd Venetian-Turkish War. There were no revenues left that warranted the military expenditure.

The Hagia Sophia was built in the 12th Century when the upper Town was still populated

The town was now too big for its diminished role. The upper part on the plateau was mostly abandoned, the Ottoman placed a small garrison of 100 men in the top fortress. They hey days were over. Walking through the ruins of the upper town still give you a good idea how large and wealthy the town did in its peak time. Could not find out how many people lived there is the 12th century, but a good guess would be 5’000 to 10’000. It was a big town.

Monemvasia as seen by a Dutch Artist in 1680

Monemvasia is a good example of a port which develops due to its strategic position. When the strategic reason for the existence folds, most cease to exist and are abandoned. This still holds true today. Let's just take Singapore. When the British Empire pulled out of Asia in the 1960s, the town faced a very uncertain future. Its then prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, was not sure that whether the town could survive. That it did, is his great legacy. But this is a story that is better told in another place.

One of the many charming Houses in Monemvasia

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