Monemvasia, known by the Franks as “Malvasia”, is a small, historic town in the southeastern Peloponnese, in the Epidauros Limira region of the prefecture of Laconia. It is better known for the medieval fortress on the “Rock of Monemvasia”, a small island connected to the mainland town by a 400-metre causeway. The surviving buildings and defensive structures of the fortress include impressive ramparts, gates and numerous small Byzantine churches.
Monemvasia’s name comes from two Greek words: “Mone” (“single”, “only”) and “emvasis” (“entrance”), in other words: “a place with only one entrance” – further highlighting its defensive advantages. Because it resembles a smaller version of the Rock of Gibraltar, Monemvasia’s nickname is “Gibraltar of the East”.
In 583 A.D., Laconians built fortifications on the island and moved there to defend against the frequent raids by Slavs and Aravs. Since that time, the fate of the surrounding region of Agios Stefanos has been closely tied to that of the fortress. The fertile coastal fields and gardens of the region supplied the residents of the fortress with food necessary for their survival. All along the foothills and slopes of Mount Parnonas one can find towers, fortifications and Byzantine churches from the Venetian and Ottoman periods. In the surrounding region there are many Byzantine churches from the 13th and 14th Century (Teria, Pantanassa). One such church, Panagia (13th – 14th Century) is the best preserved medieval church in the region and is located on the ancestral property of the family of Yiannis Ritsos, one of Greece’s most important 20th-Century poets, and 1.5 km from Kinsterna.
Monemvasia was occupied by the Franks for only a few years (1246-1259). In 1461, the fortress surrendered to the Pope and was then handed over to the Venetians by the last Byzantine lord, Nicholas Palaiologos, in 1540 (1st Venetian occupation). A long period of Ottoman occupation ensued (1540-1690). In 1689, the Venetians once again occupied the fortress. In 1715, the Turks took over Monemvasia from the Venetians and either murdered or took hostage all the local authorities. The post-Byzantine history of Monemvasia ends on July 21, 1821 – when, after a long siege, the Turks handed over the keys of the fortress-town to Prince Alexander Katakouzinos.