Majestic Mycenae

Mycenae - Lion Gate-001

After a short stop in Athens and by the Corinth Canal, the next destination of our Greek saga was the Peloponnese Peninsula, where we visited the archeological site of Mycenae, one of the oldest fortified Greek cities, set between Argos and Corinth. Colorful olive orchards, the liquid gold of the ancient Mediterranean cradle, and vineyards dotted the hills on our way, sadly interrupted by the havoc left behind by the fires that used to devastate the peninsula in summers until 2009.

Mycenae (6)

The Mycenae Civilization flourished in the late Bronze Age. Starting with 1650 BC, they became the dominant force in the area, absorbing the Minoans’ trade routes, reaching its peak in the 14th century BC. Legend has it was founded by mythological Greek hero Perseus, son of Zeus and of Danae, Acrisios’ daughter, who became the first king of the Perseid dynasty. Mycenae occupied a powerful strategic location, set between two hills dominating the fertile plains of Argolis and overlooking all passes up to Corinth. Its massive, five-meter thick walls, built from irregularly carved limestone blocks, are deemed the most representative example of Cyclopean masonry. There was a time when people believed that only legendary one-eyed giants could build such a megalithic structure.

Under September’s scorching sun we slowly climbed the hill up to the ruins of the ancient city, passing through he famous Lion Gate, one of the symbols of Mycenae, built around 1260 BC. The bas-relief above the entrance is simply huge, five meters long, 90 cm tall, and 2.4 meters in depth. Depicting two lions and a column altar in the middle, it is the oldest monumental Greek sculpture. The gate was discovered by Greek archeologist Kyriakos Pittakis in 1841, during the first excavations at Mycenae.

Mycenae (2)

From the gate, we walked down the alley leading to the royal palace, its two bodies of buildings linked together by corridors and storage rooms. Inside, the floors were made from plaster and the walls were once covered in fine frescoes, similar to those discovered in Cretan palaces. The princely structure dominated the fortified city, and was surrounded by the cramped houses of the people of inferior social status. Only nobles and military lived in the palace. The houses of the subjects usually laid at the foot of the Acropolis. Slaves and landless peasants lived outside the citadel. It is amazing how, more than 3,000 years ago, Mycenaeans had running water, using aqueducts to bring it from a great distance to be deposited in large stone tanks within the city walls, from where underground terracotta ducts carried it to the neighborhoods, underground sewers taking care of the rest.

Up from the acropolis we saw the city in all its greatness, with its three, sometimes four layers of walls that once enclosed it. Somewhere to the right was an entrance where, 15 meters underground, lay a tank with drinking water. We continued on the marked trails that led us to various buildings, palaces, temples, tombs and gates.

Mycenae - Tomb of Agamemnon

Of all the monumental architectural elements at Mycenae, I found the most interesting to be the so-called Treasury of Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, the mightiest of nine beehive tombs discovered so far, called tholos, with cut-stone roofs that formed a corbelled arch. The circular structure lies at the end of a long roofless corridor. Of course, back when it was built, around the 14th century BC, no mortar was used. And yet, the acoustics inside the treasure chamber is simply astounding.

First excavations were undertaken by the Archeological Society of Athens in 1841. But it was German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann who presented the world with the Mycenae civilization back in 1876, the culture still unknown to that point. On December 6, 1876 one of the most sensational events in the history of architecture revealed the first beehive tomb, filled with treasures, part of what we know now as Grave Circle A, a royal cemetery. The tomb was named the Treasury of Atreus, or Tomb of Agamemnon. The stone grave contained the body of a ruler, possibly Atreus, the first king of the Atreid dynasty, together with various objects like weapons and bronze vessels. Diggings unveiled a total of 19 bodies, all surrounded by rich treasures that included gold jewelry, crowns, gold and silver encrusted bronze weapons, gold armors, and cups. Still, at the time Schliemann was carrying on his research, the greatest treasure he discovered lay hidden in Grave V, a superb gold mask the archeologist was certain it was the Mask of Agamemnon. Schliemann immediately sent an emotional telegraphic message to his colleagues in Europe: “I have looked on the face of Agamemnon.” According to Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon was the powerful king of Mycenae and the leader of the Greek fleet that set off to rescue Helen from her Trojan abductors, which sparked the most famous siege in ancient history. In modern days, lab tests established that both the treasury and the mask date from around 1600 BC, 400 years before the reign of the mythical king, and that the mask was just one of other similar ones that were found later on. Nevertheless, this does stand as evidence to Homer’s descriptions of Mycenae being “rich in gold.”

Outside the citadel’s walls lies Grave Circle B, a series of shaft tombs and cists that are slightly older than the ones discovered at Grave Circle A, dating from the 17th to 16th centuries BC. The royal cemetery was found by accident in 1951. The 26 tombs are even more extraordinary in that they have not been looted, and that the remains of the deceased were in good condition.

Mycenae - Tombs (2)

Excavations in the shaft and beehive tombs shed light over the traditions of the two dynasties who ruled Mycenae, the Perseid dynasty and the damned dynasty of the Atreids. In fact, the whole peninsula is named after the fathers of the dynasties, Pelops, Atreus, and Agamemnon. The terrible curse that befell over the Atreid descendents has always been one of the favorite subjects of Greek tragedies.

The Mycenaean civilization saw its sudden fall around 1150 BC, when the citadel was either destroyed, or abandoned, the reasons still unknown. The Mycenaeans are the early Greeks, the last great Greek empire of the Bronze Age. Together with its collapse, the country entered the so-called Dark Ages, a period that lasted 600 years, ending with the boom of Classical Antiquity.

After visiting the museum, where we saw original frescoes, clay pots covered in mythological themes, and replicas of the treasures Heinrich Schliemann discovered, the originals exhibited at the Athens National Museum, we looked ahead to our next destination, the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus.


One Response

  1. I have wanted to see Mycanae for awhile, but it’s a bit difficult getting all the way to Crete. Love your pics.

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