In the Iliad, Homer described Mycenae as ‘a city rich in gold.’ It was the legendary home of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who went to Troy to fight the Trojan War. The Greeks of classical antiquity idealized the Mycenaean period as a glorious period of heroes, closeness of the gods and material wealth, as described in the Trojan Epic cycle.
In 1876, amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove the historical accuracy of the Iliad by identifying the places described by Homer. Using the text of Pausanias, the second-century A.D. traveller, as his guide, he excavated the site at Mycenae, discovering the deep shaft graves where bodies were buried dressed in lavishly decorated shrouds adorned with gold items and diadems and with their faces covered by masks of gold or electrum (such as the Mask of Agamemnon, below).
However, the very first excavations at Mycenae were carried out in 1841 by Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis, who found and restored the impressive Lion Gate, at the entrance to the acropolis.
The Minoan civilization (see post, here) was brought to an abrupt end in c. 1500 BC. Historians surmise the palaces were destroyed by fire, earthquake and a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Santorini volcano.
Meanwhile, another brilliant civilization was emerging, that of the Mycenaeans, who set up a number of centers of power in southern mainland Greece. They were a warrior elite society, as is witnessed by their palaces which, contrary to those of the Minoans, featured impressive fortifications.
The Myceneans were much influenced by Minoan Crete, and, after its decline, took control of Crete including Knossos, and colonized several other Aegean islands, reaching as far as Rhodes.
The principal Mycenaean centers were well fortified and usually situated on an elevated terrain. One of their most impressive cities, just 90km from Athens, was Mycenae, or Mykines, as we call it. Built on a tall hill overlooking a fertile plain and the gulf of Argolis and beneath towering peaks, it is the reminder of their glorious civilization.
On a recent day trip, we enjoyed the amazing view of the plain stretching beneath the city ruins to the sea. The famous fortifications, know as Cyclopean walls, are built of large, unworked boulders more than 8 m (26 ft) thick and weighing several metric tonnes. They were roughly fitted together without the use of mortar or clay to bind them, though smaller hunks of limestone fill the interstices.
Following the Shaft Grave era, a new and more imposing type of elite burial emerged, resulting in a characteristic feature of the Mycenaean civilization, the Tholos: large circular burial chambers with high vaulted roofs and a straight entry passage lined with stone.
The most impressive of these is the Treasure of Atreas, which might have been the tomb of Agamemnon, or his father, Atreas.
Above the entrance we can see one of Mycenaens’ architectural innovations,the relieving triangle. The Mycenaean Greeks were pioneers in the field of engineering, launching large-scale projects unmatched in Europe until the Roman period, such as fortifications, bridges, culverts, aqueducts, dams and roads suitable for wheeled traffic.
In an amusing footnote, today the Treassure of Atreas is being squatted by a swarm of bees, which obviously appreciate ancient culture as well as the tomb’s resemblance to a giant beehive. These bees are apparently a rare species, so the authorities are unwilling to spray them and are trying to find a way to eject them humanely. The bees are also different in that they don’t sting; when we were there, they were buzzing happily about and did not interfere with our visit in the least. However, it was still April. Apparently in the height of the season, when thousands of tourists are visiting, their numbers are such that most people are scared to enter the tomb. Also, the lure of honey attracts numerous birds and bats, whose droppings result in a filthy floor and an unbearable smell. It will be interesting to see what solution will be found to this problem.
The on-site museum is small but full of treasures.
On the way back to Athens, we stopped at the Ancient Theater of Argos, nestled in the hill above the city. The theater was built in the Hellenistic period (third century BC) and had a seating capacity of 20,000. It was remodeled during the Roman period (second century AD) and even today, a number of cultural events are held there.