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Mycennae 1989

4/29/89 - I reluctantly retrieved my bicycle and took my leave of the Argive Heraion to ride a little further to a corbeled arch bridge built by the Mycennaeans. After another two miles up the road to the very modest village of Mykines made very dusty by the daily parade of tour buses on the way up the hill to Mycennae. I had a small tent and sleeping bag on my bike but decided that I had to spend a few drachmas to stay in the Belle Helene so that I could ride to the excavations and see the sun rise over them in the early morning. The hotel is still managed by the offspring of Heinrich Schliemann's hosts and because it was still off season I was able to stay in his No. 3 room and what was said to be his very bed. I was thrilled to deposit my gear and then ride on to the citadel to take evening light pictures before the sun went down. I was very disappointed to discover that the site had been closed and locked at 5:00 PM and that it would not be open at all on the next day which was a Sunday. This view in the evening light inspired James Joyce to write "Mycennae, after one turns the last bend, suddenly folds up into a menacing crouch, grim, defiant, impenetrable.... This is the great shining bulge of horror, the high slope whence man, having attained his zenith, slipped back and fell into the bottomless pit." I ended the day by shooting a few pictures through openings in the fence and plotted a course for sneaking by the guard in the morning so that I could climb the wall from the gorge on the opposite side and enjoy a whole day by myself inside the ruins.

Belle Helene Hotel in Mykines Great Shining Bulge of Horror Citadel at Mycenae Mycenaean Walls
Approach to Lion Gate Approach to Lion Gate Lion Gate at Mycenae Outside Looking In

4/30/89 - After a reasonably restful night sleeping in Schliemann's bed, I got up before dawn to ride along the dark road to where the walls of Mycenae were a massive darkness against the star lighted sky. Mycenae 'Rich in Gold', the kingdom of mythical Agamemnon, first sung by Homer in his epics, is the most important and richest palatial center of the Late Bronze Age in Greece. Its name was given to one of the greatest civilizations of Greek prehistory, the Mycenaean civilization, while the myths related to its history have inspired poets and writers over many centuries, from the Homeric epics and the great tragedies of the Classical period to contemporary literary and artistic creation. Perseus, son of Zeus and Dana, daughter of Akrisios, king of Argos and descendant of Danaos, is traditionally considered as its mythical founder. Pausanias reports that Perseus named the new city Mycenae after the pommel (mykes) of his sword, which fell there, or after the Perseia spring, discovered there under the root of a mushroom (mykes). According to the myth, Perseus's descendants reigned at Mycenae for three generations. After the last of them, Eurystheas, died childless, the Mycenaeans chose Atreus, son of Pelops, father of Agamemnon and Menelaos, as their king.

Mycenae was founded between two tall conical hills, Profitis Ilias (805 m.) and Sara (660 m.), on a low plateau dominating the Argive plain and controlling both the land and sea routes. The site was first occupied in the seventh millennium BC (Neolithic period). Very little remains of this early settlement because of continuous re-occupation up until the historical period. Most of the monuments visible today were erected in the Late Bronze Age, between 1350 and 1200 BC, when the site was at its peak. In the early second millennium BC a small settlement existed on the hill and a cemetery with simple burials on its southwest slope. Grave Circle B, a stone-built funerary enclosure containing monumental graves with rich grave gifts, indicates that the first families of rulers and aristocrats appeared at Mycenae at approximately 1700 BC. This social structure developed further in the early Mycenaean period, c. 1600 BC, when a large central building, a second funerary enclosure (Grave Circle A) and the first tholos tombs were erected on the hill. The finds from these monuments show that the powerful Mycenaean rulers participated in a complex network of commercial exchange with other parts of the Mediterranean.

Map of Ancient Mycenae

The construction of the palace and fortification wall currently visible began c. 1350 BC (Late Helladic IIIA2). The latter saw three construction phases, the first wall being built of cyclopean masonry. A new wall was erected to the west and south of the early one approximately one hundred years later (Late Helladic IIIB1), together with the Lion Gate, the citadel's monumental entrance, and its bastion. Included in the newly fortified area were the city's religious center and Grave Circle A, which was refurbished and used for ancestral cults. The famous tholos tomb known as the 'Treasure of Atreus', with its gigantic lintels and tall beehive vault, was probably built during the same period. At approximately 1200 BC, in the Late Helladic IIIB-C period, following a large destruction probably caused by an earthquake, the walls were extended to the northeast so as to include the subterranean well. Successive destructions and fires led to the site's final abandonment c. 1100 BC.

After the collapse of the palatial system, the hill was sparsely inhabited until the Classical period. Meanwhile, several local cults of heroes developed in the area, fueled by Mycenae's fame, which the Homeric poems spread throughout Greece. A temple dedicated to Hera or Athena was erected on the top of the hill in the Archaic period. In 468 BC, after the Persian Wars, in which Mycenae took part, the town was conquered by Argos and had part of its fortification wall destroyed. In the Hellenistic period, the Argives founded a 'village' on the hill, repaired the prehistoric walls and the Archaic temple, and erected a small theatre over the dromos of the tholos tomb of Clytaemnestra. The town was abandoned in subsequent centuries and was already in ruins when Pausanias visited it in the second century AD.

As soon as it became light enough and before the arrival of the watchman, I followed a goat herder and his flock to a small footpath, perhaps a workman's path, that led round the walls to the northwest. I had first hoped to enter the citadel by way of the Postern Gate through which Orestes escaped after murdering Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and wrapping their bodies in the cloak that Agamemnon was wearing when he was slain. However the gate is now barred and there was no way I was going to squeeze around or over it. After going around the northeast corner of the walls I saw a low point in the Cyclopean wall above the ravine. The wall looked scaleable, it was early and still cool, and I hoped to get to the top before the day's heat came on. .

The cyclopean blocks, 2-3 feet on a side, provided easy hand and footholds until I reached the top, where there was a steep slope of loose earth covered with loosely rooted grass, and nothing to hold on to. There I was, stuck. I couldn't jump down. Even though it was only 10 or 12 feet, the rough stones below would turn or break an ankle. I could climb down. But as I clung precariously to my handholds, I thought: was that really easier than going forward? And besides, I told myself, this is what happens so frequently in rock-climbing: something that ought to be easy becomes difficult because you feel a touch of fear. Truly, "fear is the mind-killer." I hoisted myself up and over, and scrambled to the summit of the hill, imaginary invader of the great citadel.

The views from the top were spectacular. I looked past a tree growing from the rocks, to see the distant hills to the northwest. When I looked down the outside of the eastern wall to where I just climbed up with full adrenaline, I grow a little nervous about whether I am going to be able to face climbing back down when my day is over. Still half dizzy from the thrill of being here, I look down to the southeast over the ruins in the interior of the fortress to the fertile plains of the Argolid, where Diomedes, Tamer of Horses, ruled in the days of Agamemnon, and even further, the bay of Nafplion. It is so breathtaking that I think of two brothers in Greek Mythology who were said to had died the most noble of all possible deaths because they were swept away at the moment of their greatest triumph and acclaim while they were at the height of their strength and beauty. I don't know when the apogee of my strength and beauty was, but I was definitely exhilarated with this moment. The only downside was that I had lost my archeological bearings completely and momentarily could not make heads or tails of the layout of the ruins from this vantage point.

Mycenae's Postern Gate Gated Postern Northwest Corner of Mycenae Low Place in the Cyclopian Wall
Northwest View from Mycenae How will I Return? Rich in Ruins Jumble of Stones

All of the writing about Mycenae starts with the Lion Gate entrance but I was still nervous about whether the watchman might be scanning the ruins with binoculars so I was trying to pick out a path that would get me down to the Lion Gate and the Grave Circles without being spotted and machine-gunned to death at the moment of my greatest triumph. I crouched and hurried from stone wall to stone wall until I reached the interior of the Lion Gate. The twin lions flanking a pillar were positioned above the main entrance to the citadel of Mycenae The gate is about 10 feet wide and 10 feet high; the carved stone with the lions is about three feet high. It forms what is called a "relieving triangle", because the carved slab weighs much less than the stones to the right and left; this reduced pressure on the lintel block below it. That block weighs two tons or so. The door was made up of two wooden leaves opening inward. The lions originally had heads made of metal, but they have long since disappeared. The column the two lions stand beside perhaps represents a Minoan image, the god of the royal house; the lions served to guard the entrance. The fortifications of Mycenae, as those of most other Mycenaean palaces, were extensive. The Lion Gate itself was protected by a large postern, or outcrop in the wall, to the right of the gate. This meant that attackers had to expose their right, unshielded side, to missile fire from the defenders. Mycenae also had a small postern gate to the rear to allow defenders to sally out and attack the attackers, and a secret tunnel which allowed the defenders access to underground sources of water outside the circuit of the walls. The stones used to build these fortifications were so big that later Greeks called them Cyclopean: for only the mythological Cyclops could have built with such huge stones.

Immediately on my right is Grave Circle A where Schliemann in November 1876, excavated several upright steles and then five shaft graves containing the remains of nineteen men and women and two infants. The men's faces were covered with magnificent gold masks distinctively modeled as to suggest portraits. On their breasts were extraordinary decorated 'sunbursts' of thick gold leaf impressed with rosettes, two women wore gold frontlets and one of them a diadem; around the bodies lay bronze swords and daggers, with elaborate gold hilts and gold and silver inlay.

My next target was up the hill and over to the far left of the site to find the scant remains of the King's Megaron. The Mycenaean palaces were built with an indoor hall known as a megaron as the centerpiece of their palatial constrictions. The megaron was a unique feature of mainland architecture, and could be found in the royal palaces as well as in many of the larger private homes. A megaron is essentially “a free-standing unit composed of a more or less square room entered at one side through a porch with two columns… the principal room was dominated by a round fixed hearth”. Smoke from the hearth was allowed to escape through an opening in the roof. The ceiling was held up by four columns evenly spaced in a square around the hearth. Against the wall opposite the entrance way a throne was situated on a raised platform. The central hearth and the presence of the royal in the room have suggested to some that the megaron was the location of Mycenaean cult ritual. It should also be mentioned that the megaron was an early step in the evolution of the Classical Greek temple. Tour guides "wow" their unknowing groups by pointing out the very bathroom in which Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra and the drain through which his lifeblood escaped. They also point to a location where they say stood the table at which Atreus served his brother Thyestes with the cooked bodies of his sons. He tricked Thyestes into eating the flesh of his own sons and then taunted him with their hands and feet. Thyestes was forced into exile for eating the flesh of a human.

Inside of Lion Gate Gate from Grave Circle Grave Circle A Gold Death Mask
Ruins of King' Megaron Model of Megaron Rich in Ruins Jumble of Stones

From my 1985 visit to Mycenae, I had known to bring a flashlight for visiting the old underground cistern used by the Mycenaeans when the fortress was under siege. The old spring is down a deep, dark stairway, 74 unlighted steps to the bottom. On my earlier visit, I'd made it about halfway down before giving up in the Stygian darkness. And I'm glad I did: because at the bottom, the steps end suddenly in a short drop into the dry well. It was only three or four feet, but you could seriously hurt yourself.

Returning from the darkness at the heart of Mycenae, I followed a well worn path to the North or Postern Gate before returning to the low point on the wall where I had first entered. Climbing down was worse than climbing up but I finally succeeded in circumnavigating the fortess and making my way across a trampled wire fence to the "Treasury of Atreus". We now know these tholoi to be royal graves, but the Post-Mycenaeans who had forgotten the use of these tholoi named them treasuries for the treasures (really grave goods) found within (and subsequently looted). Tholos tombs were the fourth step in burial practices for the Mycenaeans in the evolution from cist graves to shaft graves to chamber tombs to tholoi.

The 14.5 meter wide tholos chamber (the round portion) is constructed of 33 concentric circles of corbelled rock. The tholos itself was designed to merge with the slope of the hill, and grass naturally camouflaged it (although the peak of the mound rose above the top of the hill). This is the best preserved of the 9 tholos tombs on this site. Its dromos (access way) is 35 meters long and 6 meters wide. The funeral procession would have entered through this door, the body would have been interred, and then the dromos would have been completely filled in with earth and rocks, making the entire tomb utterly invisible. When another funeral became necessary, the dromos was cleared and the process repeated. The ancient visitor would have been reminded of the power of the Mycenean king both dead and alive: the colored marble slabs from the facade of this tomb are on display in the British Museum.

When I reach the interior, the sun illuminates the monumental doorway (the entrance is 5 meters thick) of the otherwise dark tholos chamber. The relieving triangle is just visible and helps date the tomb to c. 1350 BC. One of the two lintel stones weighs 240,000 lbs and measures 8x5x1 meters. The height of the roof is 13 meters and the round chamber is 14 1/2 meters in diameter. The doorway is about the same width as the Lion Gate, but twice as high.

Mycennae North Gate of Mycenae Tomb of Aigisthos Tomb of Clytemnestra
Treasury of Atreus Relieving Triangle Tholos Interior Tholos Interior
Leaving the tholos, I retraced my previous day's ride back down the hill but took a turn toward Nauplion so that I could visit the unguarded ruins at Tiryns. The building of the fortification on this hill began during the 14th century B.C. and was completed at the end of the 13th century (Late Helladic IIIB period). The Cyclopaean walls which surround the Upper, Middle and Lower Citadel, have a total perimeter of approximately 750 m and a width between 4,50 and 7 m. Within the walls were the wall-painted palace, the remaining public spaces, and the corbeled tunnels leading to the storehouses and the workshops. The town divided into housing blocks extended outside the walls and around the Acropolis (about 750 acres).
Acropolis at Tiryns Tiryns Acropolis Acropolis at Tiryns Cyclopean Walls
Corbeled Arch Relieving Triangle Tiryns Megaron Tiryns Palace

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