Mycenae, the ancient city that named a whole civilisation after itself, lies in the low hillsides of Peloponnese close to the modern town of Argos. Set on a trip travelling you back thousands of years and discover monuments so ancient that even ancient Greeks considered them ruins of antiquity.
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Mycenae lies some kilometres northern to the city of Argos on the top of a low hill that overlooks the valley stretching till the shores of the Argolic Gulf. Built on a naturally fortified location, the Acropolis of Mycenae is the first thing the visitor sees by the time he sets foot on the region. Huge stone blocks put to create an impenetrable wall for the protection of the “Anax” and his people, Mycenae was for sure one of the most progressive and impressive places of prehistoric Greece. Therefore, you should definitely not miss the chance to visit the birthplace of Agamemnon while in Greece and relive the history of Mycenae through the words of the most revered poet of them all, Homer.
Although archaeologists have resulted in the fact that the location was inhabited since Neolithic times, the main settlement developed after the coming of the first Hellenic tribes at the beginning of the second millennia BC. The idea that even during that time-period a well-organised settlement with distinct social hierarchy and a significant production existed is proven by the discovery of much archaeological material and more impressively by the findings of the graves of approximately that period most likely belonging to the ruling class of Mycenae. Even the very word Mycenae has a questionable etymology. It is that old that scholars still debate on its origins, although most of them agree on the fact that it should be pre-Hellenic and that it has to do with the location of the settlement.
During the next centuries, the population of Mycenae steadily increased creating an urban centre with an elaborate trading network, covering a wide geographical area and operating as a key role player in the politics of that time period. In the 14th century BCE, the wealth of Mycenae was such that its acropolis was fortified with a wall built with colossal stone blocks. Even ancient people of the classical times, not being able to understand how their ancestors surpassed the technological difficulties of such endeavour, they named these walls Cyclopeian, believing that the mythical Cyclopes were responsible for their creation. The walls of Mycenae expanded over the next century and one of the entrances was decorated with a relief of two lions placed heraldically to an altar. This entrance is now known as the Lions Gate, an attraction of Mycenae since antiquity. Except for its significance for Greek history, the relief of the lions is perhaps the earliest example of monumental sculpture to be found in mainland Europe as well.
Behind the massive walls of the Acropolis, people could find shelter and protection in times of need and it was also the place where the ruling class of Mycenae used to live. Right after the Lions Gate, the today’s visitor passes by the ruins of Grave Circle A, a location of royal burials some of them dated as far as 1600 BCE. The famous archaeology enthusiast Heinrich Schliemann, after his excavations on the site of Troy, shifted his attention to Mycenae following the stories of Homer’s Iliad and the work of Pausanias. He arrived in the region and started excavating at the area where he unearthed the peribolos and grave shafts of Grave Circle A. Luckily, the tombs had not been stripped from their offerings during antiquity therefore, he was able to collect an unimaginable amount of treasures. Some of them are the Golden Mask of Agamemnon, the Golden cup of Nestor, the Silver Siege Rhyton and the plethora of jewellery, ornamented weapons and personal items of exquisite craftsmanship using priceless materials.
Continuing up the grand road, the visitor finds himself at the premises of the Mycenaean palace, located close the highest point of the Acropolis. Known as the megaron, the palatial structure was the seat of the ruler with large halls decorated with vividly coloured frescoes. The very central point of the megaron was the throne room, where the ruler would sit on an elevated throne in front of a burning hearth. Most probably operating as the reception room, its decoration was there to impress foreigners and to provoke awe and respect to the subjects. Some examples of the frescoes found at the megaron of Mycenae can be found at the National and Archaeological Museum of Athens.
As luxurious as the lives of the ruling class might have been, it is certain that they also thought about their lives beyond. Huge megastructures were built to host the burials of more than one members of the royal family the individuals belonged to. Known as tholos tombs, these structures were and still are a feat of engineering and the site of Mycenae has nine of those examples. The most well-preserved and well-known though are the Treasury of Atreus and the Tholos of Clytemnestra. The Treasury of Atreus or the Tholos of Agamemnon as H. Schliemann named it, was built around 1250 BCE and despite its double name, scholars agree on the fact that probably another person was initially buried in the structure. The monument was described by Pausanias, the traveller of the 2nd century AD and its location was known throughout the centuries. The Mycenaeans used a technique called corbelling in order to create a huge space with no additional support to its dome, holding up massive amounts of dirt since it is buried as a tumulus. The Treasury of Atreus has a diameter of about 14.5 meters and it used to be the largest space covered with a dome until the creation of the temple of Hermes in Baiae and the Pantheon in Rome! Its lavish decoration and sculptural ornamentation have survived in a fragmentary state but they surely give us an idea of the splendour and scale of the building.
Another Grave Circle, located outside of the walls of Mycenae provided to the archaeologists more information about this long gone civilisation and filled the gaps that the research conducted by H. Schliemann left to the history of Mycenae. More lavish buildings with spectacular frescoes, shrines, temples and a big residential area are some of the things you are going to witness during your trip to the birthplace of Agamemnon. People continued to live at the glorious ruins of Mycenae until Hellenistic times. In classical times, the accounts inform us that the Mycenaeans contributed to the Persian Wars by participating in the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea. Although this new town was much smaller in scale, it had many public buildings incorporated to the much older still operating shrines of the past. A temple at the Acropolis of Mycenae was built as well.
Mycenae is for sure a place of wonder, and its Acropolis still captivates the imagination of the people reflecting on stories of war and glory. Put Mycenae, this UNESCO World Heritage Site on your bucket list, plan your own visit there or perhaps check out one of our Greece tours.