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When you think about Greece, visions of the Parthenon and Delphi probably jump to mind. It’s a land rich in its history of city states and great battles. As the “Cradle of Western Civilization,” Greece is the birthplace of Western art, culture, and thought.
But, in Greece, that’s all relatively new history.
It’s hard to imagine, but there was a civilization in Greece that was at the height of its power almost 1,000 years before what we think of as “Ancient Greece.” The people who lived in this bronze age settlement were as legendary to the Ancient Greeks as Plato, Socrates, and the Aristotle are to us now. And there’s one place where we can still see and imagine how these über ancients lived: Mycenae.
But before we get started, here are some other pieces in our Greece series you may want to check out:
A (Very) Brief History of Mycenae
Going to Mycenae is like stepping back in time 3,500 years. While the area where the peasants lived is long gone, the ruins of Mycenae’s fortress still remain. This is the palace where the powerful Mycenaean kings like Agamemnon lived. It’s a place that would have been defended by great warriors like Achilles and where Odysseus hatched one of the most infamous secret attacks in all of history – the Trojan Horse.
But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Mycenae was a bronze age civilization dated between about 1600 B.C. and 1100 B.C. Located in the Peloponnesian peninsula, Mycenae is known for its advancements in architecture and military infrastructure. It’s also where we’ve found the first written evidence of the Greek language.
Our Trip to Mycenae
Our visit to Mycenae started from Syntagma Square in Athens. To see as much of the Greek mainland as possible, we decided to book the 4-Day Classical Greece Tour through Chat Tours. I highly recommend! (Click the link to read more about it at TripAdvisor.)
After leaving Athens, the beginning of our journey brought us past some important historical sites. We traveled past the island of Salamis, site of one of the most important battles in Greek history. It was here, in the strait between the mainland and the island, where a unified Greek navy defeated the invading Persians in 480 B.C. – halting their advance and turning the tide of their invasion. We also stopped for a photo-op at the Corinth canal, where Holly bought a rad wool throw that would come in handy during the rest of our trip.
While making our way to Mycenae, I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful Peloponnesian countryside. The landscapes are stunningly rugged, with many of the mountains capped with ancient fortresses known as an “acropolis.” Imagining what life was like 2,500 years ago, it became apparent to me why city states even existed. Due to the topography, travel in the area must have been difficult. Getting from one side of a mountain to another took enormous effort. Thus, the Ancient Greek’s kingdoms went for as far as the eye could see – the area and cities between mountains.
The first thing you notice when arriving at Mycenae is the acropolis built into the hillside. However, our first stop at the archaeological site was touring the Treasury of Atreus. This gigantic structure was excavated by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann around the year 1879. The structure itself is giant dome built into the side of a hill. The musty old dome likely served as a burial spot for a Mycenaean king. For centuries, the Treasury of Atreus stood as the largest dome in the world, built over 1,000 years before the Parthenon in Rome. It’s empty now, but it’s towering ceiling and enormous entry way are definitely something to ponder.
Here are a few pics:
Mycenae: Lion Gate
After spending a few minutes inside the treasury and posing for some selfies, we moved on to the acropolis. We made our way along the paved sidewalk, which slopes gently upward for about 150 meters or so. As we approached the fortress, the first thing we encountered was a massive gate. The entry way was crowned by two large sculptures, prompting historians to coin this the “Lion Gate.” While the impressive sculptures are the largest from this time period, the gate served a practical purpose as an excellent deterrent from attacking the city. Those that did would find it tough to breach.
With walls circling the entire area, the Lion Gate was the main entry way to the citadel. Any would-be attackers must first make their way through the heavily defended gate. If they were to make it through, their struggles would still not be over. Enemy combatants would then have to wind their way on slick paths, uphill, to actually seize the palace. Oh yeah, and they’d have to do this with short swords, spears, and shields while the defenders were trying to kill them. Not an easy task, which gave the defending Mycenaean an advantage even against larger numbers.
Mycenae: Grave Circles and Palace Ruins
After passing through the gate, we decided to check out the grave circles. These excavated graves may look like simple holes in the ground, but they have a very interesting history. Because the graves are located within the citadel walls, it is believed that very important people were buried here. (Think kings, queens, and their families.)
Several bronze burial masks have been found during excavations of these burial sites. Schliemann thought one mask to be so spectacular, he believed he’d discovered the grave of the greatest Mycenaean king of all – Agamemnon. While still known as the “Mask of Agamemnon,” it’s now believed this mask didn’t actually belong to him. We saw the mask at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens prior to visiting Mycenae. If you have time, I highly suggest you check it out – preferably before you visit the historical sites. That way, you can picture what everything may have looked like before it became ruins.
After checking out the grave circles, we made our way to the top of the hill. Although there are sidewalks, some of them are slightly steep. Most of them are paved, but some are gravel. When you’re there, be sure to watch your step. Give yourself 5 to 10 minutes to get up or down.
At the top of the hill, you’ll find the footprint of the palace. While the palace itself isn’t much to look at, the view is absolutely incredible. I loved gazing out across the valley, with the ocean in the distance and mountains as far as I could see. It’s a view fit for a king, and I made sure to soak it up for a few minutes.
Getting to Mycenae
Mycenae is located roughly 120 km (75 miles) and an hour and a half drive from the historic center in Athens. Tickets to the site cost 6 Euros, so it’s definitely cheap. Personally, I’d recommend taking a guided tour though. There’s something magical about visiting a historical place while a local tour guide brings the stories to life. You can read reviews and book the tour we used here.
As a certified history geek and travel nerd, Mycenae was a great way to start our tour of classical Greece. Built about a thousand years before what’s usually thought of as Ancient Greece, the site serves as a logical jumping off point for the story of Greece. It also provides a nice teaser for the rest of the historical sites to come.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my review of Mycenae. We’ll continue our journey into Greece again soon. Until then, happy traveling!