I have spent the last few days in Athens, arriving there in the most traditional way possible: by sea. I took the ferry from the island of Samos which, after 10 hours, docked in the port of Piraeus. As it was after midnight, I made my way to my hotel and set about planning my side trips the next morning.
I only had a very few days but I was on a ‘Homer trip’ so to speak and definitely wanted to visit Epidauros and the mystical Mycenae. I don’t often go on guided tours but the one I found, offered by Keytours, seemed perfect as it included both sites as well as the canal of Corinth. It was a success. The tour bus was pink, which I already loved. The tour guide a charming young lady with excellent English and a solid knowledge of history and my 12 fellow travelers a very international group including a drama teacher from New York and a historian from Sydney. As you can imagine, they contributed valuable details and information, I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting tour. I just watched, listened and took notes and pictures.
First stop was the canal of Corinth. Today, it’s no more than a tourist attraction because modern freighters are far too big to fit into the narrow walls of the canal, but at the time of its opening in 1893 it was considered a major achievement connecting the Golf of Corinth with the Saronic Golf. You can walk on a narrow footbridge over the canal and look down the steep walls to the sea level waters of the canal proper which operates without lochs.
Approx. 11km further on we approached the massive walls of Mycenae. According to Homer’s epic poem Odyssey Agamemnon was king of Mycenae and the mythology surrounding him includes absolutely all elements of Greek drama and tragedy, incest, murder, mayhem, you name it, it’s associated with Agamemnon. Yes, immense wealth too.
Let’s briefly recap: Agamemnon was the brother of Menelaos, king of Sparta who in turn was the husband of Helen. And, with her, the trouble started. Paris, Prince of Troy, fell in love with Helen and abducted her to Troy which resulted in the 10 years of Troyan war. The Geek fleet assembled to bring her back, was commanded by king Agamemnon. As always, the Gods had a strong hand in the whole mess and prevented the winds from blowing, so the fleet couldn’t set off in pursuit. Agamemnon consulted the oracle in Delphi and was told that to appease the Gods, he had to sacrifice his youngest daughter, Iphigenia. And he did. The war got under way, Troy was destroyed thanks to Odysseus device of the wooden horse and Agamemnon returned home, only to find that his wife Clytemnestra had taken a lover. Legend differs in who actually did the dirty deed, but one of them or both, killed Agamemnon in his bath.
It was the German businessman and hobby archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who became obsessed with Homer’s Odyssey and, after having discovered and excavated Troy, was convinced that Agamemnon and Mycenae were real locations too. It was his Greek predecessor who discover the famous Lion Gate, but Schliemann excavated the massive shaft tombs and came upon an enormous gold treasure, including the so-called mask of Agamemnon. Upon finding it he famously exclaimed: ‘I have gazed into the face of Agamemnon!’
The historical truth is a bit different from the mythology. There is no proof that king Agamemnon ever lived, but Mycenae was an important centre of Greek civilization as early as 2000 BC, ruled by powerful kings who resided within the massive city walls, protected by monolithic gates. Their tombs had the distinctive conic shapes and gold artifacts were buried with them.
I love the mythology and legends though and upon admiring the gold copy of Agamemnon’s mask in the adjacent museum I could easily imagine Schliemann’s excitement. A few minutes away is the tomb of Aeghistus, a massive example of the period. Staring up at the ceiling you can only marvel at the architectural feat.
History, legend, drama, mythology and the writings of Homer: no other place combines the essence of ancient Greece better than the site of Mycenae. A revelation.