From Mycenae to Troy

I want to tell the story of Troy, the legendary Troy of Helen and the Trojan War, but first I’ll tell about Mycenae, because it’s important to the back story.

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

Mycenae is located in the eastern Peloponnese, about 80 miles from Athens. Some 3500 years ago, it was a powerful presence in the eastern Mediterranean. According to legend, Mycenae was ruled at its peak by Agamemnon, a son of the cursed Atreidae dynasty. He was a deeply flawed character, whose bad decisions perpetuated the kind of bloody family saga the ancient Greeks did so well.

Agamemnon’s ancestor, Tantalus, offended the gods by serving them his own children for dinner and by stealing their famous nectar, ambrosia. Eternal torture for Tantalus was not sufficient punishment for his crimes; his descendants were doomed to lives of violence, betrayal and crushing tragedy.

Agamemnon’s brother was Menelaus. The brothers were married to two sisters, Agamemnon to Clytemnestra and Menelaus to Helen. Yes, that Helen. Before she was Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta, widely considered the world’s most beautiful woman. Helen’s father was the king of Sparta, and when the time came to find her a husband, the royal halls were jammed with suitors. After considering his options, the king decided the least messy way to settle the matter was to draw straws. However, knowing that a few sore losers were inevitable, he first had all suitors vow to support the winner of Helen’s hand if her honor were ever challenged. With that out of the way, straws were drawn. Menelaus won the hand of Helen in marriage and also succeeded his father-in-law as the king of Sparta.

Sometime later, Paris, prince of Troy, visited Sparta, accepted the hospitality of Menelaus, and then ran off with his wife. The real beginning of this story, involving the revenge of a spurned goddess, explains Paris’ audacity, but more about that in my next post. For now, it’s enough to know that Paris either abducted or seduced Helen away to Troy.

ancient pot dipicting the abduction of Helen

ancient pot depicting the abduction of Helen

Agamemnon, the more powerful and aggressive of the Atreus brothers, invoked the oath made by Helen’s suitors, the warrior kings and princes of Greek states, to stand with Menelaus to defend Helen’s honor, and his own. A great war fleet was assembled and set sail, only to get lost and scattered on the way to Troy. Eight years later they reconvened off the coast of Greece and tried to set out again, but the goddess Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, had the ships trapped in the harbor by the wind. With more than 1,000 ships sitting idle, Agamemnon consulted a prophet, who advised him to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, and so he did. Remember I mentioned Agamemnon’s bad decision-making? Well, in the short run, he got what he was after, sailing conditions favorable to advance his war. In the long run, many chapters and more than a decade down the line, he will pay.

Check back next time for the exciting conclusion!

Today at Mycenae, you can see some impressive royal tombs, cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large they must have been placed by the one-eyed giant Cyclopes), the grand Lion Gate, and footprints of a palace and associated buildings. Some of the tombs yielded a trove of golden treasure, including the famous and misnamed Mask of Agamemnon, which dates to an earlier period than the Agamemnon we have come to know. The artifacts are not at Mycenae but at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Lion's Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lion’s Gate, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

Mycenae makes an easy day trip from Athens or an essential stop on a longer exploration of the Peloponnese.

Click to see our Greece tours that include Mycenae.

The Athens Acropolis

the acropolis of Athens can be seen from all over the city

the acropolis of Athens can be seen from all over the city

While most towns of any size in the ancient Greek world had an acropolis, the acropolis of Athens has come to define the word. In general, an acropolis is the high place of a city and a center for important religious and civic activities.

Most of what stands on the Athens acropolis today was built under the great Athenian leader Pericles in the last half of the 5th century BCE, a Golden Age of ancient Greece. Earlier buildings succumbed to the hands of time, natural disaster, and invading hoards. The Parthenon stands on an artificial hill made up of acropolis debris left over after the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BCE.

Click to see Greece tours that include a visit to the Athens Acropolis. Continue reading

Crete

Knossos fresco

Knossos fresco

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 160 miles long and 37 miles across at the widest point, located 99 miles south of Athens at the very southern border of the Aegean Sea and of the European continent. One blog post will not do justice to Crete’s many, diverse attractions but we’ll take a stab at an informative overview.

Crete was the center of the highly sophisticated, pre-Greek Minoan civilization which thrived from approximately 3,000 BCE until it vanished about 1,500 years later. Its main city was Knossos but it had settlements all over Crete, around the Aegean, and even on mainland Turkey. At its height, Minoan influence rivaled that of ancient Egypt.

Most tourism development on Crete is on the north coast of the island; some areas are densely packed with mass market facilities. The main centers are Heraklion, Chania, Hersonnisos and Elounda.

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Heraklion is the commercial and administrative center of Crete, the major city on the island and one of Greece’s largest cities, not so much a tourist destination as a hub for air and sea traffic. It is, however, a sophisticated city with excellent dining, shopping and nightlife and its proximity to Knossos and world-class archaeological museum are reason enough to spend at least a few hours in Heraklion.

Phaistos

Phaistos

Knossos is 3 miles from Heraklion. It’s the most thoroughly restored of Crete’s Minoan ruins but the accuracy of the restoration is questionable and has a bit of a theme park feel. For less flashy but still very grand Minoan ruins, see Phaistos, about 40 miles southwest of Heraklion, and Aigia Triada, a few miles from Phaistos. Artifacts from the Minoan sites can be viewed at the excellent Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Chania is an exceptionally picturesque little city, especially the well-preserved old city with Venetian and Ottoman buildings clustered around the harbor.

On the far northeast end of the island, about 50 miles from Heraklion, is Elounda, mostly known for luxury resorts.

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

Crete’s interior is mountainous and cut through with stunning gorges. A serious hiker can easily spend weeks trekking about. More casual hikers should check out sections of the coast-long E4 trail, especially in the White Mountains near Chania and the Psiloritis Mountains near Heraklion. The Samarian Gorge, near Chania, is a very popular day hike.

There is a great variety of beaches on Crete, from long and sandy to short and rocky. In general, those on the north coast are more crowded than those on the south coast. Knowing when you’ll be there and specifically what you desire in a beach experience will help us suggest where to go.

During season (April-October), there are multiple daily flights from Athens to Chania, Heraklion and, to a lesser degree, the new airport at Sitia. Flights from Rhodes and Santorini in high season are also a possibility.

Cruise ships dock at Heraklion. Ferries travel from Athens to Heraklion and Chania and from Santorini and Rhodes to Heraklion.

4 Daytrips from Athens

Some of Greece’s top sites are close enough to Athens for an easy day trip.
Here are a few:

Delphi, Greece

Delphi, Greece

Delphi is a 2.5 – 3 hour drive northwest of Athens on the slopes of Mt.Parnassus, a really stunning spot. The ancient Greeks believed it to be the center of the world. According to legend, Apollo killed the Python that guarded the Omphalos, or navel of the earth, and thereafter, the site was dedicated to the god. The Delphic Oracle was a priestess known as the Pythia, who channeled the words of Apollo for seekers of wisdom from near and far. Delphi was also known for the Pythian Games, similar to the original Olympic Games.

The extensive remains are mostly from the 6th-century BCE and are scattered on several terraced levels right down the side of the mountain. The small museum holds artifacts found at the site. The modern town of Delphi is right there, with lots of hotels, restaurants and shops. Staying a night instead of doing the roundtrip to Athens in one day is a good option. There are motor coach tours either way.

Lion Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lions Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Located about 60 miles southwest of Athens on the northeastern Peloponnese, in the region of Argolis, Mycenae was a major center of power in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1600-1100BCE. The Mycenaeans were culturally influential and the period is the source of a lot of Greek legend. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey sprang from this time. In the Iliad, Agamemnon, the legendary king of Mycenae, led the Greek forces in the Trojan War. War sparked when Helen (of Troy) ran off with Paris, prince of Troy. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. It’s a good story, really. Whether any of the bones of the story are factual is debatable but there’s no question that it was inspired by some complex power struggles, think Game of Thrones.
(See my brief retelling of the Iliad here and here.)

Excavations at Mycenae represent different periods, ranging from 17th-century BCE shaft tombs to the 14th– century cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large the Cyclops must have built them) and the 13th-century Lions Gate. A fair bit of walking over very uneven ground is required to see the site. Good, sturdy shoes are a must, and a big bottle of water.

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

About an hour drive from Mycenae is Epidaurus, on the Saronic Gulf. In mythology, Epidaurus was the birthplace of Asclepius, son of Apollo and god of healing. The Asclepion sanctuary there was an active healing center from the 6th-century BCE to the 4th-century CE and then continued as a Christian healing center for another century. The area thrived on the popularity of the sanctuary and the spectacular theater is one indication of that prosperity. The theater seats 15,000 and the acoustics are so perfect that normal voices on the stage can be heard clearly from every seat. The theater is still used for performances today.

Napflion, Greece

Napflion, Greece

The capital of Argolis is the sweet seaside city of Nafplio, widely considered one of the prettiest towns in Greece, which is really saying something. If you’re on a day trip from Athens, at least stop here for lunch and walk around the narrow alleys of the Medieval Old Town. If you’re on a longer tour of the Peloponnese, this is a good place to overnight.