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.

Ful Medames, Beans for Breakfast, the Egyptian Way


Ful Medames, or simply ful (fava or broad beans), is a staple across the Middle East, but especially in Egypt, where the common belief is that it was passed down from the pharaohs. I first had ful for breakfast in Cairo. It has all the elements of my favorite guilt-free comfort foods (guilt-ful comfort foods are in a category of their own) – simple but flavorful, hearty but light – the earthiness of beans contrasted with the cool crunch of fresh vegetable garnish, joined by the bright richness of extra virgin olive oil and the tang of lemon juice.

I first tried to make ful myself about eight years ago, without success. Apparently this was before I realized pretty much every question could be answered on the Internet. I cooked several pots of dried fava beans but couldn’t get them soft enough. Obviously I wasn’t very motivated. I have plenty of Egyptian friends, not to mention Jordanian, Turkish, Lebanese and Syrian friends and acquaintances who would have shared their ful recipes and techniques.

Recently I was having dinner with a group of friends in Portland, including one whose grandparents immigrated to the US from Syria. We talked about her family in Syria, what life is like for them as their country is torn apart. They are in a small village outside of Damascus and, for now, everyone is safe. She talked about her visit to Syria, before the war, and how her aunt would get up before dawn every day and prepare great spreads of beautiful food, with the most basic of tools. We were eating a delicious Northwest-chic meal but both started to pine for the ancient peasant foods of the Middle East. Then it occurred to me to ask her about ful. Yes! She makes it all the time. “Use canned beans,” she said. “I do.” My hopes and craving for ful were restored. I can open a can.

I have a great little Mediterranean grocery in my neighborhood and as I walked to buy some cans of ful beans, I couldn’t escape the little voice in my head. “Cheater,” it said. “The pharaohs did not eat canned ful.” So, I asked the Lebanese shop keeper how they make ful for the restaurant next door. The secret is to use dried baby beans. The skin on the mature beans is too tough. Even after soaking and cooking, mature beans must be peeled in order to mash up properly for ful medames. To avoid the labor of peeling the beans, use baby beans.

To be honest, I’m not sure “baby” is technically correct. The beans you want are small and brown.

I decided to try it both ways, with beans from a can and with cooked dried “baby” beans, and compare the results.

Measurements are all to taste.

Ful with canned beans
1 can ful beans
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon

Cook the onion in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the can of beans, with liquid and let simmer for about 15 minutes. Add spices, salt, lemon and mash everything together with a fork or potato masher.

Ful from scratch
2 cups dried baby ful beans
1 large onion, finely chopped
4-6 cloves crushed garlic
1 large tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Soak the beans over night. Saute onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne in olive oil for a minute or two in a large pot. Add drained beans, cover with fresh water and simmer, covered on very low heat until beans are soft, about 2-3 hours. Check the pot regularly and add water if necessary. When the beans are tender uncover and let the liquid reduce. Smash some of the beans against the side of the pot with a spoon to thicken the sauce. Add tomato and cook until the beans are thick but not too dry, still soupy. (The consistency is a matter of taste. I like it runny but not wet, thick but not dense.) Add salt and lemon juice just before serving.

Garnish to taste and serve with pita bread.

There are a variety of garnishes to be used in quantities and combinations to your liking. These are the ones I know of:
chopped or sliced onion, use a sweet or mild onion
chopped green onion
chopped cucumber
chopped tomato
chopped parsley
chopped olives
chopped boiled egg or a fried egg
drizzled extra virgin olive oil
drizzled tahina
feta cheese

Now that I have cooked and eaten a bowl each of ful from a can and ful from dried beans, I declare both totally satisfying. The only drawback I see from using the canned beans is the left over can. I foresee eating this dish often enough that I’ll feel better about using bulk dried beans.