NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

In the south west of the Peloponnese peninsula, Gialova lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It’s a nationally protected area and a wildlife refuge. Over 250 species of birds have been documented in the lagoon, including herons, osprey, terns, flamingos and sandpipers. Many thousands of migrating birds stop in the lagoon each year as they travel between Africa and Europe in spring and fall and some 20,000 hang around all year long.

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NAME THAT COUNTRY

This is the Lions Gate at Mycenae on the Peloponnese peninsula. Mycenae was a major center of power and cultural influence in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1600-1100BCE. Mycenean civilization was the first advanced civilization on the mainland of our mystery country. In Homer’s Iliad, Mycenae was among the city states that fought in the Trojan War over the abduction of Helen, wife of the King of Sparta (Menelaus) , who was the brother of the King of Mycenae (Agamemnon).

 

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Greece Must See – Mycenae

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.

Myceanae is an easy daytrip from Athens and also a regular feature on longer bus tours. These Ya’lla tours include visits to Mycenae: Scholar’s Classical, Scirocco, Aegean Highlights, Ultimate Greece, Aeolos.

3 Day Trips from Athens

 

Temple of Octavia, Corinth, Greece

Temple of Octavia, Corinth, Greece

The ancient site of Corinth is about an hour drive west of Athens on the isthmus that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. There has been significant development there since the 8th century BCE. With ports on the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, Corinth controlled a great deal of trade and was very wealthy and powerful, especially in the Classical period, when the city was known for decadence. The flamboyant Corinthian Order (column) originated in Corinth and is a good reflection of the city’s character at its peak.

Ancient attempts to dig a canal through the isthmus failed but after the first try in the 7th-century BCE, a paved ramp was built so ships could be moved overland, to avoid sailing around the Peloponnese. In the late 19th century the canal was finally built, 4 miles long and only 70 feet across, too narrow for most modern seafaring traffic.

Many visitors to Corinth are interested in its biblical significance. Paul the Evangelist established a church there and visited several times. Two of his letters to the congregation in Corinth are part of the Christian Bible – 1st & 2nd Corinthians. Among the ruins are a 6th-century BCE Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest surviving Greek temples, a Roman Temple of Octavia, the Roman agora, and the Bema, a public square where Paul was judged after some of the locals complained about his preaching.

Cape Sounion, Greece

Cape Sounion, Greece

Less than an hour drive southeast of Athens is Cape Sounion, a windswept promontory jutting out into the Aegean Sea. A magnificent 5th-century BCE Temple of Poseidon commands the end of the cape. It’s a dramatic and evocative place, well worth the pretty drive from Athens along the Saronic Gulf.

Hydra island, Greece

Hydra island, Greece

With Saronic Islands day trips from Athens you visit three islands – Hydra, Poros and Aegina. If you’re short on time and really want to see more than one island in an organized, semi-escorted way, this is a good way to do it. On the other hand, you spend a lot more time traveling between islands and boarding and disembarking than you do on the islands. Personally, I’d rather have time to linger and soak up one place, and Hydra would be that place. Hydrofoils depart several times a day from Athens’ Pireaus port during the tourist season (March/April-October). The one-way trip takes about 1 ½ hours. The island is idyllic, with the pretty, whitewashed town tucked between amphitheater hills and the harbor, cobbled roads and no motorized traffic – the perfect recipe for lazy poking around and a long harbor-view lunch.

From Mycenae to Troy

I want to tell the story of Troy, the legendary Troy of Helen and the 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

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.