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The Lion Gate at Mycenae
The Lion Gate at Mycenae

Mycenae (in Ancient Greek Mykænai or Μυκηναι, pronounced roughly Moo-kair-nigh, in Modern Greek Mikenes or Μυκενες), is an archaeological site in Greece, located about 90km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. In the second millennium BC Mycenae was one of the major centres of Greek civilisation, a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC is called Mycenean in recognition of Mycenae's leading position.

The acropolis or "high city" of Mycenae is believed to have been fortified as early as 1500 BC, as evidenced by grave-shafts dating from that period. In around 1350 BC the fortifications on the acropolis, and other surrounding hills, were rebuilt in a style known as "cyclopaean," because the blocks of stone used were so massive that they were thought in later ages to be the work of the one-eyed giant known as Cyclops. Within these walls, parts of which can still be seen, monumental palaces were built.

In later periods the Mycenaeans stopped burying their kings in grave shafts, and instead built enormous circular tombs called tholoi, often built into the sides of hills. The largest of these was discovered by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Since it had long ago been looted of its contents, he did not realise it was a tomb and called it the Treasury of Atreus. It is so large he was able to entertain the Emperor of Brazil to lunch in it.

The best known feature of Mycenae is the Lion Gate, which was built in about 1250 BC. At this time Mycenae must have been a thriving city, whose political, military and economic power extended as far as Crete, Pylos in the western Peloponnese, and to Athens and Thebes. By 1200 BC, however, the power of Mycenae was declining, and during the 12th century Mycenaean dominance collapsed. This is traditionally attributed to a Dorian invasion of Greeks from the north, although some historians now doubt that such an invasion took place.

The entrance of the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, actually a circular tomb or tholos
The entrance of the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, actually a circular tomb or tholos

The memory of the power of Mycenae lingered in the minds of the Greeks through the subsequent centuries, commonly known as the Dark Age. The epic poems attributed by the later Greeks to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, preserve memories of the Myceanean period. Homer's poems make Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War.

During the early Classical period, Mycenae was once again inhabited, though it never regained its earlier importance. Mycenaeans fought at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Persian Wars. In 468 BC, however, troops from Argos captured Mycenae and expelled the inhabitants. In Hellenistic and Roman times the ruins at Mycenae were a tourist attraction, just as they are now, and a small town grew up to serve the tourist trade. By late Roman times, however, the site had been abandoned.

The first excavations at Mycenae were carried out by the Greek archaeologist Pittakis in 1841. He found and restored the Lion Gate. In 1874 Schliemann arrived at the site and undertook a complete excavation. Schliemann believed in the historical truth of the Homeric stories and interpreted the site accordingly. He found the ancient grave shafts with their royal skeletons and spectacular grave goods. When he found a gold death mask in one of the tombs, he exclaimed: "Behold the face of Agamemnon!"

Since Schliemann's day more scientific excavations have taken place at Mycenae, mainly by Greek archaeologists but also by the British School at Athens. The acropolis was excavated in 1902, and the surrounding hills have been methodically investigated by subsequent excavataions.

Today Mycenae, one of the foundational sites of European civilisation, is a popular tourist destination a few hours' drive from Athens. The site has been well-preserved and the massive ruins of the cyclopaean walls and the palaces on the acropolis still arouse the admiration of visitors, particularly when it is remembered that they were built a thousand years before the monuments of Classical Greece.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45