June 10, Mycenae

Today we started the long drive north that would end at the Athens Airport Hotel.
After 90 minutes of twisting country roads up the mountains, we stopped at Mycenae, the ancient home of the House of Atreus, whose two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, launched the Trojan War. See, Helen of Troy was actually Helen of Sparta before she left her husband King Menelaus for Troy—either as an act of passion or as a victim of kidnapping. Either way, most of the Peloponnese got involved in 10 terrible years of war, as chronicled by Homer’s Iliad and climaxed by the Trojan Horse and sack of Troy.

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Or was it all a fairy tale? Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes—fact or fable? Or both?

That’s what amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann was obsessed with discovering in the 19th century. And in 1874, digging right where I stood today, he changed our past by uncovering the ancient citadel, complete with royal chambers, storehouses, and giant tombs. To prepare for this moment, I’d read his biography last month. It includes his exultation at finding an unopened royal tomb, approaching the corpse, lifting the gold death mask and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of Agamemnon.”

Well, he was wrong about that, because the tombs he found were even older, dating back to about 1600 BCE. But oh, what tombs! Cyclopean blocks of stone perfectly edged and aligned. A 200-foot long paved walkway culminating in an entrance you could drive a bus through. An enormous beehive-shaped chamber for the body and grave goods. And when finished, skillfully covered with dirt so that it looked like just another little hill.

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My guide walked me around the outdoor site, shivering in the 70-degree cloudy breeze (I kept my delight about the weather to myself). The Mycenaeans had traded with other local commercial centers like Argos and Epidaurus, and eventually made it to Crete where they conquered the more peaceful and sophisticated Minoans. My guide speculated about the social changes indicated by the change in god-legends that accompanied the conquest.

We eventually left Mycenae and went north to Corinth. We drove up even higher, to the acropolis that had overlooked the ancient city—and had also seen later military use by the usual suspects: Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Turks, etc.. It commanded an extraordinary view of the plain below, and the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland—only 4 miles wide at its narrowest.

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I walked up the uneven stone entryway as lightning and thunder lit the gray afternoon sky. The enormous walls, fortified many times, were everywhere, and yet so skillfully set into the mountain they seemed to have simply grown up toward the open sky. I didn’t even try to climb up to see the old temple of Aphrodite—it was just too strenuous and I didn’t want to get stuck in the rain that threatened to slicken every stone in the place.

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Back down below, the tiny old town was dwarfed by stone columns from the 6th century BCE—and, when my eyes adjusted to the various shades of gray, acres and acres of the excavated old city of Corinth—marketplace, homes, etc.. My guide was quick to point out rough Roman additions to the elegant Greek architecture. And when we saw an exhibit of how column capitals had evolved over time, she was quick to point out all the Greek innovations, sniffing that the Romans hadn’t added much of value or taste.

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The day’s last stop, just a few minutes later, was on a small bridge over the Corinth Canal, imagined by Caesar and Nero but completed only in 1893. Just two miles to the west I could see the blue Gulf of Corinth. Turning to the east, I could see the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf. I didn’t want to leave ancient Greece. But I did in fact turn north, and headed for twenty-first century America.

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