The lion gate at ancient Mycenae, Greece.
The lion gate at ancient Mycenae, Greece. Jim Eagles

Fortress steeped in ancient horrors

IT seemed appropriate that just as we approached the grim 3000-year-old fortress of Mycenae, dark clouds should suddenly gather overhead and send down a few warning drops of rain.

Even though this was the setting for one of the greatest love affairs in history - the romance between Helen and Paris that launched the Greek invasion of Troy and inspired Homer's epic poems - it is a dark place with an even darker history.

Legend has it that Mycenae was founded by the hero Perseus and that he hired the Cyclops, the awful one-eyed giants, to build it.

Other legends tell of successive blood feuds, wars and assassinations, with grandsons killing grandfathers, nephews killing uncles, fathers sacrificing daughters, wives killing husbands and sons killing mothers, until the ruling dynasty wiped itself out.

As I approached the great stone walls and the entrance gate topped by two powerful lionesses - minus their heads, unfortunately - the stories seemed all too believable.

The fortress, and what remains of the palaces and temples that once stood inside, look exactly as though they've been thrown together by clumsy giants from huge, crudely shaped blocks of stone. Archaeologists have apparently calculated that the completed citadel would have required 14,420 blocks of stone - averaging 10 tonnes in weight, the largest perhaps 100 tonnes - fitted together without mortar.

And maybe it was the gloom spread across the rocky landscape by the thunder clouds above, but as I wandered round the hilltop complex, I felt suddenly chilled. The place seemed haunted by the bloody deeds of Electryon and Atreus, Agamemnon and Orestes, who between 1600 and 1100BC presided here over an oppressive empire covering much of southern Greece.

Even the outlook from the top of the citadel is harsh and unforgiving, revealing a landscape filled with great rocks and treacherous chasms, high peaks and steep cliffs, obviously chosen to make life difficult for an invading army rather than to provide the inhabitants with a lush lifestyle ... though these days there are groves of olives to soften the view.

Yet, strangely, the museum on the site shows a different side to the city. Its exhibits include some of the most superb painted pottery and figurines I saw in the course of a trip embracing a great many museums. There's also some nice jewellery, apparently recovered from the tombs of the military aristocracy who ruled the place, further confirming that the Mycenaeans might have been violent, but they also had good taste.

The most striking item of all is a gold death mask (pictured) - it's actually a copy. The original is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens - discovered in a grave at Mycenae in 1876 by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who declared: "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon," believing he had discovered the body of the legendary leader of the Greek assault on Troy.

Unfortunately, modern research has dispelled this fascinating possibility by determining that the mask dates from about 1500BC, whereas the king himself probably lived three or four centuries later.

In any case, from the picture painted of Agamemnon in Homer's Iliad, I rather think he'd have been more interested in the massive swords on display than in gold ornaments.

>> Read more travel stories.

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