Friday, September 10, 2011 — Mycenae, Nafplios, Corinth

We chose to vis­it Myce­nae dur­ing our lim­it­ed time on the main­land. As the Myce­naeans were the suc­ces­sors (and per­haps con­querors) of the Minoans, their most impres­sive ruins of were a fit­ting choice. They are dra­mat­i­cal­ly locat­ed on a steep hill, flanked by a deep canyon, from which you can see the entire­ty of the Argol­id plain, and even a fleet approach­ing by sea would have been vis­i­ble. The “cyclo­pean” walls are extreme­ly impres­sive, many of the blocks weigh­ing over twen­ty tons. I thought the famous “Gate of the Lions” would be one of those icon­ic images that dis­ap­points in real life, but it lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion. It was vis­i­ble in his­toric times with­out exca­va­tion. The exca­va­tions and very cau­tious recon­struc­tions by Greek archae­ol­o­gists have not involved the laisse-majesté prac­ticed by Evans at Knos­sos. What you see is large­ly the citadel as it was in Late Hel­ladic IIIa (cir­ca 1250–1200 BC), open to the pub­lic with only enough recon­struc­tion, path­ways, fenc­ing and edu­ca­tion­al plaquing to make it com­pre­hen­si­ble to the pub­lic and yet keep it from being destroyed by vis­i­tors.

Tucked away below the citadel is an extreme­ly good muse­um, with a very high stan­dard of pre­sen­ta­tion. No hokum, every­thing very pro­fes­sion­al. Minoan fans like myself tend to assume that Myce­naean art was a clum­sy deriv­a­tive of their pre­de­ces­sors’ work, but I could not walk away from that muse­um with­out acknowl­edg­ing that these dudes were far from mere war-lov­ing brutes. Some of the arti­facts met stan­dards of beau­ty and crafts­man­ship as high as any­thing Minoan.

Despite the chat­ter­ing tourists, we were car­ried away by the “sense-of-won­der” feel­ing of encoun­ter­ing a lost world, and we spent a con­sid­er­able time pok­ing through every cor­ner of the site. A dra­mat­ic, and unan­tic­i­pat­ed event for us was descend­ing into the fortress’s cis­tern. This fea­ture does not seem to be pub­li­cized, and there is no light­ing, but noth­ing pre­vents vis­i­tors from climb­ing down into it if they hap­pen to have a flash­light, which, of course, we did. It’s won­der­ful­ly creepy, descend­ing a steep gra­di­ent of one hun­dred rather slip­pery steps, 18 meters down into liv­ing rock. When we reached the bot­tom, we extin­guished the light, leav­ing that total dark­ness that gen­er­ates phosphenes in your eye­balls. The rock walls were suit­ably dank.

We saved the tho­los tombs til last. The nine tholoi are near, but not with­in the fortress. They are sad­dled with rather embarass­ing fan­ci­ful names: Trea­sury of Atreus, Tomb of Clytemnes­tra, etc . They resem­ble the tho­los tombs of Crete in only the most gen­er­al fash­ion. Mycen­ian tholoi were meant to impress. The inte­ri­or, cor­belled vaults give a cathe­dral-like feel­ing, and the exte­ri­or ash­lar mason­ry is fine­ly worked.

After Myce­nae, we indulged in a spon­ta­neous excur­sion to the port of Naf­plio [Ναύπλιο], which was ancient Nau­plia. On the way, we passed the ruins of Tyrins, but could not stop. Naf­plio is dom­i­nat­ed by a Venet­ian cas­tle, Palami­di, built on a 200m hill. There are addi­tion­al Byzan­tine, Frank­ish, and Turk­ish for­ti­fi­ca­tions scat­tered about. The old quar­ter of the town looks more Ital­ian than Greek, and is gussied up for the tourist trade.

Return­ing to Athens via Corinth, we stopped to look at a non-ancient site that impressed us: The Corinth Canal. This fine piece of Late Vic­to­ri­an civ­il engi­neer­ing, over­seen by two Hun­gar­i­ans, con­nects the Gulf of Corinth with the Aegean, and makes the Pelo­pon­nesos penin­su­la into an island. It defies the prophe­cy of the philoso­pher Apol­lo­nius of Tyana that ill would befall any­one who pro­posed to con­struct it. Julius Cae­sar and Caligu­la had such plans, which came to noth­ing. The canal fol­lows the path begun by Nero, who dis­patched 6000 Jew­ish pris­on­ers to do the job.

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