“Exploring the Peloponnese” is Peter Sommer Travels’ second scheduled tour in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
Today was the penultimate day of travel on our 2018 “Exploring the Peloponnese” tour, an important day including two UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites, namely the great Bronze Age citadel of Mycaenae and the Classical sanctuary of Asklepios, the god of healing, at Epidauros, famous for its wonderfully well-preserved and perfectly-proportioned theatre. Both sites are in the Argolid, the northeastern region of the Peloponnese, and both are immensely important and fittingly impressive.
At Mycenae, we have a lot to show our guests. The two grave circles, A and B, that precede the citadel by centuries, yielded an incredible wealth of rare, exotic and valuable items, especially of gold, making them stand out in all of European prehistory and posing a major mystery. The citadel, constructed around 1400 BC, is perhaps the best example of a Late Bronze Age fortification in Greece and there is much detail to explore, starting with its “Cyclopean” walls and its “palace”, but also including refinements added during its roughly two centuries of use, such as the celebrated (and misleadingly named) “Lion Gate” and its superb underground cistern – I’ll write about that soon. Mycenae also has a wonderful site museum, showcasing material from the site itself in close proximity to it.
We always conclude our tour of Mycenae with a visit to the so-called “Treasury of Atreus”, one of nine known “tholos tombs” or beehive tombs, scattered around the site. A tholos tomb is defined as a corbel-domed circular chamber built into a hillside, with a façade and door approached by a walled corridor (or “dromos“). The “Treasury of Atreus” is the grandest of all Mycenaean tombs in Greece, and its corbelled dome was the largest domed space in the world (as far as we know) from the time of its construction about 1250 BC to that of the so-called “Temple of Mercury”, part of a Roman bath in Baiae near Naples, Italy, more then twelve centuries later. It is a fantastic sight to behold, but it tends to be rather crowded.
Today, I decided to enhance the experience by including one of the lesser-visited, but nearly as impressive tholos tombs nearer the citadel, namely the so-called “Tomb of Klytemnestra”. It is one of two large tholos tombs situated quite close to the main entrance to the citadel itself. The second-century AD travel writer Pausanias, who visited Mycenae, refers to the tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos being placed just outside the citadel’s walls, so this is probably one of the graves he refers to. It is interesting to note that he, writing fourteen centuries after their construction, is aware of their original function as graves. In Homeric myth, Klytemnestra (or Clytemnestra) is the wife of Agamemnon, the great leader of the Greeks besieging Troy, and on his return to Mycenae from a decade-long Trojan War, she murders him with the assistance of her lover (and cousin) Aegisthos, and later both of them are killed by her son Orestes, revenging his father. That is mythology: we have no reason to assume these characters really existed, no idea who was really laid to rest in the two great tombs near the entrance to Mycenae, and we can be certain that Pausanias just reports local legend.
Visiting the so-called “Tomb of Clytemnestra” (a modern assignation: Pausanias does not specify which of the two side-by-side tombs is which), we were alone, a situation that offered us a chance to take in the impressive construction at leisure, undisturbed and without being jostled about or shouted over. The domed chamber itself is very impressive, but so is the dromos, the entering corridor, lined by impressive walls of precisely-cut and stacked limestone slabs on either side. It leads to an impressive façade that once held a grand wooden double door below a large lintel. Like the lion gate itself, the doorway is marked by a “relieving triangle”, a triangular gap in the superstructure that reduces the weight resting upon the lintel block, preventing it from cracking under the pressure. It was probably once closed off by a decorative slab or other feature, again paralleling the Lion Gate itself.
Tomorrow, we will explore the remains of Corinth, an ancient city on a superbly strategic position and of great wealth resulting from it.