As you walk uphill to Mycenae, you begin to get an idea of why people settled here as long ago as 3000 B.C.: Mycenae straddles a low bluff between two protecting mountains and is a superb natural citadel. The site overlooks one of the richest plains in Greece, and whoever held Mycenae could control all the land between the narrow Dervenakia Pass to the north and the Gulf of Argos, some 16km (10 miles) to the south.
By about 1400 B.C., Mycenae controlled not just the Plain of Argos, but also much of mainland Greece, as well as Crete, many of the Aegean islands, and outposts in distant Italy and Asia Minor. Then, some unknown disaster struck Mycenaean Greece; by about 1100 B.C., the Mycenaeans were on the decline. By the time of the classical era, almost all memory of the Mycenaeans had been lost, and Greeks speculated that the massive walls of Mycenae and Tiryns had been built by the mythical Cyclops.
You'll enter Mycenae through just such a wall, passing beneath the arching Lion Gate, whose two lions probably symbolized Mycenae's strength. The door itself (missing, like the lions' heads) would have been of wood, probably covered with bronze for additional protection; cuttings for the door jambs and pivots are clearly visible in the lintel. Soldiers stationed in the round tower on your right would have shot arrows down at any attackers who tried to storm the citadel. Because soldiers carried their shields on their left arms, the tower's position made the attackers vulnerable to arrows aimed at their unprotected right sides.
One of the most famous spots at Mycenae is immediately ahead of the Lion Gate: the so-called Grave Circle A, where archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the gold jewelry now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. When Schliemann opened the tombs and found some 14 kilos (31 lb.) of gold, including several solid-gold face masks, he concluded that he had found the grave of Agamemnon himself. At once, Schliemann fired off a telegram to the king of Greece, saying, "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon bare." More sober scholars have concluded that Schliemann was wrong, and that the kings buried here died long before Agamemnon was born.
From the grave circle, head uphill past the remains of a number of houses. Mycenae was not merely a palace, but a village with the palace at the crest of the hill and administrative buildings and homes on the slopes. The Main Palace may have been the palace of King Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who fought in the Trojan War. It was considerably grander than these small houses and had several courtrooms, bedrooms, a throne room, and a large megaron (ceremonial hall). You can see the imprint of the four columns that held up the roof in the megaron, as well as the outline of a circular altar on the floor. And spare a glance for the palace's little bathtub; Schliemann, who rather romantically intertwined myth and historical fact, conjectured that a bathtub in an apartment adjoining the ceremonial hall was the very one in which the king was slain by his adulterous wife, Clytemnestra.
Other ruins include a granary where massive quantities of wheat were kept on hand in the event of a long siege. The ruins of houses cover a nearby slope, and a wooden staircase descends into a vast subterranean cistern—if you're not claustrophobic, head to the northeast corner of the citadel and climb down to appreciate the enormous amount of water, delivered by a secret channel, that could be stored. You may find someone here selling candles, but it's a good idea to bring your own flashlight. Along with Mycenae's great walls, this cistern, which held water channeled from a spring 500m (1,640 ft.) away, ensured Mycenae a water supply even during enemy sieges.
There's one more thing to see before you leave Mycenae: the massive tomb known as the Treasury of Atreus, the largest of the tholos (beehive) tombs found here. You'll see signs for it on your right as you head down the modern road away from Mycenae. This treasury may have been built around 1300 B.C., at about the same time as the Lion Gate, in the last century of Mycenae's real greatness. The enormous tomb, with its 107 metric-ton (118 ton) lintel, is 13m (43 ft.) high and 14m (47 ft.) wide. To build it, workers first cut the 35m (115-ft.) passageway into the hill and faced it with stone blocks. Then the tholos chamber was built, by placing slightly overlapping courses of stone one on top of the other until a capstone could close the final course. As you look up, you'll see why this is called a beehive tomb. Once your eyes get accustomed to the tomb's poor lighting, you can make out the bronze nails that once held hundreds of bronze rosettes in place. This tomb was robbed even in antiquity, so we'll never know what it contained, although the contents of Grave Circle A give an idea of what riches must have been here. If this was the family vault of Atreus, it's possible that Agamemnon himself was buried here—indeed, some still call this the Tomb of Agamemnon.