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Mycenae, Ancient Greece

Mycenae, Greece

The Mycenaeans, who dominated the Greek world between 1600 and 1200 BC, showed remarkable engineering prowess in their mighty Lion Gate and royal tombs (with the biggest dome of its time) — built a thousand years before the rise of Athens.

Complete Video Script

Our first stop is ancient Mycenae, the oldest sight you’re likely to see in this land dotted by so many ruins. The Mycenaeans, who dominated the Greek world between 1600 and 1200 BC, were the first Bronze Age society to emerge on the European mainland.

As the torch of civilization moved westward, they picked it up from the Minoans, an even earlier civilization that thrived on the Greek island of Crete. While the Minoans enjoyed the luxury of peace on their remote island, the Mycenaeans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies.

Their capital was heavily fortified and stood on an easy-to-defend hill, flanked by steep ravines, with views all the way to the sea. Mycenae flourished because it was ideally situated for trade by both sea and land.

In its day, the mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring. Standing strong here for over 3,000 years, it was the symbol of Mycenaean power.

These were the early Greeks Homer wrote of in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Keep in mind these people lived a thousand years before the rise of Athens. They were as ancient and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those Golden Age Greeks are to us.

While the ruins are stark and scant, with a little imagination, you can envision life here. For example, to fetch water, residents would descend into this cleverly constructed mine-like shaft and climb way, way, way down.

I'm 60 feet below the surface. This is the cistern where the water was collected — piped in from a spring that was 500 yards outside the walls. Even back then, you couldn't have a good fortress without water.

Mycenae was at the peak of its power around 1300 BC, after which it and its empire seemed to disappear virtually overnight.

A circular wall of stones defined the cemetery. Mycenae lay unappreciated until the 19th century, when a treasure trove of gold was unearthed in this necropolis.

Today, those treasures are the star attractions back in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum. This discovery affirmed the archeologists' theory that Mycenae was Homer's fabled city "rich in gold." And the elaborate detail makes the sophistication of the Mycenaeans clear. These golden cups are exquisite. The so-called Mask of Agamemnon was a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin.

The Mycenaeans took good care of their dead — at least their important dead. This passageway leads to an underground royal tomb.

The corbelled stonework was an engineering feat. Designed like a stone igloo, this tholos (tomb) was the biggest dome of its day.

This remarkable structure remained the king of domes until the Romans built their Pantheon about 1,400 years later.

One way to judge a society's architectural finesse is by the distance it can span with no internal supports. By today's standards this structure's not much. But back then, it was a wonder.