The history of Greek architecture
---excerpted from Travels in the History of Architecture
Mycenae isn’t exactly Greek, but was always thought so, and thus from an early stage efforts were under way to tie it culturally to later Greek institutions, artistic forms and stories. Nineteenth-century excavators never deciphered Linear b, the Mycenaean script, a non-Greek alphabet for a proto-Greek language. But so strong was their wish to link their discoveries to the weightiest written remains of Greek civilization that they named the most magnificent burials that they found after Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, whom they knew from tragedy and epic.
This habit of linking the legendary past with specific places and objects was nothing new. The ancient Greeks themselves were always doing it, and Pausanias, travelling round in the second century ad, was shown Helen’s bath, Patroklos’ breastplate and Hippodameia’s bed. Temples by his time resembled museums in collecting together works of high art and objects of historical or superstitious significance. Experienced observers like Pausanias were already discriminating among these categories and rejecting certain relics after sceptical inspection. In fact, Herodotus had shown the way six hundred years earlier.
Pausanias pays a kind of lip service to Mycenae, but it does not detain him long. Nowadays the landscape dominates the view, and the stone city is dwarfed by the stony place it sits in. Today different grey-green tones and yellow flowers impress the visitor, but this place was originally devised for a more violent existence. Even now the most entertaining elements are defences, like the secret passage through the walls to a hidden cistern, the maw that made Henry Miller think of snakes and which he balked at entering. There are, of course, more refined examples of masonry at Mycenae, like the beautifully tailored clefts running between sheer walls to the entrances of tholos tombs.
But the most powerful and meaningful Mycenaean constructions are the ruder Cyclopean walls, originally finished in their upper reaches with sun-dried bricks. Here we gauge best the distance between Greece and
Egypt: Greece from the start a conflict-ridden world, Egypt saved by geography and a unified state from large outlay on the fortification of every settlement. There is one other built form besides walls and gates to note at Mycenae because it portends so much for the future – the megaron, a large room sitting behind its columned court, framed by a porch and vestibule like its sacred descendants. From this unlikely source springs the greatest Greek contribution to the history of architecture, the Doric temple.