Mycenaean architecture – characterized by massive stone structures that the ancient Greeks believed were built by the one-eyed giants Cyclopes

Mycenaean civilization developed from the 15th to the 13th centuries BC on the coast of the Aegean sea in Crete, Cyprus, the Cycladic islands, and on the coasts of Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy in the late Bronze Age.

The Mycenaeans were influenced by the Minoan civilization of Crete, which in turn was influenced by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians. However, the two most advanced civilizations of this period in the Mediterranean maintained their uniqueness in art and architecture.

Fresco depicting a female figure in the acropolis of Mycenae, 13th century BC

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The Mycenaeans were fierce warriors, traders, and skillful engineers. During the second half of the 19th century, archaeological excavations revealed extraordinary palaces, fortresses, tombs, and settlements of the Mycenean civilization. The Mycenaeans built citadels on high, rocky outcroppings. The walls of the citadel were built of massive stone blocks and ashlar masonry.

Cyclopean masonry in the southern walls of Mycenae

The ancient Greeks considered the rocks too large to have been lifted by humans, so they believed the rocks were moved by the Cyclopes, a race of giants with a single eye in the center of his forehead. As a result, the present-day building technique where large, roughly cut stones are used is known as Cyclopean masonry.

Masonry tunnel, Tiryns. Photo Credit

The Mycenaeans also invented new building techniques. They built a corbeled (or corbel) arch, over the doorways to relieve the weight on the lintel, that supported the heavy structures. The corbel arch often incorporated a triangular block of stone that fit into the hollow space of the corbeled arch to help shift weight from the lintel to the supporting walls.

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Treasury of Atreus, 13th century BC royal tholos tomb Photo Credit

In most Mycenaean centers, archaeologists discovered a large palace complex with a two-columned entrance porch. It is centered around a large rectangular hall or Megaron with a hearth, an oculus in the roof, and four columns supporting the ceiling. It was also called the throne room and served as a reception area for the king. The later Archaic and Classical temples of Greek civilization were built after the architectural plan of the Megaron.

Treasury of Atreus, 13th century BC royal tholos tomb, interior. Photo Credit

The Palace usually had a courtyard and a smaller hall, Queen’s Megaron, that included rooms for administration, storage, and private apartments. The rooms were highly ornamented with painted plaster floors and fresco paintings on the walls. They were built with rubble fill and cross-beamed walls covered in plaster.

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The ceilings and columns were usually made of painted wood, often decorated with bronze. The citadel site was surrounded by fortification, whose walls were approximately 8 meters thick and reached 13 meters in height. Examples of Mycenean architecture are noticeable in the preserved remains of the cities of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos, celebrated by Homer, the greatest poet of ancient Greece.

The Lion Gate, the main entrance of the citadel of Mycenae, 13th century BC. Photo Credit

The center of Mycenaean culture was the city of Mycenae in the Peloponnese. Homer’s Iliad describes a great Mycenaean fortified palace that once stood there. Mycenae was also the seat of King Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War.

The citadel is surrounded by Cyclopean walls and its entrance is a 20-foot wide gate called the Lion Gate, famous for its corbeled arch. The gate got its name from the lions whose heads are turned to confront those who stand in front of the gate. Between the lions, there is a single column, a composition known as heraldic. In Mycenae, there is also a tholos tomb, known today as the tomb of Agamemnon or the Treasury of Atreus.

Cyclopean masonry at Tiryns walls, Greece. Photo Credit

Another example of a fortified palace is also the great city of the Mycenaean civilization, Tiryns, located 20 km north-east of Mycenae. The city had a remarkable palace, Cyclopean tunnels, impressive stone walls, and tightly controlled access to the megaron and main rooms of the citadel.

Fresco of hunter and stag, Palace of Nestor. Photo Credit

According to Homer, Pylos was the home of the elderly and wise King Nestor of Pylos, who fought in the Trojan War. The palace known as the Palace of Nestor shared the architectural building techniques of the Myceneans, although it wasn’t fortified and wasn’t part of a citadel. The Mycenaean civilization came to a mysterious end around 1200 BC. Many scholars suggest it is due to a possible earthquake, although no definitive evidence of such a claim has been found.