My friend Roberta – we met in junior high soccer – came for a visit last week. All by herself, which disappointed Michael and Peter since she and her husband have three fabulous daughters who both my boys adore. Since Roberta had been to Athens before, we decided on a few ‘second visit’ things to do, like the Elias Lalaounis jewelry museum (a fave), and the Benizelos (Μπενιζελωσ — not to be confused with Venizelos) mansion, a quick trip to Nafplio, Epidaurus and Mycenae.
The Benizelos mansion is really neat. Nestled in between shops and tavernas on Adrianou Street, it sits just in front of the Roman Agora. Built in the 16th century, it’s the oldest surviving house in Athens. It’s a typical urban nobility house from the Ottoman period. The upper floor is sort of a labyrinth made of timber. The home’s most famous inhabitant was Revoula Benizelos, later martyred as St. Philothei, a woman who after being widowed very young, started a monastery that gave shelter, food and care to the poor and also provided refuge to slaves and Muslim women who had converted to Christianity. The Turks killed her for that in the late 1500s; she is one of the only saints to have been martyred during Ottoman rule.
Our next stop was Mycenae, home to the ancient civilization renowned for its technical advancements as well as artistic wealth — which played an important role in the development of classical Greece and its culture. The ruins of this fortified citadel date back to 1600 BC and the most impressive element of Mycenae are its tombs, in which archaeologists found jewelry, weapons and tools, plus things that came from other parts of the world: ivory, tin, even lapis. The Myceneans were among the first to use bronze and it was here that the first pieces of the Greek language, preserved on Linear B tables, were discovered. Mythology says Mycenae was founded by Perseus who employed the Cyclopes to build the city walls from rocks that no human could lift. It’s also said to be the inspiration for Homer’s epic poem. Its most famous king was Agamemnon, who helped his brother Menelaus rescue Menelaus’ wife Helen, during the Trojan War (yes, that Helen). Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra had two children, Orestes and Electra. After Clytemnestra and her lover murdered Agamemnon in the bathtub, Electra and Orestes spent years working to avenge their father’s death. I think I have this right.
Now, I knew this story from high school English class and the great play by Euripides. In the 19th century, archaeologists found the bronze burial mask of King Agamemnon … and they excavated the bathtub he died in. Turns out Agamemnon may not have been a fictional character at all. You can find this mask in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.