In the Greek hamlet of Mycenae, I was sleeping with the Nazis. Not by choice, mind you; it just went with the furnishings.
"You will spend the night in our hero's bed!" the owner of the Hotel Belle Helene, George Dassis, had grinned wolfishly, as he led me up the creaking stairs. A sign on the peeling white door read: "Dr Schliemann's Room." With an ironic bow, he turned the handle to reveal a shabby chamber the size of a walk–in closet, containing an antique cast–iron bed. On the wall was an antique photo of Dr. Heinrich Schliemann, the most greatest of the 19th century adventurer–archaeologists, who had been obsessed with the village's Homeric past.
"Of course you will!" George purred. "Even that bastard Goebbels did!"
In antiquity, pagan tourists would travel for days to sleep where Greek celebrities like Alexander the Great or Plato had supposedly put up. The practice has been echoed ever since by hoteliers across the world, who shamelessly cash in on famous guests ('Hemingway Suites' alone must rank in the hundreds). But here in moth–eaten Mycenae, perched in the mountains of southern Greece, a more specialized cult was in operation. This was the epicenter of Greece's Homer industry, where every hotel bore a name from The Iliad and every second male was baptized Agamemnon (as was George's eldest son; his own second name was Achilles). It made perfect sense that the owners of the Belle Helene ("Beautiful Helen") Hotel had created a shrine from the frayed room that Schliemann had lived in for years as he excavated the nearby ruins.
"So Schliemann schlepped here?" I asked. George ignored the irreverence, and rushed to open up the window onto a barren courtyard.
For any Homer fan––or even those of us who only know his epics from cheesy movies starring Kirk Douglas or Brad Pitt––Schliemann has been surrounded by hardly less awe, speculation and rumor than Alexander the Great himself. His sensational discovery of Troy in 1873 had made him an international hero. Soon afterwards, this unorthodox, self–taught, inspired and occasionally fraudulent visionary came here to Mycenae in 1876, carrying a copy of the world's oldest surviving guidebook: Pausanias' Description of Greece. Like the ancients, he believed that The Iliad was based on actual events, and that the characters Agamemnon, Achilles, Helen, and Hector were historical figures––although academics pooh–poohed him, and regarded the whole story of the Trojan War as no more than a charming fairy tale.
"Doctor Schliemann's room is usually booked for months in advance," George confided, perhaps noticing my cautious expression; the narrow, sagging, but somehow rock–hard mattress guaranteed a grueling night, while, the ceiling was a pointillist canvas of red dots––mosquito splatters. But I could hardly turn down the allure of an archaeological demigod.
"Sleep is over–rated anyway," I said.
"Yes!" George agreed. "Why waste a third of your life?"
George was in his early 50s, with the flamboyant charm of a Vegas nightclub owner, but he also had an unexpected scholarly bent and admirable sense of tradition: His family had operated this creaky hotel for four generations, and he kept Schliemann's room intact––complete with the same bunk from the 1870s, wardrobe and even, it felt, the same mattress––despite some relatives' desire to sell the edifice off to developers. George puffed visibly with pride as he recounted how the bald, bespectacled, rather beetle–like German adventurer sallied forth from this simple room every morning, with his pretty young Greek wife Sophie, to orchestrate the excavations that would make them romantic heroes, admired by Nobel Prize–winning poets, artists, European princes and even, long after his death, masterminds of the Third Reich.
"Oh, the Nazis loved Mycenae!" George shook his head sadly. "They saw Schliemann as a Teutonic superman, and Mycenae as an Aryan Empire, the scum!"
Back in the 1930s, he explained, the Nazis had fallen in love with the ancient Greeks, creating a whole pseudo–history that turned them into Teutonic ancestors. Schliemann had nothing to do with it apart from being German, but Mycenae was famous by then, and they put the Hotel Belle Helene on their holiday route––a destination that became even more popular when they took over Greece in 1940. The sinister SS commander Heinrich Himmler had made a point of stopping by, George said. He was followed by Josef Goebbels, who brought his wife and five children on a Greek holiday. (But later, when Hitlers's bloated Minister for Propaganda came back to Mycenae to stay as conqueror in 1941, he filled the Belle Helene with soldiers instead of children––"otherwise our Greek partisans would have slit his throat in the night!")
I was about to say, Those old Nazi star–fuckers, but thought better of it.
Luckily, a whole parade of less twisted visitors also made the pilgrimage here before and after the war, since the Hotel Belle Helene was actually the only inn for ten miles around. In the hotel guest book were the scrawled autographs of Jean Paul Sartre and Claude Debussy––Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband––Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Carl Jung, William Faulkner, Henry Miller––even the young Allen Ginsburg, who had to move outside in a tent because he spent every drachma on retsina, which he drank from dawn to dusk.
"We had no idea Allen was famous," George mused. "My father felt sorry for him, and invited him to dinner every night."
All, when they could, liked to kip on Schliemman's bunk.
As we stood in the lobby, which was crowded with pot–plants and artifacts like a Victorian hunting lodge in Africa, George ran his finger down the pages of his guest list, looking for more illustrious names. "Maurice Chevalier… Alec Guinness… Benjamin Britten… Hundreds of politicians, of course. But I don't care about them, only artists." Then George let out a bark of laughter: "You will have to write something famous now!"
"The pressure's on," I muttered to myself, as I slowly drove up the mountainside to Mycenae with my own copy of Pausanias' Description of Greece. Like many a guidebook writer, his style is a little dull and plodding. But after the roll–call of literary lions at the hotel, it was a relief to fall back on the stolid––although unexpectedly world–shattering––prose.
* * *
In the second century AD, when prototype Lonely Planet author Pausanias had visited Mycenae, the once–proud city was already a ruin. Well over a millennium had passed since its glory days in the 13th century BC, when the siege of Troy had probably occurred, and they were as dimly recalled as our Viking era is today. But he found the soil rich with legend and allusion.
Mycenae had been the domain of King Agamemnon––the warrior who, according to Homer, led the Greeks' amphibious invasion of Troy to recapture the gorgeous Helen for his brother Menelaus. The ten–year siege would eventually be a success, but while Agamemnon was away, plots were hatched against him at home. Upon his triumphant return to Mycenae––which according to Homer was "splendidly–crafted, broad–avenued, rich in gold"––Agamemnon was murdered at his welcome–home party by his wife and her lover. The curse of the gods soon fell on the city. Within a few years, it had imploded in disaster, and a Dark Age fell upon Greece.
So by the time Pausanias had arrived, Mycenae was a haunted relic, like an overgrown Mayan city today. Only a few villagers and priests lived in the ghostly ruins, offering sacrifices at the desolate grave of Agamemnon, staving off weeds and warning away looters.
But one good thing about ruins is that time can stand still. The exciting fact is, Mycenae looked more or less the same to Pausanias circa A.D. 150 as it had to Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s––and as it did to me as I dawdled by car up the narrow mountain road.
Today, it's still entirely possible to follow every step of an ancient Roman tourist's visit using the directions in Pausanias' 1850–year–old guidebook. I followed the same route into Mycenae past beehive tombs, large as cathedrals and full of bats; trod the same pathway to the Lion's Gate, entrance to the royal precinct of the Citadel, which curl around the stark mountainside like the tail of a petrified dinosaur; and inspected the same palace walls, with their courtyards and circular hearths, where the king's hunters would roast deer on spits. The sun's last rays were retreating across the valley far below, gilding the enormous pebbles of the fortress wall (Romans dubbed it 'Cyclopean' because they assumed that only giants could have built it). But golden light wasn't enough to dispel Mycenae's barbaric aura. As Henry Miller noted, even on a seductive evening like this, it was the sort of place that insinuates itself into nightmares. The sense of fathomless antiquity seeped from every broken stone and wind–hewn rock.
Unknown to the pedantic Pausanias, Mycenae would one day be the scene of his greatest triumph. An apparently innocuous paragraph in the Description turned out to be an archaeological treasure map for the determined Heinrich Schliemann:
Inside the walls of Mycenae is a water–source called Perseia… There is the grave of Atreus and the graves of those who came home from Troy… another tomb is Agamemnon's, another holds Eurymedon the charioteer… another grave is Elektra's…
The key phrase was "inside the walls."
The few 19th century scholars who took Pausanias seriously thought that the phrase "inside the walls" simply meant that it was somewhere within the large city fortifications that sprawl for miles around. But Schliemann followed Pausanias' description pace by pace and realized that the grave surely lay inside the royal citadel itself. He began excavating, and within weeks had found five royal graves (a sixth was later found), along with nineteen royal corpses shrouded head to toe in gold.
It was an archaeological extravaganza that would be rivaled only by the tomb of Tutankhamun a half–century later. Necklaces, chest plates, daggers inlaid with lapis lazuli, delicate earrings, goblets, armor, silver–studded swords, scabbards––everything seemed to fit Homer's vivid descriptions of his heroes. One silver–studded sword even looked precisely like the one the Greek hero Hector was said to have given Ajax. But the most majestic piece was a funerary mask, made of beaten gold and apparently a portrait of the king who lay behind it: Schliemann declared that the shrouded body, which virtually crumpled to dust when exposed to the air, was that of King Agamemnon himself. (The archaeologist supposedly sent a pithy telegram to the king of Greece: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon." Unfortunately, the story was invented by the press).
With these visions of gold leaf and murdered kings, I sat on the sun–lit fringe of 'Grave Circle A,' where Schliemann's find had occurred. It eventually turned out that the doctor was mistaken in his conviction that he had found King Agamemnon's tomb; the grave in fact predated the sack of Troy by 300 years. (When, late in his life, a colleague showed him proofs that the golden mask was not that of Agamemnon, Schliemann reputedly snapped: "All right then: Let's call him Schultze.") It didn't matter. Schliemann had indisputedly proved that a Bronze Age culture had thrived on mainland Greece, and that Mycenae would have at least potentially been able to lead a combined Greek attack on Troy. Combined with his finds at Troy itself, he had shown that Homer's account at least held the seeds of historical truth.
Of course, none of it would have been possible without Pausanias.
For me, it was oddly heartening to picture the meticulous Roman guidebook writer noting down the details of the graves here on his wax tablets, then maybe casting a regretful eye along the shadowy valley down below and wondering how far he might have to travel to reach a decent taverna. It's an inspirational parable for modern guidebooks authors––those underpaid scribes who are often tempted to pillage their information from rival guide books, or jot down hearsay culled from other travelers hanging out in bars. If Pausanias had fudged his details or made a superficial visit, the royal graves of the House of Atreus may never have been found. Who knows? Maybe an archaeologist in the year 4000 AD will use a preserved Rough Guide: USA to discover the buried site of the Guggenheim Museum or Eiffel Tower…
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