The Mycenaean palace of Tiryns (Τίρυνθα), located in the Argolid between Argos and Nafplio, has been known since ancient times for its impressive fortifications, made of stones so large they were said to have been built by the Cyclopes. It’s a site well worth visiting if you’re in the area, and after a recent trip there, I thought I’d share some photos and information here as a virtual tour.
You enter the site near the north end and walk alongside the fortification wall of the lower citadel. Tiryns was inhabited from the Neolithic to the Byzantine period, but almost all of what you’ll see now dates from the end of the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean period (c.1250-1200 BCE). At this time, Tiryns was about 1km away from the sea (the coast is now about twice as far away), and finds of objects from all around the Eastern Mediterranean show that it had an important function as a trading harbour. About halfway along the hill is the way up to the citadel: originally, this was a highly defensible entrance consisting of a narrow ramp with a 90-degree right-turn at the top to pass through the wall into the inner passageway – not something you’d want to try doing as an attacker with defenders inside shooting or throwing spears at you. Now, however, the ramp is fenced off and you enter through a large gap in the wall. To the right is the lower citadel: the remains are not as thoroughly exposed here as on the upper citadel, but you can see the fortification walls with defensive embrasures, the north gate and a small postern gate to its left, entranceways to two underground cisterns to provide water in case of siege, and the foundations of buildings used for administration, storage, or craft activities related to the needs of the palatial authorities.
Retrace your steps back to the entrance and the passage up to the upper citadel which was to your left as you entered: this leads up between two high walls, past the entrance from the outer ramp, through a gateway where you can still see the fittings for a gate and a bar to keep it closed in the two massive stones on either side.
Continuing down the passage brings you through another gate and then, on the right, to the entrance porch to the palace proper: passing between the columns at the front and back of this porch, you’re now in the first palace courtyard. The area to the left, which includes two galleries built into the walls, is (at time of writing) closed off for restoration. Turning to the right, you have a choice of routes: the corridor immediately to your right leads through the palace, via a series of courtyards, to the Little Megaron (throne room): Tiryns has two throne rooms, the smaller of which is sometimes known as the ‘Queen’s Megaron’, but we don’t know for certain what the relationship between these two rooms actually was. In the courtyard outside the Little Megaron, you can see a curved wall visible at a lower level: this is part of a much earlier building, the Early Helladic ‘Circular Building’, which dates to c.2500-2200 BCE and is the first known monumental construction at this site. A circular building of c.28m in diameter, it’s entirely unique at this time period, but presumably functioned as a fortified centre of political power similar in some ways to the much later Mycenaean palace.
Heading back along the corridor to the courtyard, you can now pass through the next short corridor to the right or, at the far end of the courtyard, through another columned porch to the second courtyard, this one surrounded by a colonnade and containing an altar.
Ahead and slightly to the right is yet another porch, leading to a vestibule and then finally to the Great Megaron, with its large circular hearth surrounded by four pillars and a throne to the right (the locations of the hearth and throne are marked out on the floor). More than in any other Mycenaean palace, Tiryns seems to show a particular emphasis on the progression through different areas of the palace – two gates, outer porch and courtyard, inner porch and courtyard – towards this central seat of power, whether as a means of drawing people gradually in to this focal point, and/or as a means of marking out precisely who has the rank/power to enter as far as particular points along the way. The walls which form a rectangular shape overlaying that of the megaron are the outline of a later building constructed over half of the megaron immediately after the destruction of the palace around 1200 BCE: this building incorporated the location of the throne but lacked the central hearth, and seems to have stood alone on the upper citadel, functioning as a lone monumental building rather than the heart of a palatial complex – a significant change, even while the site continued to be occupied for some time after the palace’s destruction.
The most notable feature of the complex of rooms to the left of the megaron is the ‘bathroom’: a large slab of stone forming a floor, with sockets around the edges for walls and a drain in one corner. Following the path through this area brings to the exit from the citadel and probably its most impressive piece of fortification: the West Staircase, enclosed in a curved bastion wall whose outer part is several metres thick, leading down to a corbelled doorway.
As you walk back alongside the fortifications, bear in mind all the remains you can’t see. The citadel of Tiryns was not an isolated fortification, but was surrounded by a substantial settlement, whose remains are not visible, while the many finds of pottery, metal, frescos, Linear B tablets, etc are not displayed at the site – some (including some of the tablets) can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Nafplio, just down the road, while others (including frescos and the base of the throne) are in the Prehistoric gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens: both also well worth a visit before or after your trip to Tiryns!
For anyone aiming to visit Tiryns in person, information opening hours, prices, etc is available here; the site has is a ticket office and toilets but no other facilities. There is also very little information available on site – only a map in the upper citadel and a few signboards about the ongoing restoration project. The site is located just off the main Argos-Nafplio road; buses will stop by the turning on request (ask for αρχαία Τίρυνθα “arhaia Tirintha”, ancient Tiryns). For more general information on the archaeology of Tiryns, see the Oxford Classical Dictionary and the Dartmouth Aegean Prehistory site’s ‘lessons’ on Mycenaean palatial architecture and on fortifications.