Described by Homer as a “strong-founded citadel” that was “rich in gold,” Mycenae was the greatest of the Mycenaean cities that flourished in mainland Greece from about 1600 to 1200 B.C. (In the Trojan War, Mycenae’s king, Agamemnon, is the king of kings who leads the Greeks into battle.) Around 1500 B.C. Mycenaeans conquered the island of Crete and adapted the Minoan script, called Linear A, to write their own language, an ancient form of Greek. This new script, called Linear B, was used solely for recording inventories and commercial transactions; hundreds of Linear B tablets have been found both on Crete and in such Mycenaean cities as Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae itself. When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae in the 1870s, he uncovered royal shaft graves filled with extraordinary gold artifacts (such as the famous Mask of Agamemnon, shown at right). All of the Mycenaean cities were destroyed toward the end of the 13th century B.C. or the beginning of the 12th century B.C.

The island of Crete gave rise to Europe’s first and most splendid Bronze Age civilization. In the early second millennium B.C., the Minoans, named by modern archaeologists after the legendary King Minos, built an elaborate palace complex at Knossos, which was excavated—and partly restored—by the British antiquarian Arthur Evans about a century ago. The Minoans were extremely influential in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean—trading textiles, timber and wine to Cyprus for copper and Anatolia for tin. Minoan frescoes dating to the 17th century B.C. have been found in the Nile Delta, in the northern Levant and on the Anatolian coast. The Minoans also developed a script, the still-undeciphered Linear A, to write their language. In Knossos’s maze-like palace complex, Evans found frescoes of bull-leapers and exquisite bull’s-head rhytons, reflecting the Minoans’ reverence for the bull as well as the myth of Minos and the labyrinth he built to house the Minotaur. In the early 15th century B.C. Crete was invaded by Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland—who absorbed numerous aspects of Minoan culture (such as writing) and occupied the palace at Knossos.

Located near the western entrance to the Dardanelles, ancient Troy (modern Hisarlik, in northwestern Turkey) grew rich levying mooring fees on vessels waiting to negotiate the straits leading to the Black Sea. First inhabited in the early third millennium B.C., Troy became an important commercial center for wool, horse-breeding and metalworking. (The gold objects of “Priam’s Treasure,” excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, are from the end of the third millennium B.C.) Late Bronze Age Troy, perhaps the city described by Homer, lasted from about 1700 to 1200 B.C.; this settlement featured towering fortifications and a great defensive moat. The citadel’s palaces were destroyed around 1250 B.C.—either by earthquake, fire or attack—and replaced by more modest buildings. Some 70 years later, Troy was attacked and burned, perhaps giving rise to oral stories that four centuries later would be written down by Homer.

So vast was the Hittite capital of Hattusa (modern Bogazköy, in central Turkey) that its circuit walls ran for six miles. The city contained a temple complex with a remarkable library of over 3,000 clay tablets—many of them written in Hittite, the earliest recorded Indo-European language. The Hittites worshiped their “One Thousand Gods” in the sanctuary of Yazilikaya, a rock outcropping 2 miles from Hattusa that was carved with images of Hittite and Hurrian deities and kings. By the mid-14th century B.C. the Hittites had become one of the Near East’s superpowers, rivaling Egypt in the south and Assyria in the east. Toward the end of the 13th century B.C., however, their kingdom suddenly collapsed and Hattusa was destroyed.

During the second half of the 14th century B.C., Ugarit, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, experienced a period of great peace and prosperity. Ugarit’s merchants traded for Mesopotamian and Lebanese timber, Mycenaean pottery, Egyptian ivory, Cypriot copper and Anatolian tin. This was one of the Bronze Age’s most scintillating cities: Its citizens carved delicate ivory figurines (above), made elaborate inlaid furniture, adapted the Semitic alphabet for cuneiform characters and recorded numerous Canaanite myths, songs and stories. (Much of this was revealed by the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer, who excavated Ugarit from 1929 to 1970.) Ugarit’s golden age ended around 1300 B.C., when an earthquake struck the region and a tidal wave and fire engulfed the city. A century later, invading Sea Peoples from the Aegean disrupted the city’s commercial routes and forced much of its population to migrate to other sites. The Sea Peoples eventually conquered Ugarit and set the city ablaze.

Perhaps no other city in the ancient world is so associated with destruction as the mountaintop citadel of Megiddo, in north-central Israel. (The word “Armegeddon,” referring to the final battle between Good and Evil, derives from har Megiddo, a Hebrew term meaning “mountain of Megiddo.” Settled by Canaanites in the fourth millennium B.C., Megiddo prospered greatly during the Late Bronze Age. During this period, a palace was built near the gateway of the city, with an ingenious passageway cut through the bedrock to link the citadel to a spring outside the city’s walls. Around 1130 B.C., Megiddo and other Canaanite cities were violently destroyed—perhaps by a strong earthquake.