The Acropolis, which has more feet traipsing around its stones than any other ancient site in Athens, represents the divine. The Kerameikos, aside from being the city of Athens’ ancient cemetery, provides a fascinating glimpse into everyday customs and life at the time. From the ancient necropolis, I also take you to the modern official 1st Cemetery of Athens. Hope you enjoy your journey in this blog post, up to the heights and down…
The very symbol of Athens, the Acropolis is like a familiar friend, a reassuring beacon in a city of flux and change. You can be walking in the downtown area and suddenly there it is: “Oh you can see the Acropolis from here!” you say in delight. But then you keep walking because it really is such a common sight. Like anything that you see all the time, it loses its power to awe you. It’s one thing to look up and see it, another to actually walk on the iero vracho or “sacred rock” as the Greeks call it.
On a blessed day of sunshine the day after New Year’s, we joined the multitudes of visitors to the sacred rock. The main way to approach is from Dionysiou Aeropagitou Street. Before the street was made into a pedestrian walkway in the 90’s. the air was fouled with fleets of tourist buses in the morning, spewing out tourists, but afterwards, you could pleasantly approach the site on foot. The other way to approach it is more colorful, depending on your level of fitness, up through the Plaka to the whitewashed houses of “Anafiotikia,” the neighborhood right under the Acropolics, built in the 1860’s by workmen from the island of Anafi. Follow the signs that lead you up…
The Acropolis, meaning “high city,” was first inhabited back in Neolithic times (7000 to 3000 BC) and the first temples were built during the Mycenean era (1200 BC or so) to honor the goddess Athena. The Acropolis was not only a fortress but a whole city until 510 BC when the Delphic oracle declared the hill should only be the province of gods, not people. When it was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, Pericles set about to rebuild. He got the best architects of the time (Ichtinus, Callicrates) and the sculptor Phideias — to send a message to the world of Athens’ glory.
As you pass the ticket entrance, signs warn you of the “slippery surface” and indeed it is with all the centuries of feet climbing on the rocks. Best to wear tennis shoes. It took many years, but finally recently an elevator and ramps were put in. As you walk up, stop to see the great views of the Herod Atticus Theater (Irodion) right below and the Filopappou monument across with cypress trees and then out to the sea.
Through the centuries this “sacred rock” has fallen victim to foreign occupation, pilfering (the infamous Lord Elgin), visitors’ footsteps, fires, pollution, acid rain, earthquakes, explosions of lightning and cannons, but it’s held on.
Although the site is well marked with diagrams and explanations in Greek and English, if there’s a crowd it’s hard to get close to read them, so it’s a good idea to have a guidebook with you, but leave time to register your own feelings and impressions.
The 1st building you pass through, the majestic Propylaia with its heavy Doric columns, was designed to be totally aligned with the Parthenon in back of it.
As you walk through, be sure to look to the right of the Propylaia at the small temple, which looks even smaller in contrast to the huge Propylaia known as the temple of Athena Nike (Victory) There’s no access to it, you have to see it from afar. It’s exquisite with its Ionic columns, shaped like a perfect square.
Usually Nike is shown with wings, but according to Angelyn Balodimas-Bartolomei’s book Footsteps Through Athina, the Athenians removed the wings in hopes she would remain in Athens and protect the city from the Spartans. The most famous sculpture from this temple is part of a frieze that went around the building. Here’s a detail from it that shows Nike in a very human like gesture of adjusting her sandal. (You can see this in the Acropolis Museum).
The path takes you up to the highest place on the hill where you find the jewel of Pericles’ complex, the Parthenon (the Temple of the Virgin) It’s the largest Doric temple in Greece and the site of four earlier temples all dedicated to Athena. Like nearly all temples of the ancient world, it was made of marble from nearby Mt Pendeli . Begun in 447 BC, it was completed in time for the great Panathenaic festival of 438 BC. The temple is an engineering feat; it looks as if all the columns are straight, but actually it’s all curves.
To imagine the Parthenon as it was then, it was full of brightly painted sculptures, both outside and in, and like the Propylaia, the ceiling was painted a deep blue and gilded with stars. Inside the cella, (the inner sanctum) stood a giant gold and ivory statue of Athena 12 meters high (39 feet) holding in one hand a Nike statue and the other a spear and shield – she was after all the one who led the Athenians in military victories. The helmet had symbolic sphinxes and winged horses and next to her shield in the drawing below you can see a snake, the sacred protector of the Acropolis.
No one really knows what happened to this colossal statue. It’s said that it was stripped of its gold fixtures and was destroyed by a fire in the Parthenon around 165 BC.
Running all around the temple was a frieze with the procession marching toward the Acropolis during the Great Panathenaic festival. Of course you can’t see much of it today — or of the metopes which show the history and mythological founding of the city in mythical battles known to everyone at the time, like the battle of Troy or of the Centaurs.
In the 6th century AD during the Byzantine era when the emperor Justinian was zealously trying to erase the pagan past, the Parthenon was made into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary…
And when the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines in the 15th century, the Parthenon was inevitably turned into a mosque. By 1687 gunpowder was being stored there and a population again living on and around the monuments. (What would the Delphic oracle say about that?) In 1687, it was blown up by the Venetians fighting the Ottomans, specifically General Francesco Morosini who was given orders to seize Athens. From an exhibit on Morosini at the Gennadius Library a few years ago, we saw a map of the time that makes it look as if the sea is at the foot of the Acropolis.
When Morosini fired, the explosion blew out the central part of the walls, toppled many columns and brought down much of Phideias’ frieze. It was partially restored but today we can mostly thank early 19th century archaeologists for the restoration work, the way they believed it to have looked in the 5th c. BC. The 17th century was not a good time for the Acropolis: besides the Propylaia still in ruins following an explosion there, the Erectheion was being used as a harem for the 40 wives of the Ottoman military governor. More indignity was still to come…
On the east side of the Parthenon, a sign marks what was the only Roman temple on the Acropolis, Rome and Augusta, built in 27 BC, as the note said “to propitiate Octavian Augustus since the deme (people) had supported his opponent Marcus Antonius during the Rome civil wars.” A collection of columns, capitals and stone slabs is strewn all around near the lookout with the Greek flag. This spot has great significance in modern Greek history, as during the German occupation when the Nazi flag flew, it was taken down in a daring act of resistance by Manolis Gletzos and Apostolos Santas, both at the time barely 18 years old.
It’s hard to resist taking a photo but that crane in the background doesn’t offer much.
Now you make your way toward the Erechthion, following the the path called the Panathenaic Way. The Panathenaic Festival with its athletic, dramatic and musical contests dedicated to Athena every 4 years, began from the Kerameikos and ended up here at the Erechthion, where a peplos (see photo) was placed on the statue of Athena. This was a really colorful procession with men carrying aniimals to sacrifice, maidens, musicians and dancing along the way.
The Erectheion actually is the most sacred spot on the Acropolis as it was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and where Athena produced an olive tree in a contest to see who Athens should be named for and dedicated to (Athena won of course). This temple, more than the Parthenon, was used for rituals and worshipping Athena. Inside the cella stood an old cult statue of the goddess carved from olive wood.
It’s an elegant building but unusual and assymetrical built on several levels because of the way the land is sloped.
The Erechtheion is the iconic building with the famous Caryatids (so called because models for them were from women from Karyes in the Peloponnese.) They’re actually plaster casts – five of the originals are in the Acropolis museum.
And where is the 6th Caryatid? All by herself in the British Museum, without her sisters, thanks to Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman empire at the beginning of the 19th century. Of all the indignities the Parthenon dealt with over the years, this was truly a sad chapter in the Parthenon’s (and Erichethion’s) history. Besides the Caryatid, Lord Elgin commissioned his agents to take whatever artifacts he could get from the Parthenon. He and his men sawed and hacked off what was mostly left of the frieze sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles from the façade, a few pediment sculptures here and there, some statues from the cella (the interior) and shipped them off to Britain — where they remain today. Keep in mind that one of the characteristics of the Parthenon sculptures is that they’re not meant to be freestanding, but as an integral and symbolic part of the monument.
Even back in 1802, in a very different world from our own, Elgin’s “gift” was hotly debated in Parliament as a cultural theft, with many saying he had no moral grounds to remove these sculptures from their rightful place in Greece. He was accused even then of “rapacity, vandalism and dishonesty.”
Perhaps a recent loan of “indefinite return” from Italy (Sicily) to the Acropolis museum of a Parthenon fragment might pressure Britain to return the marbles to Greece. But then again it’s doubtful. Even with such an advocate as Melina Mercouri was for return of the Marbles during the time she was culture minister in the 1990’s, yielded no results. In this recent video it’s imagined that the Greeks, using Elgin & Sons movers, have offered to take some stones from Stonehenge to keep them safe…
The British used to object that they could take better care of the marbles, that the Acropolis museum on the site was inadequate for the marbles and it was, but since 2009 with the opening of the impressive new Acropolis museum (a future blog) that’s no excuse anymore. From the museum terrace, there’s a great view of the sacred rock.
Now you continue along the Panathenaic way to the descent toward the Propylaia but there’s a sign marking another huge statue: Athena Promachos (meaning “champion”), a 9 meter (30 feet) bronze statue, again by Phideias, and helmeted with the usual shield and spear to symbolize invincibility against the Persians.
What happened to Athena Promachos? Carted off to Constantinople 1,000 years later, in 426 AD by the Emperor Theodosius, the statue managed to stay around for several centuries until 1204. By this time, Athena had lost her spear and to the people living there, it looked like the statue was gesturing to the crusaders who had entered the city, so they smashed it to pieces! What can you say… Below you can see its position on the left side and the way the Acropolis looked in 400 BC.
As you descend, you get a great view of Aereos Pagos or Aeropagus Hill (hill of Ares (or Mars in Roman mythology, the god of war)
The matchstick looking climbers on the rock are no doubt slipping and falling — this hill or rock is so shiny and slippery that a few years ago a stairway was installed for part of the way up. We used to climb it when we wanted the challenge of not falling — it has an unbeatable view of the Ancient Agora below and the Acropolis above. It so got its name because Ares was put on trial for the murder of one of Poseidon’s sons, and through the centuries it was known for its murder, corruption and treason trials. It’s also famous for where St. Paul preached Christianity. Today the term “Aereos Pagos” is used for the high court in Athens.
Time to rest a bit and and think about the glory of the ancient Greeks and the impressive monuments and Phideias’ amazing statues … as you go back to the Aeropagitou walkway near the Iriodion, your eyes behold a shiny bronze statue across the street in an olive grove, of (can you guess?) Maria Callas.
Besides the fact that it doesn’t really resemble her, the comments have ridiculed the statue, comparing it to an Oscar statuette, something out of Terminator or described as “Gandhi in heels.” While we were looking at it, a sculptor turned to us and denounced it as“disgraceful!” and insisted that it should be torn down at once….
More statues, as you head toward Thisseon, this one a “living statue” but gilded like the ancient ones. He’s quite impressive as he huffs and puffs and pretends to be Atlas holding up the world. (how long does he have to prepare every day I wonder)
Passing by all the vendors of jewelry – silver, bronze and gold –sellers of leather, wooden candalabras, colorful pillows …. you hear the harmonious sound of guitar, flute and panpipe from Andes musicians. Keep walking past Thisseion metro station, to the extension of Ermou street to the site of Athens’ cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times, the Kerameikos, given this name from the word “ceramics” — it was named for a community of potters who worked within the gates — apparently the area had very good clay for making ceramics.
The Kerameikos lay undiscovered for centuries until 1861 when the city was constructing the street that leads to Pireaus. It’s actually one of the most important sites of ancient times and known for its funerary sculptures — in fact, in this district, the most important statues of the Archaic period (700 BC to 400 BC) were found after the Acropolis. Not to mention it’s one of the greenest most peaceful places in Athens to relax (like all cemeteries) and an oasis from the busy city. As you walk through it has a windswept feel. The tortoises love it… we saw a number of them, contentedly crawling around nibbling on the grass.
The site is divided into two main parts; to the left is the cemetery part while to the right it’s the “city” where inhabitants lived in what historian Thucydides called “the most beautiful suburb” of Athens.
Along the Street of the Tombs lie the graves of Athens’ most prominent citizens. Here are some really beautiful grave stele like the one of Dimitra and her sister Pamphele. This very decorative use of design was in use before a law passed in the 4th century BC that prohibited grave monuments that were too ornate! These are replicas; the originals are in the National Archaeological Museum.
“Ordinary” citizens were buried in the areas bordering but not on the Street of the Tombs.
To the right you can seem some remains of the city walls built in 479 BC by the general Themistocles in a move to quickly fortify the city against the Persians and the Sacred gate that took you to the Sacred Way that pilgrims took to and from the Elefsinian Mysteries. It was a busy processional road, according to the pamphlet they give you at the site, chock full of pedestrians, riders and wheeled vehicles that moved along the Eridanos river, that used to run through the city. The river was rediscovered, as so many other ancient finds of subterranean Athens, when the Metro was excavated in the late 90’s. In Monastiraki Square you can look way down and see the river as it meandered below the city.
All along the Sacred Way were funerary monuments and graves in roadside burial family plots from archaic to roman times. The main entrance, the Dipyloon meaning “double entrance” and the largest gate in the ancient world, is where Pericles gave his famous speech praising Athenians and honoring those who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian Wars. It was here that was the starting point of the Panathenaic Way mentioned earlier, and the procession that wound its way to the Acropolis in the festival of the Great Panathenaea. Crowds gathered for the procession and according to the Lonely Planet guide for Athens, it was also a favorite place for the city’s prostitutes.
After the end of the 5th century BC, a kind of dressing room called the Pompeion was built for the festival participants, that the Romans destroyed in 86 BC. Strolling along the site and its verdant paths, and its very few visitors, you feel peace.
The visit isn’t complete without going into the museum, but with Covid precautions, they’re very strict about limiting the number that go in (as with all museums, you need to show a vaccination certificate and id required) As you wait outside, you notice in the courtyard a number of graveyard stele showing seated mourners and those comforting them with clapsed hands, a gesture then as now of showing sympathy.
Inside the museum are a number of lions and sphinxes — with its female head, in the tradition of female monsters, with a cat’s body, the sphinx was a symbol of great power and a common sculpture on grave stele.
There are some charming objects from everyday life then, like this lovely miniature gaming table and dice from the 6th century BC
One of the most interesting discoveries were thousands of pottery sherds or fragments found along the Eridanos river bed, with the names of Athenian citizens written on them that the citizens voted to “ostracize.” On these ostrakia, Athenian citizens occasionally voted to banish or exile a leading citizien from Athens for 10 years. Good in theory? Many victims though perhaps were just disliked by others or part of personal vendettas!
What about cremation? This was also practiced alongside of burial. in fact it was a common practice among Athenians and the ashes were placed in an urn. There were a number of very ancient and beautiful cinerary urns from the 9th century BC and something else interesting, what was known as a pyxis, used to keep jewelry or other objects, with handles made of horses or other animals. This one was taken from a child burial.
After 1100 BC, Greeks began to bury their dead in individual graves rather than group tombs but there was an exception with the the mass burial of those who died of the Athens plague in 430 to 429 BC.
Some of the Greek views after dying are pretty familiar to us, with the soul going to the Underworld (Hades) The Broadway musical “Hadestown” plays with the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice from the underworld and Persephone and the god of Hades. As the narrator, the god Hermes, portrayed with little wings on his arms (not feet!) sings:
If you ride that train to the end of the line
Where the sun don’t shine and it’s always shady
It‘s there you’ll find the king of the mine
Almighty Mr. Hades
The belief was that after death Hermes led the soul to near the entrance of the Underworld, where a ferry awaited to carry it across either the Acheron or the Styx to Hades. On the Acheron River, in western Greece, we took a little boat a few years ago and the guide pointed out to us the cave where Persephone is said to enter from the underworld.
Besides the Kerameikos cemetery, on the site of the present Niarchos Foundation park, a necropolis or cemetery was used from the late 8th century to 4th century BC. I was reading the notes there about a present excavation, with some eye opening finds. This necropolis it seems was for people executed and tortured. A mass grave was found of 80 men chained together, “which”sheds light,” read the text “on a lesser known aspect of ancient Athens.” Indeed. Several thousand tombs were found, many of infants and children (no surprise there, with infant mortality so high) and also animal burials, especially horses. Funeral pyres as well. We’ll see what is more to be discovered…
Have burial customs changed so much since ancient times? We went to visit the 1st Cemetery of Athens. The word “cemetery” comes from the Greek word koimitirio meaning “sleeping place.” Death and sleep are often connected in literature (FauIkner describes death in “A Rose for Emily” as that “long sleep that outlasts love.” Macbeth calls sleep as “the death of each day’s life.”)
But koimitiro is also a religious term; the koimisis on the 15th of August is the “Dormition” (the Latin expression for sleep) of the Virgin Mary, literally the “falling asleep of Mary” the idea of that she died without suffering in spiritual peace. So of course koimitirio did not exist in ancient Greece. Most people use the expression‘nekrotafeio’ ‘nekros’ – dead and tafos (grave) as in English we would say “graveyard.”
The site is full of majestic cypress trees and pines. It had rained earlier and the pines had a rich wet damp smell. On some paths I breathed in the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Pots of cyclamens red, pink and white decorated graves along with the oil lamps and fresh flowers. It was peaceful, with hardly anyone around, only cats stretching out on the tombs.
The cemetery, with its large vaults of mostly politicians, archbishops, actors, historians, artists etc. is the official one of Athens and was created after the new Greek state in 1837. At the top of Anapafseos Street, with the fitting meaning of “the road of Eternal Peace” you pass the florists and marble carvers and you enter what’s like an open air sculpture gallery: shrines, statues, temples, it has it all. Besides crosses, Christian elements you wouldn’t have found in the Kerameikos include angels of mourning decorating many tombs, as you see in this angel looking over a young boy who died.
Grave stele combine the ancient with modern as in this one with an angel and the other a man dressed in a peplos-loooking ancient Greek garb over a modern suit with tie.
There were some ancient symbols of sphinxes and lions, as in this sphinx guarding the tomb of statesman Evangelos Averof.
And a number of tombs in the form of temples as we see in this impressive tomb of Henrik Schliemann, who discovered Troy. Supposedly he chose this site himself fittingly as it overlooks the Acropolis….. The frieze appropriately shows archaeologists at work:
In the old tombs the marble has blackened of course but it’s marble after all and built to last. The original marble craftsmen of the Romantic and Neoclassic sculptures were from the island of Tinos.
Probably the most famous sculpture is known as Koimomeni, “sleeping maiden” by Yannoulis Chalepas, one of the most famous Tinos sculptors and also buried nearby. The statue was done for the young and beautiful Sofia Afentaki who died in the 1880’s at age 18 (tuberculosis? from love?) Not sure. As I passed by, a cat had settled comfortably onto it.
There are even a few tombs of heroes from the 1821 War for Independence. We stumbled upon the grave of Theodoros Kolokotronis, hero of the war, with his trademark moustache and sword tucked into his “fustanella.”
There were many tombs that we just couldn’t find, and there didn’t seem to be any map. There are tours however, offered by art historians you can arrange to join, and also get the stories behind the cemetery’s distinguished “residents.”
Family tombs in a Greek cemetery bear the name Oikos and the name of the family. This root from ancient Greek means “house or household” and of course we’re familiar with words using this root such as “ecology” and “economics’ (literally, the “law of household management”). In the 1st cemetery, graves and tombs are all purchased and left there permanently, while in other cemeteries where the plots are not bought, after three years, in an attempt to save space, the family has to exhume the body and dig up the bones, where they’re stored in the ossuary —
Cremation in Greece is a touchy subject. The Greek Orthodox church has been adamantly opposed and until recently if you wanted to do it, you had to go to Bulgaria. It actually became legal in 2006 but there was no site in the country until a few years ago. Now there’s one (privately run) that’s about a two hour drive from Athens.
Giving the proper burial rites can mean more than life itself — look at Antigone in Sophocles’ play defying Creon and giving up her life to bury her brother.
Of all the many traditions about honoring the dead that exist, I find particularly interesting the one with the food “kolyva” which like so many traditions has its roots in ancient Greece, where it was prepared not only for funerals but also for harvest and wedding festivals.
Kolyva is a rich mix of wheat, nuts and fruit that signifies the gifts of life. The ingredients, traditionally nine of them, have symbolic meaning — for example, the pomegranate was what Hades enticed Persephone with to lure her to the underworld to be his wife.
Traditionally, it’s prepared by the family of the deceased and offered in tiny bags with a spoon and napkin after the 40 day memorial service.
To prepare kolyva it takes time to do all the boiling, cooking, drying etc. For that reason, you can buy it in pastry shops where it’s served on a silver (or alumiminum) tray like a cake, drenched in confectioner’s sugar and with almonds on top that show a cross or spell the initials of the deceased.
If you dig under the sugar, kolyva is not only delicious and super healthy, but mainly sends a message of reconciliation with death and the cycle of life. In fact, the common greeting at funerals and 40 day memorials (since the soul is believed to be wandering around until then) is “zoi se mas,” or “life to us.” There couldn’t be a better wish than that.
Happy and healthy 2022 to all …
And here is the sacred rock decked out in white from a rare heavy snowfall on January 24….