All around the globe, courage, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and the call of duty are principles highly honored for those anonymous soldiers that died on the battlefield while protecting their country. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens is one of these memorials that keep evermore the memory of those people alive.
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Right in front of the Greek Parliament on Syntagma Square, the symbol of the Greek Republic, lies a modest monument, guarded by the elite force of the Greek army, the Evzones (broadly known as tsoliades in Greek), the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb of the Uknown Soldier is a cenotaph dedicated to all those that lost their lives throughout the history of Greece while serving their duty towards their nation and country. This concept though, it is not as modern as it may seem. Even in ancient Athens, the fallen soldiers (their remains) were brought back to their home city-state and were honored with proper ceremonies paid by the State. Sophocles, in his work Ajax, vividly paints a picture of how important burial was in the ancient Greek culture. Euripides in Helen insists that for the Greeks, burying the dead is part of the Law, an inviolable ancient rule.
The first monument dedicated to 'unknown soldiers' is located in Denmark in the town of Fredericia, the so-called Landsolaten, dedicated to the ones that fell during the First Schleswig War. The brutality and the unimaginable number of casualties of WWI was the one that led to a series of countries establishing monuments to honor their deads. The most famous one is the tomb that lies underneath the Arch of Triumph in Paris. In Greece, even from the birth of the new State, there were initiatives for the construction of such a monument, firstly to honor the dead of the Greek War of Independence. In 1880, on the island of Syros, the municipality assigned the creation of the monument of the Unburied Fighter to the sculptor Georgios Vitalis. Now to be found just outside of the church of St. Nicholas, the visitor can see the incarnation of the city of Hermopolis offering her respects to the known and unknown heroes of the Greek Revolution.
In Athens, the Minister of the Army, Theodoros Pagkalos issued a decision in 1926 to declare a public call for the design of the monument of the 'unknown soldier'. The position of the monument was heavily debated but in the end and after the political persistence of Eleftherios Venizelos, it was decided that the space in front of the old Palace would be the perfect spot for such a memorial. At first, the plan was to create a depiction of Gigantomachy, inspired by the ancient myth including the dying soldier and Greece accepting him into her arms. Because of a scandal of the time, which included the sculptors responsible for the monument, the project was reassigned to Fokion Rok, a graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts which studied in France at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and at the Grande Chaumière Academy. He chose a different theme, one emitting the simplicity and awe which suited the monument. One figure on low relief, an ancient soldier lying on his back on the ground wearing his helmet in a really twofold position; either he is ready to get up or these are his last living moments.
Right below the relief, a cenotaph made out of marble stands there illuminated by the light of a feeble flame. The flame comes from the monastery of Hagia Lavra, where supposedly the Greek Revolution was declared against the Ottoman Empire. Flanking the figure of the soldier, two sentences are carved in ancient Greek right from the speech of Pericles as saved by Thycidides:
"There's one empty bier made up for the unidentified [fallen] ones"
The names of battles where many Greek lives were lost in recent history are written into the limestone walls around the sculpture. Any addition must be unanimously accepted and voted by the Greek Parliament.
The Monument is guarded by the Presidential Guard consisting of Evzones soldiers, the elite force of the Greek Army. The name evzones mean the “well-girted” and they are dressed in their special uniform of the typical Greek soldier of the 19th century, inspired by the Greek revolution and designed during the reign of King Otto. The hat is called “fario” and bears the national emblem. Its red color represents the blood of the soldier that died on the battlefield while the numerous strings of its long black braid is a symbolism of the tears of Jesus on the Cross. The jacket is the most difficult piece of the uniform. Made through laborious handmade traditional processes, the “fermeli” reflects the rich folklore tradition of Greece. The most impressive piece though is the red tsarouchia, those leather shoes with the black pom poms on the front protecting the toes from frostbite.
Every half an hour, the Evzones pay their respects to the monument by performing a ceremonial march around it. Every hour, another group of Evzones takes over the shift coming from the Presidential Palace. The most impressive change of the guards happens every Sunday morning though. Join us on our Athens Highlights Walking Tour where you will get to admire the skill and training of these soldiers. Accompanied by our deeply knowledgeable, local guide, discover a wealth of history that surrounds you as you walk the streets of Athens.