Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Night, Syntagma - credits: Lefteris-Papaulakis/Shutterstock.com
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Night, Syntagma - credits: Lefteris-Papaulakis/Shutterstock.com

 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.

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 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 ancient Greek culture. Euripides in Helen insists that for the Greeks, burying the dead is part of the Law, an inviolable ancient rule. 

The history of the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier

Syntagma square -  credits: lornet/Shutterstock.com

 

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.

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Tomb of Unknown at Syntagma Square in Athens en.protothema.grThe Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square - credits: joyofmuseums.com

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 who 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.

Evzones - credits:  Dmytro Shapova/Shutterstock.com

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 whole earth is the sepulcher of famous  men"

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 are 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. 

The duties of the Presidential Guard

Tomb of Unknown at Syntagma Square in Athens en.protothema.grThe Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square - credits: en.protothema.gr

The duties of the men of the Presidential Guard are the honorary guarding of the Presidential Palace, but also of the central gate of the adjacent camp ‘G. Tzavela’, where the well-to-do live and are educated.

The list of duties of the body also includes the raising and submission of the Greek flag on Sundays and holidays on the rock of the Acropolis, as well as the awarding of honors to the President of the Republic and to heads of foreign states.

In addition, during the celebration of the national anniversary on March 25, the Presidential Guard always opens the parade of infantry of the Armed Forces in front of the President of the Republic, while part of the guard sometimes participates in events of expatriate organizations abroad, as well as at the welcoming ceremony of the Holy Light from Jerusalem. 

The most sacred duty of the well-to-do of the Presidential Guard is - almost a century now (since 1932, when it was inaugurated) - the 24-hour honorary guarding of the monument of the Unknown Soldier, in front of the Greek Parliament building, where on September 3, 1843, the people first revolted against the palace, insisting on the adoption of a Constitution.

The uniform of the Presidental Guard

Evzones greece isThe uniform of the Presidential Guard - credits: greece-is.com

All the peoples of the earth, apart from their language, religion, customs, and traditions, maintain a character of traditional national costume. In Greece, the current uniform of the Evzones embodies entire periods of national struggles and peaceful life. The uniform began to take shape from the time of Homer, with its main feature being the belt, which as an element indicates the superiority of the wearer, ie the "well-belted" fighters named Evzones. The evolution of the uniform continued during the classical and Hellenistic times and ended with the 'fustanela' -the skirt-like garment- and the 'tsarouchia' -the shoes depicted in the photo above- during the Turkish occupation.

A look at the costumes of the ancient Greek army, which are preserved in various vases, proves the use already from the classic times of a similar multi-layered short dress whirling around the middle, the evolution of which is the current guy uniform of the Evzones, which began to be introduced against the Greek Revolution of 1821.

During the Turkish occupation, the simple clothing of the Greek fighters, in combination with its cheap quality, established the nickname 'tsolias', which meant the wearer of cheap clothing. This outfit consisted of the fez, the vest, the 'fustanela' that went to the knees and was tied tightly to the waistband, socks, and 'tsarouchia' made from raw ox leather. 

The Presidential Guard wears the following uniforms:
• Formal Evzoni uniform
• Winter dulamas
• Summer dulamas
• Cretan costume
• Pontian uniform.

The Evzones' uniform represents the fighters of the mainland, while the Cretan represents the fighters of the Greek island. However, the other uniforms of the Evzones, apart from the official one, come directly through the Greek war tradition. The winter Evzoni uniform retains the basic characteristics of the official one, with the difference that instead of a vermelion, a shoe, and a fustanella, the Evzones wear the deep blue Macedonian 'dulama', which is the traditional war uniform of the Macedonian struggle. Also, the summer uniform differs only in the use of light-colored 'dulama'. The Cretan uniform, beyond the vest and the wide waist belt, is characterized by wide blue pants and white boots. 

The changing of the Presidental Guard

The Change of the Guards whyathensThe changing of the Presidential Guards - credits: whyathens.com

Every hour, the Evzones pay their respects to the monument by performing a ceremonial march. This is also when the famous 'changing of the guards' takes place in Syntagma Square, right in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Two young Evzones start with a strict gait from their barracks located on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and reach the front of the monument of the Unknown Soldier to take the place of their colleagues.

The most impressive change of the guards happens every Sunday though. At 11.00 every Sunday morning, the guard change ceremony is so elaborate that crowds gather to enjoy it.

Join us on our Best of Athens in a day 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.

Syntagma and the city of Athens has so much more to offer though. Waste no more time, plan your visit to Athens, or check out one of our Greece tours!