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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the First Cemetery of Athens

What is the first cemetery?

The First Cemetery is a peaceful 19th-century cemetery filled with elaborate stone memorials and decorated with towering pines and cypresses.


First Cemetery of Athens

First Cemetery History

The past lies buried just beneath the surface almost everywhere you go in Athens. But nowhere more so than inside the solid walls of the First Cemetery of Athens. This serene enclave was built in the 1830s by craftsmen from the island of Tinos who chipped away the same marble from Mount Penteli that was used to construct the Parthenon. It’s a timeless and enchanting sprawl of romantic stone statues and sarcophagi, where some of Greece’s greatest artists, intellectuals and historical figures lie in eternal rest.


As you walk among the ornate tombs, look out for the graves of Melina Mercouri, the first woman to be elected Greece’s Minister of Culture and Sports, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1960; Nobel Prize-winning poet George Seferis and German businessman and archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who went in search of the ancient world described in the writings of Homer and who discovered the city of Troy and the Mycenaean sites of Mycenae and Tiryns. Schliemann’s towering mausoleum (the work of Ernst Ziller, who also built his opulent residence) is fittingly designed like an ancient Greek temple and is decorated with scenes from the Trojan story.


The most celebrated sculptures for you to discover include the Sleeping Maiden by Tinos sculptor Yannoulis Halepas, whose elegantly reclining figure was carved in 1878 in memory of Sofia Afentaki; and the moving Mother of the Occupation, an emaciated woman clutching an infant carved in bronze to commemorate the hundreds of thousands who died of starvation in the Second World War, by Symi sculptor Costas Valsamis.


The graves are predominantly Greek Orthodox but you can also find areas for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish tombs underneath the towering pines and cypress trees. Look out for sphinxes and other Egyptian symbols which adorn the graves of Greeks from Alexandria and be sure to stay clear of the cemetery’s ghost, rumoured to be a much-disliked undertaker who now roams the grounds with a wreath around his neck – his penance for grumbling about carrying wreaths for his clients.


Outside, Papios is a ‘bakery for the dead’ where shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, Queen Frederica of Greece and Eleftherios Venizelos, prime minister of the country in the early 20th century, have all been honoured with kolyva, cakes for mourners, to be consumed after the funeral alongside the traditional Greek coffee and brandy. Kolyva have been baked in Greece since before the arrival of Christianity and each ingredient is symbolic. Wheat signifies resurrection of the soul; pomegranate seeds are the ‘jewels of heaven’; almonds represent our bones; nuts, the sprouting of the soul; raisins, the vineyards of heaven; and finally, sugar represents the sweetness of paradise.


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