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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc

A Brief History of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens

What is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a 20th-century cenotaph commemorating all the Greek soldiers who have been killed during war.

guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier History

Nearly 2,500 years ago, the city of Athens held a public funeral for those who had died that year during the brutal Peloponnesian War. During the funeral procession, a series of cypress-wood coffins were carried along in carts. The ancient historian Thucydides tells us that there was ‘one empty hearse decked for the missing’ – the many who had died on the battlefield whose bodies had never been recovered. After the dead were laid to rest, the statesman and orator Pericles stood before the people of Athens and delivered a famous speech in which he claimed: ‘The whole earth is the tomb of famous men’.

These quotations, taken from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, adorn this grand monument before you, built in honour of all Greek soldiers who have fallen in war. The memorial in its current form was built in the 1930s but the original idea goes back as far as the 1850s when the Greek government decided to build a monument in honour of the fallen soldiers of the War of Independence, which resulted in the liberation of their country from the Ottoman Empire.

The monument, designed by Emmanuel Lazaridis and sculpted by Fokion Rok, is a unique merging of Art Deco with French urban and classical influences. The centre of the monument features an empty marble tomb. Behind and above this is the sculpted relief of a naked soldier depicted in such a way that, although fallen, he appears ready to get back on his feet. Below Thucydides’ quotations, which flank the relief, are the names of important battles where Greek soldiers fought and died. These start with the Balkan Wars and end with the Korean and Cypriot Wars.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also famous for its guardians, the elite infantry unit known as the Evzones. They’re members of the Presidential Guard and are responsible for protecting two sites in Athens, this grand memorial and the Presidential Palace. While they guard the tomb, they must remain silent no matter what happens around them. When it snows, or rains, or even when the police clash with demonstrators, the sentinels must remain unmoved. The reason for this is symbolic. The Evzones must be seen as always vigilant, protecting the memory of the fallen, sleepless guardians of the Greek state. To accomplish this they undergo special training. You’ll recognise them both by their serious expressions and by their unusual uniform – a pleated kilt and pom-pom shoes – based on the attire worn by the klephts, mountain-dwelling soldiers who fought against the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence. It’s worth waiting until the changing of the guard, which occurs every hour on the hour. Whilst on Sundays at 11am, the occasion is elevated: a whole platoon marches down Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, accompanied by a band.

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