Kerameikos of Athens

Athens, October 1998, archaeological site of Kerameikos

How the faces of all the mournful grave reliefs resemble each other! The figures are well carved in the middle of a flat Attic Stele or on the rounded surface of a marble Amphora. Here in Kerameikos’ cemetery the mortals leave among their loved ones. They express their sorrow for leaving, they bid them farewell. They cast their eyes, looking into infinity (1). They are sorry to lose the beauty of the world. Ancient  Greek sculpture captures the moment of farewell: the one who leaves extends his arm to someone. The daughter to her mother. The wife to her husband. I’ve never seen a more equal embrace than the one on the relief “Stele of Korallion” (2).

In modern Greek sculpture, like the “Sleeping Female Figure” by Yannoulis Chalepas, the young girl has nobody to say farewell to her. The only thing that may  be touching her hand is a wooden cross!


The grave monument in full relief “Demetria and Pamphile” stands on a pedestal in the natural landscape of Kerameikos, next to other marble Amphorae of nearby tombs. Both of the female figures, the sisters Demetria and Pamphile, are dead. They express their sorrow to the landscape. They look over at Eridanos and the ancient city! (3)


Photo-1. The grave monument in full relief of the sisters “Demetria and Pamphile”.

The grave monuments become one with the landscape, the oleasters, the arbutuses,  the fig trees and the cypresses. Around them the ancient city walls.

Outside the walls are traced the two main lines of ancient Athens that lead to the Eleusinian Plain: The wide road (“Dromos”) full of state grave monuments began at “Dipylon” (or Double Gate) and led to Thebes through the gardens of “Akademia”, via Kitheronas Mountain. “Ηiera Hodos” (or Sacred Way), which is full of private grave monuments, led from the Sacred Gate to Eleusis. Between them flowed Eridanos river. Its river bed, along the Sacred Way, was full of red irises that bloomed during winter and it was accompanying it with its free flow.

There’s a third road, “Egarsia”, that maybe led to Piraeus, and intersects at an angle the Sacred Way. Its name today is “Street of the Tombs”. It is also full of private  grave monuments that stand free in the open space, as they were left after the excavations. The original sculptures are on display in the National Archaeological Museum or in the small museum of Kerameikos. The grounds of the Sacred Way on which we walk, are the same that …… Pausanias (traveler and geographer of the 2nd century AD) saw (4).



Photo-3. The rectilinear Attic Stele of “Bion” (part of it on the left) and on the right the “Stele of Eukoline” outside of the Museum of Kerameikos.

The Attic Grave Stele of “Euphrosyne and Bion” is outside the Museum of Kerameikos. It carries two rosettes, known from the Eleusinian Mysteries, above the relief. The seated mother bids farewell to her dead son, Bion (5). On the Stele of “Eukoline” (6), young daughter of Onesimos from Lesbos, apart from her parents, as her mother also says farewell, there is a fourth mourning figure portrayed in the  centre of the composition in low relief on the marble. Maybe it’s her grandmother. She reminds me of the figure of the Virgin Mary mourning near the Cross. Our Greek tradition remains continuous from the ancient Attic grave reliefs to the Christian paintings with the sorrow of both those who leave and those who say farewell. “Dexileos” on horseback, just like Saint George of our Christian tradition (7).

The “Bull” in honour of Dionysios, from Kollytos, a massive sculpture of a bull in an intense leap and its head in a forward motion, put on a high pedestal in the “Street of the Tombs”. The scaffolding around it indicates the immediate transfer of the monument (8).

I’m thinking that marble is such an expensive material for us, and even more so for our ancestors. The prominent Athenians would use it to show off their wealth! I read that the custom of building expensive grave monuments at the gateway of the city was indeed a great expense for Athenians, and it remained since the fifty year tyranny of Pisistratus (560 to 510 BC). In the Athenian Democracy with Cleisthenes’ reforms in 507 BC the extravagance of the monuments in Kerameikos and other cemeteries outside the gateways of ancient Athens was prohibited by law. In the excavations of this period they only found the simple, rectilinear Attic Stele. This custom came back during the end of the Peloponnesian War, after that with the Thirty Tyrants, and  finally it was completely prohibited in 317 BC by Demetrius Phalereus. (9)


The base of the ancient city walls that we see today at the Sacred Gate was built in a hurry by Themistocles, winner of the Sea Battle of Salamis (480 BC), a year after the Median Wars in 478 BC, after the destruction of the city by Xerxes, the king of Medes, in fear of Spartans (10). Themistocles, leader of the Democratic faction in Athens, after winning the sea battle of Salamis, as he insisted on Spartans fighting the battle in the straits, two years later he won the voting on building the new “Themistoclean” wall. The projects include new planning with expansion of the old walls of Athens to Kerameikos, the canalisation of Eridanos’ river bed and the creation of two new gates instead of the one that existed previously. But the constructions raised opposition from the aristocratic faction of the city, whose lavish monuments had been already destroyed by Xerxes. During the excavations expensive grave monuments were found at the base of the walls as building material. Other tombs were found inside the walls and the worship of the dead was violated, as it was forbidden to be conducted in the city. This new planning was the reason Themistocles was ostracised from the city. His end is known (11). But the building of the walls saved Athens from Spartans during the first years of the Peloponnesian War.


From the main Athens gateway, Dipylon, Dromos passes through the most sacred place of Athens, the burial place of prominent warriors, the “Demosion Sema” (Public Tomb)… Undisturbed until recently, today it is archaeologists’ subject of excavation (12). Outside “Dipylon” the road is very wide, 39 metres for people’s gatherings, honouring dead warriors and funerary speeches, like Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” (13). This is the same place where the “Panathenaic Festival Procession” started with the worship of goddess Athena. It started at the “Pompeion” inside the walls. It passed the ancient Agora and stopped at the Akropolis. This procession has been separated from the 1930s because of the construction of the electric railways. It separates the ancient city from the walls and Kerameikos. The today’s pedestrian zone of Ermou is higher (due to covering the ground with a layer  of soil) than the ground of the ancient walls that have already been excavated and exist lower and with the electric railway lines they disrupt the continuity of the archaeological site of the ancient Agora.

The torch relay, the procession with the flaming torches (thyrsus) of the Athenians that walked at night as far as Eleusis through Egaleo mountain, for the performing of Eleusinian Mysteries, passed through the Sacred Gate. Only the Athenians who have been initiated continued to the Telesterion. (See map)


I remember the words of the contemporary architect-poet Aristomenis Provelegios

“Today at the city gate … with the factories we bury the blood of the workers!…”

What made us today to lose our power to view the beauty of nature?

I feel like a stranger among the strangers, the tourists that visit the archaeological site and examine the monuments that stand free in the landscape!

Lycabettus in the background.

Cypresses grow around.

Eridanos today has no water, no irises, no leaves.

It’s a sunny day. The wind is blowing. I feel like the grave reliefs belong to me. I live here.


At Kerameikos!
The statues come together

with the blowing wind.


February 2014
Eridanos river grew irises in its waters again in 2000 and now it is completely dry! The ancient holy river of Athens Basin, that was flowing its waters in the holy place by the entrance of the Sacred Way in the cemetery of Kerameikos, has already dried up.


Photo-6. Kerameikos’ cemetery (from the pedestrian zone of Ermou). The empty river bed of Eridanos by the “Sacred Way”, the walls of Athens and the “Sacred Gate”.

Eridanos changed direction and its waters were spilled in the sewers of Adrianou Street, for the Underground constructions under Kerameikos’ cemetery at “Kerameikos” station! For nearly two years, I remember, they spilled Eridanos’ waters in Adrianou Street, which they drew from the place near the excavations of the Archaeological Institute of America, while the Underground constructions of “Kerameikos” were taking place. Eridanos river went underground to the ancient city through the walls, it continued under Adrianou Street near the archaeological site of ancient Agora and appeared again with free flow outside the walls. The lines of the Underground station “Monastiraki” have already gone down in a greater depth, so the lines can go through without difficulty under Eridanos. With its flow also disappeared the legends of the red irises that grew on its river bed and gave light to the landscape in the winter, legends about a mother’s love for her dead son, Phaethon. The changes in the natural landscape by the Underground and the Major Projects is today significant in the Athens Basin in every level.

The excavation for the Underground was done in such depth under Eridanos that brought to light a great undisturbed archaeological treasure of tombs and burial gifts near Piraeus Street. This is the reason the Underground constructions stopped for nearly two years until the approval of construction was given. The landscape of Attica changed in every level and especially the natural holy landscape of Kerameikos!

How is it working?
Can it be that memory
is subjugated?


Photo-7. The Pompeion at Kerameikos.

Remarks- Bibliography
Architect Engineer (text, architectural sketches, and photographs February 2014)

Published in on 24-7-2014


Remarks- Bibliography

  1. Like today’s “dead” in the faces of the commercials “leave” while looking into infinity and those of the living who are captive by this deathly figure in their human communication.
  2. The relief of the 4th century Stele of Korallion. “Agathon”, the husband of the seated dead woman says farewell to Found in the Street of the Tombs.The Greek poet Kostis Palamas, member of the “New Athenian School or Generation of 1880” was inspired by the aforementioned relief of the late classical sculpture that had just been found in the excavations of the Greek Archaeological Society circa 1870. Instead of chanting the blessing of equality between the two partners, which sculpture expresses with the moment of their handshake, in his very long poem “The Tombs of Kerameikos” from the collection “Eyes of my Soul” (in “Iambic Decapentasyllabic” verse)… he doesn’t even mention the name of Korallion in the whole poem, not even her name on the Stele in the title of the poem (!!!). He names it “Agathonos gyne” (wife of Agathon) and praises the marital happiness that has been lost … on the husband’ s part! So how does the poetic speech of the conservative poet sound until this day since although a demoticist, he didn’t recognise the equality of women in marriage? That was an overall achievement of course for the rights of women in the mid-twentieth century. Nonetheless this has been already expressed by the sculpture of the ancient Attic Stele.


    Photo-8,9. The “Stele of Eukoline” on the left and the “Stele of Korallion” on the right, 4th century BC.

  3. A grave monument of “Demetria and Pamphile” older by twenty years, where Demetria is dead and Pamphile is saying farewell, was found in Kerameikos as well. (National Archaeological Museum)
  4. Pausanias’ “Attica”: Dipylon-Kerameikos and the Sacred Also Alexander Philadelpheus’ “Monuments of Athens”, Athens 1963.
  5. The oblong Attic Stele of the 4th century BC of “Bion”, son of Eubios from Potamos, was found in the Street of the Tombs
  6. The sculpted Attic monument of “Eukoline”, 4th century, was found in the Street of the A dead girl with her little dog.
  7. “Dexileos”, grave monument for the dead, young horseman of the Corinthian War during the Athenians’ defeat (394 BC). See «Εµέ ∆εξίλεω µε λεν! Παιδί είµαι της Αθήνας!» (free translation: My name is Dexileos! I am from Athens!) from the poem “Dexileos” (Δεξίλεως) of Kostis Palamas from the trilogy “The Tombs of Kerameikos” (Οι τάφοι του Κεραµεικού)
  8. The “Bull” of Dionysios from Kollytos, was reconstructed in situ in 1884. Circa 2000 it was transferred and now adorns a special room in the Museum of Kerameikos.
  9. “The Athenian Kerameikos”, a guide by Ursula Knigge,1990, Publisher: Krene ed., Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Receipts Fund (ARF).
    The use of rich grave monuments was completely prohibited in 317 BC by  Demetrius Phalereus, philosopher and statesman, who governed Athens appointed by king Cassander (317 BC to 307 BC), the following founder of the Library of Alexandria.
  10. Lacedaemonians (Spartans) had decided that at the end of the Median Wars they would pass a law which will prohibit the destructed by Xerxes Greek cities from rebuilding their walls, so that they can control them under their hegemony. Athens was one of the most destructed cities. This is the reason Themistocles was in a hurry to make it and insisted on building a new “Themistoclean” wall and that’s why it was build so The brutality of Lacedaemonians against Themistocles is explained by this event.
    The historian Thucydides wrote about Themistocles’ character: “To sum up, this man by natural ability, with rapid deliberation, was certainly supreme in his immediate grasp of what was necessary.” History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book 1, 138. (The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Translated, with Introduction and Notes, by Steven Lattimore).
  11. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Book 1, 134-138. “They (the Athenians) consented and sent men to accompany the Lacedaemonians, who were ready to help in the pursuit, with instructions to seize him wherever they found him”. A few years after the end of Median Wars (478 BC) the aristocratic faction prevailed in Athens with “Aristides The Just” and democratic Themistocles was ostracised, in 471 BC. The aristocratic Athenians, with the schemes of the also aristocratic Spartans, sought to capture him at Argos. Themistocles at first took refuge in Corfu (Corcyra), “but because they claimed that they were afraid to harbor him and incur the hatred of the Lacedaemonians and the Athenians, they had him sent from Corcyra across to the opposite mainland”. Pursued to Epirus, he fled to Admetos’ palace, who didn’t give him up. Finally, following Admetos’ advice, he fled by sea to“Artaxerxes”, king of Medes, who gave him three Ionian cities for boarding. He died in Magnesia, refusing to go on an expedition in Egypt with the Persians against Greek interests.
  12. Newspaper “Kathimerini” 28th March 1999, in the article “Why is the Museum of Athens necessary” by Giota Sykka. “On one hand we have the Underground constructions that led to extended excavations with important findings, and on the other excavations during the construction of Major Projects. Especially the period between 1996-98 was the period of the “counter-attack of the lots of Athens”. So there was the wrestling area of the “Gymnasium of the Lyceum” at the lot of Rigillis Street, the discovery of the “Demosion Sema” in the lot of 35 Salaminos Street and of course the excavation of the Parliament. The findings are more than 50.000, says Ms Parlama, director of the 3rd Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. So this is the reason the founding of the Museum of Athens is imperative”.
  13. The width of Dromos in Dipylon expands outside the limits of the present archaeological site as far as the beginning of Psaromiligou Street, outside an existing marvellous neoclassical house.

Photo-10. Kerameikos, the “Street of the Tombs” that today exists in line with Peiraios Street.

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