Some rituals never change: the First Cemetery of Athens

 

Walking around Athens you cannot avoid dealing with death somehow, in the names of mains streets, in the busts in little squares and in the famous museums and sites. The celebration of important personalities that have literally made Greek history is entangled to monuments that aim to preserve their memory. However, what happens when we approach death not as mere memory but as reality? Have you ever considering how it must have been like walking through the Kerameikos cemetery recognizing people buried along the streets? They were parents, sons, friends, not just ancient figures on beautiful grave stones. On this idea, in 1837, after the Greek war of independence, not too far away from the Panathenaic Stadium and the Olympieion, the First Cemetery of Athens was built. Placed in the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in 2012, this monumental cemetery is nowadays open to everybody. Here national benefactors, such as Georgios Averoff, mayors and politicians, such as Melína Merkoúri, are celebrated in the same way as the ancient Herodes Atticus was. Archbishops are remembered as the first Christian communities’ clergy members were. The so-called monument of “the Sleeping Girl” in memory of Sofia Afentaki, died at the age of eighteen of tuberculosis in the 19th century, remembers the stelai of those beautiful and wealthy Greek woman died too young and displayed at the National Museum. Famous artists, such as the Greek modern sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas and the poet Giórgos Seféris, are inhumed here.

 

The sleeping girl

The Sleeping Girl monument

As the images carved on ancient funerary monuments do not reflect real society but the idea of wealthy, fierce and immortal beauty that people wanted to transmit to posterity, the same happened in modern times. The monument of the German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann, well known for his excavation of what is considered by many as the city of Troy, is a clear example of this. His majestic Doric style mausoleum, designed by himself, dominates the main area of the cemetery.  It consists of an exuberant celebration of his career’s achievements with four friezes that alternated scenes from the Iliad, Odyssey and scenes from his personal life. This decoration creates an unforgettable connection between him and Greek heroes as Greek kings and Roman Emperors used to do to reinforce their role. The inscription “For the Hero, Schliemann” corroborates this aim.

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Schliemann mausoleum

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Detail of one of the friezes on the mausoleum of Schliemann

 

As it happened in the past, the multi-ethnic Greek society has always provided space within its sacral areas to different cultural groups. Distant from the main streets of the cemetery, quieter areas housed the modest Orthodox tombs of foreign people and the little Jewish cemetery.

Greeks seem to not have lost their traditions over time. Visitors can experience how citizens still deal with death, how they share their grief with family and friends keeping alive the memory of their deceased.

 

 

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