Marble. Smooth. White. Sparkling. I’ve never seen so much marble in a cemetery before. Old graves, new graves – all marble. In fact, I think this cemetery must be about 99% marble (I just made that up, but it sure seems like it). I’m used to seeing marble used for the bigger, more expensive monuments and statues within cemeteries, where granite and other stones are used more abundantly, but here, even the simple graves have a slab of marble for the headstones (some are so thin you can see the variations in the stone as the light shines through it). This is an impressive cemetery to visit, if only for the marble.
Of course, that’s not why I came to visit. I’ve known about the First Cemetery of Athens for a while, occasionally some photos will show up in cemetery lists. I knew that while I was in Athens on business, I would visit at least two places in the city – this cemetery, and the Acropolis/Parthenon (not only as a tourist, but also a former historian who studied ancient Greek and Roman history). So on my first day in Athens, with the only the afternoon at my disposal, I headed to the cemetery.
First and foremost, this is still a working cemetery in Athens. As I walked through the gates I needed to take a hard right to avoid the funeral procession happening in front of me. In fact, this would be a common occurrence throughout the afternoon, as funeral processions, with singing and people holding large flower wreaths, would pass by on a regular basis. As a result, I mostly stayed to the edges in the beginning, but this is where the smaller, newer graves tended to be. There was a young priest in full robes exploring too, we ran into each other quite often.
Some cemeteries have cats, and this one did, in abundance. Sunning themselves on top of all these marble tombs, or meowing for treats if they thought you might have some (I didn’t). Unlike many other cemeteries that I’ve been to, these cemetery cats seemed pretty chill, and didn’t mind if I got close to them to take their photos.
While most of the tombs and headstones are written in Greek, there is one section where you can find English, as is often the case for expats who pass away in foreign lands, and that was the Protestant section. It was slightly walled off from the other part of the cemetery, but that didn’t mean much, since there were multiple walled areas.
It is near this section, heading back towards the main gate, that you can find the most impressive graves and tombs within the cemetery. As usual, there were many grieving women, some angels (often male), and statues or pendants of the deceased themselves. All marble of course.
The cemetery is known for a statue called “the sleeping girl” or sometimes “sleeping beauty”, but I found three graves within the cemetery of this particular statues. Really I think the term belongs to the tomb of Sophia Afentaki, which was done by the renown Greek sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas. In fact, I imagine quite a number of tombs and statues were made my famous sculptors, but this isn’t something I looked into while there.
Like many other great cemeteries, there are quite a fair number of impressive mausoleums and family tombs here. The grandest are near the entrance, mostly to the left. One of those mausoleums belongs to Heinrich Schliemann. He was the (in)famous German archaeologist who discovered Troy (and destroyed many other artifacts in digging through the layers to get to his target). I did a paper on him in university in my Greek Art and Architecture class, it was a bit of strange feeling to see the grave of a historical figure that I knew quite a bit about.
Overall I really enjoyed visiting this cemetery and would like to go back on an overcast day, when the harsh light of the sun mixed with all the trees wouldn’t create such harsh shadows.
Monuments: Fantastic. This cemetery lies in easy company with a lot of the other great monumental cemeteries in Europe. The fact that so many were made of marble was another plus.
Grounds: The cemetery is on a hillside, so there is a lot of going up and down various slopes (mostly to the left of the entrance). But the grounds and stairs and maintained nicely, so it’s pretty easy to get around. There are a lot of pine and cypress trees here, as well as orange trees (and at least one lemon tree) – I was tempted to pick some fruit when I was there, but that seemed like the worse form of karma, so I didn’t.
Visitors: There were a few visitors here outside of funeral mourners (at least 3 funerals passed me by while I was there) and others there to clean and maintain the family grave. It reminded me of being in Germany a couple years ago, where I was surprised by the number of locals at the cemetery in the middle of a weekday. There was one older man, dressed in a very dapper style. I thought perhaps he was part of one of the funerals, but he wasn’t. He stayed in the cemetery almost as long as me, and seemed to know a lot of the people who worked there. He had a black scarf around his neck that was covered in skulls, which seemed both obvious and fun at the same time.
Notes: I was here in early March on a blue sky day (just needed a light jacket) and already I found it hot! I can’t imagine what it’s like here in the summer. I imagine it’s quite green at the moment for the same reason (the Acropolis too – full of wildflowers). The trees create a lot of dappled light and the bright sun some harsh shadows, something I think would be even worse in the summer.
Site: The First Cemetery of Athens (Πρώτο Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών)
Notable Internments: Heinrich Schliemann (archaeologist), Odysseas Androutsos and Theodoros Kolokotronis (heroes of Greek Independence), T.H. White (author), and many notable Greek politicians, actors, singers, and artists.
Location: Logginou 3, Athens. It’s an easy walk from the Plaka area.
Hours: 08:00-20:00 daily