Only three marble steps separate the Evzones – the two guards of honor at the unknown soldier’s tomb in Athens – from an admiring crowd of tourists.
The Evzones are soldiers in the Presidential Guard. They have an enormous attraction, particularly for the ladies, all of whom want to be photographed with one of them. And the Evzone must in every respect be the perfect man for any lady: young, tall, fit and handsome, dressed in fancy uniforms, trained to remain silent and nearly motionless for hours on end.
Some male spectators, too, want to pose beside an Evzone, perhaps inspired by the supervisor, a colleague who takes care of the two soldiers and gets really close to them, when adjusting their clothes and repeatedly running their long cap tassels through his hands, while whispering encouraging words in their ears. Apart from coddling his colleagues, the supervisor is busy driving away spectators; only those posing for a photograph are allowed to ascend, one at a time. People apparently consider the Evzones sheer entertainment.
The tomb of the unknown soldier has a royal position, in front of the impressive neoclassical Parliament building, once the royal castle. Here, the tomb is placed at the bottom of a high wall, on which a relief depicts a fallen soldier, surrounded by quotations from Pericles’ funeral oration. Further inscriptions, left and right, tell of historic battles where Greek soldiers took part, the most recent one in Cyprus in 1974. Two sentry boxes, on either side of the tomb, have small canopies to protect the guards against the sun. In front of the whole thing, there is a huge open square.
In Their Wardrobes
The Evzones have uniforms suited to the season. The red clogs with black pompoms and rivets underneath are standard equipment, and so are the white woollen stockings and the red caps with a waistlong black tassel. The summer uniform is a beige colored suit with a short skirt pleated behind, also including a belt and golden buttons, plus a collar and shoulder straps trimmed with blue bands. In winter, the uniform is blue-black. The gun, at the right foot or on the left shoulder, is a constant companion.
However, the Evzones have a surprise: the full dress uniform sported on special occasions, like the grand changing of the guard on Sundays at 11 o’clock. The full dress is a white shirt with very wide sleeves and a short white skirt composed of 400 pleats, a belt and a black waistcoat with golden embroideries and a collar. The spectacular parade starts from the Evzone camp in the street of Irodou Attikou behind the Parliament, moves through Vasilissis Sofias towards Syntagma Square; first the marching band in white jackets and then the entire Presidential Guard in time with the drumbeats.
There is actually a more frequent changing of the guard, just a small one, taking place every hour on the hour, day and night, the year round. Three guards come marching from the camp, one of them merely bringing and fetching. A little ceremony at the tomb marks the actual changing. Each guard is on duty one hour every six hours, which means four times in a twenty-four-hour watch. Midway, after half an hour, they perform another ceremony at the tomb and finally change positions. Otherwise, they stand motionless outside their sentry boxes, except for occasionally kicking their rifle butts against the marble.
The special gait of the guards gives rise to much amusement. They can actually walk normally although the right arm keeps flying up into the air and the right foot is audibly kicked against the ground from time to time. During ceremonies, including the changing of the guard, the gait is more advanced. While standing, they lift one knee, shake the calf and foot, first above the ground and then scraping the flagstones with the riveted shoe. To get forward, they stretch one leg and wag the foot before putting it down and changing legs. The left arm is busy holding the gun, the right arm flies up together with the left leg. The funny thing is, each and every position is frozen for a few seconds.
On Their Minds
In order to compensate for his physically locked position, the Evzone is probably very active mentally. Maybe, he’s evaluating the types of women present: the shy one not daring to come quite close; the one talking away as if the two of them were already closely acquainted; those trying to establish eye contact; the type who wants to touch him; the nervous type who gets a shock when the Evzone, in the middle of a photo session, brutally knocks his gun on the ground.
The Evzone might even enjoy the view, but only to a certain degree, as he’s instructed to look straight forward. That’s exactly where the Syntagma Square is, on the other side of the busy Amalias Avenue; and the pedestrian street Ermou, a major shopping street starting from Syntagma. He could be fantasizing about a night in wild luxury at the adjacent Hotel Grande Bretagne. All he can afford, though, may be a metro trip, from the world’s most beautiful metro station, Syntagma, decorated with the archaeological finds that were done during its excavation.
In the evening, the pulse of Athens slows down. The Evzones are left more or less alone, which is a pity, really, as they look perhaps their best in the dimming light. They stand like slim silhouettes with the discreetly lit wall in the background. Above the tomb of the unknown soldier, a tiny cross has been lit up and behind it all rises the Parliament, also elegantly lit, by little lamps in the windowsills throwing the light upwards.
The guard of honor is a solemn tradition, although the tourists seem to regard it as an amusing ritual performed for them. Considering the constant conflict between the supervisors and the spectators, one might think that the old tradition has outlived its day. But this conflict is part of the game – the image of the serious and unapproachable Evzones is upheld, and millions of tourists return home with pictures which they can’t wait to show to other millions of people, “Look how daring I was in Athens!”