HISTORY | CULTURE | ATHENS
Mnimeío tis Mnímis:
A Ghost Tale
THE ATHENS FIRST CEMETERY
"THE ATHENS FIRST CEMETERY IS CONSIDERED A HISTORICAL MONUMENT ON ACCOUNT OF THE FACT
THAT IS CONSTITUTES THE LARGEST SCULPTURAL PARK IN THE COUNTRY."
The history of the First Cemetery of Athens (Πρώτο Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών) begins with the launch of the Greek War of Independence, in 1821. Under Ottoman rule, Greeks would bury their dead at their local church. When Athens became the capital of the country in 1834, sepultures in and around churches were forbidden for hygienic purposes, and the control and management of cemeteries was handed over to the municipality.
Shortly after the founding of the modern Greek State, the Athens First Cemetery was established as an Orthodox graveyard based on a royal decree that stipulated that every cemetery must be located at least 100 meters away from the city. The designated area also had to be to the north or east of the center, and if possible, on a hill where winds blow (to be well-ventilated). The site needed to be relatively large and enclosed by a fence, and the part facing the town should have been planted with trees. A chapel was to be built where the dead would remain until burial; at the same time, a guard was to be assigned to oversee it.
On the basis of the decree, the then uninhabited Mets Hill, located south, was considered to be the right position. The windmills of Athens were placed there for ventilation. Likewise, countless pines and cypress trees can be found in the area.
The cemetery's first tombs date back to 1837 and are situated around St. Lazarus, the first church erected in the resting place. With time, the demand for additional burial grounds shaped the cemetery into what has become today. It was expanded twice by the 1940s to include a section for Protestants, who were formerly buried in the Garden of Zappeion, and Jews. In theory, there were sections dedicated to each doctrine separately, although in reality these limits are not very strict.
In fact, at present, no organized design is visible. The outline is random as a result of several extensions. Today, the cemetery has reached the size of 225 acres, housing over 10,000 family graves and 2,077 tombs created by a total of 108 artists.
Taking a stroll around the graveyard, one may feel that they are visiting an open-air museum. And that is quite true, as the Athens First Cemetery is considered a historical monument on account of the fact that it constitutes the largest sculptural park in the country, and one of the largest throughout Europe.
Here, nothing seems macabre about luxurious memorials erected by well-known and talented sculptors. This special place is characterized by a white aesthetic attributed to the use of Pentelic marble. The tombs at the Athens First Cemetery transcend beyond the typical cross-bearing grave. Indeed, this graveyard is a collection of fine art that pays tribute to the lives of some of Greece's most notable people.
A visit to the Athens First Cemetery offers visitors an interesting and visually appealing glimpse into the history of this Mediterranean country, from the 19th century through the present day. Among those buried in its thousands of graves lie distinguished statesmen, politicians, military leaders, revolutionaries, philanthropists, academics, actors, directors, composers, singers, archaeologists and writers, Greeks and philhellenes who left behind a rich heritage.
Buried here are the likes of Greek War of Independence hero Theodoros Kolokotronis, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, architect Ernst Ziller, poet Odysseas Elytis, Prime Minister of Greece Georgios Papandreou and actress Aliki Vougiouklaki.
Influenced by the traditions and habits of Ancient Athens, the individuals buried here spent considerable sums of money on monuments that would stand out. Family competitions for the best memorial grave resulted in the impressive sculptures and tombs one may admire today.
Moreover, the accidental discovery of the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos decisively affected modern Greek artists. Many were awed by the city’s old burial ground, something that inspired the integration of patterns, motifs, symbols, columns and stelae, altering their meaning to fit the Orthodox world-view, like that of the butterfly, representing the soul. There are also some examples that emulate the art and culture of the Byzantine Empire and Egypt, depicting sphinxes and sarcophagi.
A matter very personal to those fallen and those mourning their loss, graves were usually made to order as tribute to the dead. Considering the church did not intervene with design elements, sculptors created freely, even occasionally adding sensual and erotic elements. Most of the designers commissioned to create tomb art were well recognized for their work in Athenian society, as many had conceived the artwork of famous structures such as that of the Academy, the University and other remarkable buildings.
Each grave in the Athens First Cemetery hides an interesting story, as it was customary for tombs to reference an element of the life of the deceased. The grave art here includes tombstones, temples, busts and entire statues...many sleeping or lying down, some displaying a state of contemplation or lament, while others hold a cross, that symbolizes redemption, or an inverted torch, indicating the life that fades.
THE BELOVED ONES
Undoubtedly, the single grave everyone visiting the First Cemetery wants to see is the famous Sleeping Girl (Η Κοιμωμένη). This tomb was created in 1877 by famous Greek sculptor Giannoulis Halepas, at the order of the Afentakis family. Adorning the tomb of 18-year-old Sophia Afentakis, this particular work is characterized by its realistic detail and expressiveness. It fully corresponds to the model of a classicist memorial, according to which, death is an eternal dreamless sleep.
Amidst various tales concerning how the young lady died, the one most accepted is that she fell victim to tuberculosis. Another version, much more romantic, speculates that she committed suicide with poison when her father prevented her from being with the love of her life, the Italian opera singer Mario Giovanni.
This piece owes its fame to a great degree to the artist’s very own tragic story. A remark by Sophia's mother about the shape of the girl's face was enough to annoy the sculptor to such an extent as to destroy the head of the statue and then rebuild it. At that time, Halepas’ parents and doctors could not understand the causes of his mental breakdowns and suicidal mood, so they decided to confine him at the Public Psychiatric Hospital of Corfu from 1888 to 1902.
In spite of the intense mental disturbances, Halepas managed to complete his masterpiece. His own grave stands some meters away from that of Sofia Afentakis, an angel built to his standards.
Considered a great piece of historical artwork, the worshiped sculpture is to be transferred permanently to the Glyptothek of the National Gallery for maintenance and preservation, since it has suffered vandalism, including being covered in toxic substance and painted with black spray, to name a few. A copy will replace the original on the tomb of Sophia Afentakis.
The Athens First Cemetery is also the final resting place of Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist whose excavations brought to light Troy and Mycenae. Like Schliemann's famous mansion, the Iliou Melathron, his mausoleum was designed by the architect Ernst Ziller. Paying tribute to Schliemann’s adoration of antiquity, the tomb mimics a Doric temple decorated with scenes from Trojan War battles on the south and east-facing sides, the construction of the walls of Tirintha on the west-facing side, and findings from the excavation of Troy at the center of the northern lateral.
As cremation is not allowed by the Greek Orthodox Church, there is not enough capacity to bury everybody in separate tombs. A solution the administration came up with is that the dead are only permitted three years in their grave. If there are no descendants to pay for the upkeep or the rental period has expired thereafter, the field reverts to the municipality and the tomb can be sold, often under the commitment of not modifying anything.
Unless it is a privately owned mausoleum, the deceased are dug up, their bones put in a box, and then moved to the ossuary in the Plaza, or rearranged in smaller plots. By law, disinterment requires the presence of a relative. In the event that the remains are not claimed, they are later relocated to a common grave, a practice which has grown in frequency on account of the economic crisis.
Because of this situation, one can conclude that the cemetery is a living space that changes day by day. In its early years as an established cemetery, burial over ten years cost two drachmas and if less, one drachma. Today, securing a final resting place in this historical graveyard comes with great investment. The selling price of each family tomb will be determined by the objective value (by square meter), as well as the quantity and rarity of the marbles. Fees start at 25,000 euros and, in some cases, may exceed 70,000 euros. Additionally, it is prohibited to transfer or bargain out a lot to third parties.
In Greek, the words for monument (mnimeio) and tomb (mnima) both come from the word memory (mnimi), making burial grounds places where life and continuity are celebrated. Furthermore, they are a testimony to the aesthetics of the times.
The Athens First Cemetery is a cultural heritage treasure known to experts, but not to the general public. While several countries make sure to maintain their graveyards and even develop them for tourism, in Greece, they are still somewhat neglected. This fact makes visiting quite frustrating.
The 180-year-old site seems like a small town coated in a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Nonetheless, many of the tombs now face structural problems and are in need of careful analysis, documentation and conservation.
The study of the cemeteries is important because it contributes to the reconstruction of fundamental features of previous societies. It provides significant information about economy, religion, demography (population, mortality rate, lifespan), anthropology (diseases, diet, skeletal characteristics) and especially the social aspect of death. It is an inalienable part of the city's identity.
Special thanks to Daria Uss and Michael Yiochalas.
WORDS: Isabella Galante
PHOTOS: Isabella Galante + Portes Magazine
Isabella Galante is a Brazilian journalist who studied at the University of São Paulo. An explorer by nature, in her twenties she has been to almost 300 cities around the world. She has written articles on traveling, culture, science, technology. The possibility of writing about any topic is the reason why she became a journalist. Recently, she visited Greece to produce an independent documentary concerning active pedagogies in schools. Her passions include cinema, volunteer work, environmentalism, food, and Ancient Greek history and culture.