When visiting Athens today, most tourists, for obvious reasons, head straight for the Parthenon. But if you want to experience Athens as ancient visitors experienced it, you have to start at a very different place: the Kerameikos.
The Kerameikos contains two city gates, the Dipylon and the Sacred Gate, which together marked one of the official ways into and out of the ancient city of Athens. It was here, just inside these gates, that the great Panathenaic procession gathered and began its march up to the Acropolis to deliver a new robe to the statue of city’s patron deity, Athena Polias, each year.
This was ancient Athens’ most important religious and civic occasion: a time in which the city put itself on display to the rest of the ancient world. The Kerameikos was thus an incredibly important and symbolic entry point into the city.
But the Kerameikos was also Athens’ graveyard. Lining the routes that spread out from the two gates into the countryside around Athens are the graves of Athens’ dead. When approaching ancient Athens, a visitor first had to walk through its graveyard before walking into Athens itself. Visitors had to walk through a city of the dead, a place the ancient historian Thucydides called “the most beautiful part of our city”, before reaching the city of the living.
For many of us today, this is a very alien concept. It would be like having Sydney’s public graveyard in the arrivals terminal of the international airport. We often prefer today instead to hide our graveyards out of sight, to keep the inescapable reality of death out of our minds. So why was Athens so different?
In part the answer lies in the ancients’ much greater openness and acceptance of death as part of life. But it is also more than that. As you walk past the graves in the Kerameikos – still visible today – you are treated to a walk through Athens’ past: aristocratic family burial mounds, democratic mass graves, monuments to those who fell fighting for Athens in time of crisis, and individual graves with magnificent grave stele (grave stones) for important members of Athens’ community.
Athens was proud of its dead because they said something about what Athens stood for. That was why Athens placed its dead at the forefront of the visitor’s experience, and why, each year, the city gathered in its graveyard not just to begin the Panathenaia, but also to hear the common eulogy for its fallen.
It was, after all, in the Kerameikos, not on the Acropolis, that the orator Pericles gave his speech explaining the importance of Athens’ democracy – a speech still quoted today as one of the defining texts of our history.
Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com