Situated on what was the north-western edge of the ancient city of Athens and containing some of the old city walls lies Kerameikos Cemetery which was first used in the 12th century BC for a thousand years afterward. The cemetery covers 11 acres and today, it is usually quiet and tranquil – particularly during the winter months when it is quite possible to be the only visitor there.
There are two stories concerning the name of the cemetery. The first explains that the word ‘kerameikos’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘pottery’ and indicates that this area had been the site of several potteries before it was turned into a cemetery. It is said that it was popular with potters because of the good quality clay found in the river bank. The second explanation is that the cemetery was named after Keramos, the son of Dionysus and Ariadne,
Kerameikos is certainly a place of contrasts. During the summer, the ground is parched and hard-baked and in the winter months, the grass that appears after the first rains is lush and verdant green. The cemetery is not visited as often as it should be as it remains one of the most important archaeological sites of ancient Athens.
The ancient city walls (known as the Themistoclean Walls) used to run through the centre of the cemetery, dividing it in two halves. The walls were 8-10 metres in height and more than 6,000 metres in length and remnants of them can be seen today. The ruins of the Sacred Gateway – one of the 13 gateways into the ancient city – are close by.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims would pass through the gateway and along the sacred way from the city to Eleusis (now Elefsina) which was situated between Athens and Corinth. In Eleusis, there was a sanctuary and temple dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of the crops and there was an annual festival of the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’ – one of the largest festivals in ancient Greece. In ancient times, the river Erianos flowed through the Sacred Gate, but the Romans later built an arched vault over the river (more like a stream!), which to this day still flows beneath the ground.
Close to the sacred gateway is the Dipylon Gate which was the main entrance into the city and led to the Acropolis. The gateway was the starting point of the Panathenaic procession which was held in honor of the goddess Athena, ‘protector of the city’.
Between the two gateways, there was a sizeable building known as the ‘Pompeion’ and it was there that preparations for the long procession were completed. Before the procession began, 100 cows were sacrificed outside the Pompeion. The building was destroyed in 88 BC and in the second century AD, a three-aisled building had been constructed on the site and was named the ‘Building of Warehouses’.
The ‘Way of the Tombs’ is lined with replicas of the gravestones of all the prominent Athenians that were buried there. The original headstones are displayed in the National Museum and a few in the on-site museum. Some of the graves were very elaborate with statues and busts, but you will also see a collection of short stone columns- these were ‘grave markers’. Following a law passed by Demetrios of Phaleron in 307BC, extravagant tomb monuments were prohibited and grave markers were the only type that could be used.
Kerameikos Cemetery was first excavated by archaeologists in 1870. Since 1913, ongoing excavations have been undertaken by the German Archaeological Institute of Athens. Thousands of tombs have been uncovered as well as columns from an old temple and numerous statues. As you wander around the cemetery, you may well come across one of several large tortoises that live there!
Close to the site entrance is a small museum with an interesting display of pottery and sculptures.
Key information for visiting the Kerameikos Cemetery & Museum
- The nearest Metro station is Thissio (Line 1) which is a five-minute walk.. Kerameikos Station is on Line 3. An alternative to both is jumping off at Monastiraki (Line 1.) From the station, walk down Ermous Street and the cemetery will be situated on your right. From Kerameikos Cemetery, it is an easy walk along the last pedestrianized part of Ermous Street which leads to the Acropolis
- Visitors to the Kerameikos Cemetery are recommended to wear flat, comfortable shoes as the ground is uneven