Kerameikos - the cemetery of ancient Athens
Kerameikos is not at the top of the list of places to visit in Athens for the average tourist. The magnificence of the Acropolis, or the sights and sounds of the Agora are the main attractions.
But it's one of those places which although seeming rather tame and uninteresting, will leave a lasting impression. No, it doesn't have the mighty columns and walls of other ancient sites, but if you go with a sense of imagination, and an appreciation of human beings from another time and place, you'll enjoy visiting this part of Athens.
If you're looking for a bit of peace and quiet after the crowds of the Acropolis, then Kerameikos is the place to go. It's relatively quiet, even on busy days in the height of summer.
Where is it?
The site is to the north west of the Acropolis and Agora. If you're in the area of Monastraki (there's a train station there) just to the north of the Agora, just go down from the Thission Metro station and Platia Monastraki along Ermou street, and you'll find it on your right.
Kerameikos was named after the community of the potters (kerameis) who occupied the whole area along the banks of river Eridanos in classical times. The walls of Athens, which were constructed In the 5th century B.C. by Themistocles, ran right through the district, dividing it in two. These two sections were known as "inner" and "outer" Kerameikos.
There were two gates in the wall, the Dipylon and the Sacred Gate. These led to the two most important processional roads of Athens, the Panathenaic Way which went to the Acropolis, and the Sacred Way to Eleusis. The area outside the city walls on both sides of the roads became the official cemetery of the city.
What to look out for
You can see the ruins of one of the ancient gates, the Dipylon Gate. There's also the ruins of an old bridge, and lots of old walls and foundations. The most important of these is the remains of the Themistocleian Wall (which marked the city's boundary). Water provision was an important feature of any city, and you can see the remains of the Fountain House which served this function.
Underneath the whole site runs the Eridanos river. This once flowed though the Sacred gate. The Romans decide to cover the river, and so it has remained to this day.
Between the gates you'll find the Pompeion. The Athenians held a procession in honour of Athena, and it went from the site of Eleusis to the Acropolis. The preparations for this procession were made in the Pompeion, and it is believed they used it to store all the items used in the procession. The Pompeion was destroyed in 88BC, and later, in the 2ndC AD, the Building of the Warehouses was built in the same position.
Look out for...
One of the most poignant scenes from the classical world is an example of a grave memorial, or stele, which is in the National Museum. It shows a husband saying farewell to his wife, and captures all the feelings of separation.
Street of Tombs
The best known view is the Street of Tombs. As you wander along this street you can see replicas of the gravestones of some of Athens most prominent citizens. The originals are in the Kerameikos museum and the National Museum. I found it more interesting to visit the National Museum after I'd seen many of the ancient sites - once you've seen the actual places, you can appreciate where the items in the museum once stood.
The Kerameikos Museum
Collection of plinths
This is a beautiful museum, well laid out, and small enough not to overpower you, which is a distinct danger with the larger National Museum. It contains many of the grave memorials, and some fine examples of Athenian pottery.
When you visit ancient Greece there are a number of sites which leave a lasting impression. Some do so because of their grandeur, others because of their scenic position.
This ancient site has a quiet serenity. Once you've returned from your visit and gone back into 'normal life', it's one of those places you're glad you took the time to see.