The ancient cemetery of Kerameikos

It's not often that you have the chance to walk in a 30 centuries old cemetery, in the middle of a city, but Athens gives you just that opportunity! The ancient burial grounds of Kerameikos, outside the city walls of ancient Athens, have been turned into an archaeological site, very close to city center and easily accessible  on foot or by Metro. A small museum is also found inside the site, hosting burial monuments found in the area (statues, tomb plaques, toys and other belongings of the dead, etc.)

The ancient district of Kerameikos was located in the northwestern part of Athens. Part of it was inside the city walls -an urban area dotted with many pottery (ceramic) workshops, hence the name Kerameikos- while the part outside the city walls served as burial grounds. This function of Kerameikos as a cemetery lasted for at least 16 centuries! From around 12th century BC to 4th century AD, although the oldest, isolated graves found here date back to the Bronze Age! The River Eridanos ran and -kind of- still runs through it, though you could barely call it a stream today. [More on Eridanos and the rivers of Athens in a future post]. The presence of the burial grounds may be related to the presence of Eridanos and the fact that this area was a marshland in ancient times.

The key to understanding the site is to locate the walls (fortifications) of ancient Athens. As you enter the site and start walking down the path on your right hand side, you will see them to your right. The walls, surrounding the whole then city of Athens were built in three, separate phases and here you can see traces of all three of them. On your right hand side, behind the walls, lay the potters’ district, the Inner Kerameikos.
Outer Kerameikos. See the ruins of Athens fortifications to the right .
Two gates were built at these walls and their remains can be seen till today: the Sacred Gate and the Dipylon Gate.
As you walk down the path, you come across a dirt path which, in ancient times, was called the Sacred Way (Iera Odos) as it started from the Sacred Gate that is right there on your right and went all the way to the city of Eleusis (Elefsina in modern Greek), home of the religious ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Sacred Gate crossed over the River Eridanos, which can still be discerned as a small creek today.
Eridanos River, the Sacred Gate over it and the Sacred Way to the left.

There was also a separate branch which went southwest to the port of Piraeus, marked by archaeologists as the Way of the Tombs.

Further north laid the Dipylon Gate (which essentially means ‘double gate’). A double-arched, fortified, tower structure that was considered Athens' main gate back in the time. This was the starting point of the ancient Dromos (Road) that led to Plato’s Academy, 1 mile northwest of here. Right outside the Dipylon Gate was the public graveyard (Demosion Sema) where Athens' notable citizens were buried, at public expense. This is where Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, at the start of the Peloponnesian War in 430BC. Part of this site is now occupied by what many archaeologists consider an intentionally large and invasive Christian Orthodox church.

Books on Pericles' Funeral Oration (Amazon.co.uk)
Books on Pericles' Funeral Oration (Amazon.com)

A funerary monument found on site. See how the dead (in this case the woman depicted here)  never look  face to face with their friends and relatives as they have crossed the line to the underworld. For ancient Greeks there was no afterlife. 
Both of these roads (the Iera Odos and the Dromos) used to be lined with funerary sculptures on both sides, as these were the major burial grounds of ancient Athens. The excavations that have taken place here allow us to get an idea of what these roads must have been like as sculptures can still be seen today, in their original positions, along the starting segment of the Iera Odos and are quite impressive. Try to imagine 12 continuous miles of road, lined with burial monuments all the way to Eleusis. What an amazing, awe-inspiring sight this would be! The sculptures currently left in the open air are exact replicas of the originals, kept inside the museum.

The Way of the Tombs (branch of the Sacred Way)
At the inside of the walls (near the eastern border of the site) was the Propylon – another, interior, gate. The road from here led all the way to the Acropolis and during the Panathenean Games a boat on wheels with the veil of the Goddess Athena was carried here all the way from the Parthenon. You can still see the cuts left in the stone to accommodate the boat's wheels.
The base of the Propylon. See the lines curved on the stones.

Overall, this is a beautiful archaeological park, very pleasant to walk around and not at all morbid, besides the nature of the site. It is planted with native Mediterranean vegetation, and has views to many Athens sights such as the Acropolis, Lycabettus Hill and the nearby Technopolis-Gazi former factory. Finally, the signs installed by archaeologists are surprisingly informative and easy to understand (in Greek, English, German). The small Kerameikos Museum itself is a nice addition to the site and completes the picture in a very nice manner.
A funerary monument depicting a bull. This is the original kept inside the Kerameikos Museum.

Part of an ancient tomb at Kerameikos archaeological site.
Location: Last block of Ermou St., right hand side (almost at the junction with Pireos St.) 
There are three ways to get to Kerameikos: 
a) Walk all the way down from Syntagma Sq. or Monastiraki Sq. along Ermou St. Ermou seems to stop at Thission but in fact it continues beyond the mini-square that interrupts it for another few blocks as a pedestrian street. The entrance is towards the end of the fenced area, on your right hand side.
b) Get off the Metro at Thission Metro Station (Green Line 1) and then turn left all the way as you exit the station. Follow the pedestrianized part of Ermou St., as above, till you reach the entrance.
c) Get off at Keramikos Metro Station (Blue Line 3). Walk towards the Technopolis Gazi and beyond it, to Pireos St.. Cross Pireos St. and go to the small grassy park. Walk through the park to reach the end of Ermou St. and the archaeological site on your left hand side.

Admission: 2€ / 1€ reduced for EU citizens >65, non-EU students / free for EU university students, persons <=18. Also, included in the unified ticket package that covers the "Athens Acropolis, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Kerameikos, Kerameikos Museum, North slope of Acropolis, Southern slope of Acropolis, Olympian Zeus Temple" (12€ / 6€).

Additional sights nearby:
Thission with its cafeterias and restaurants is just a short walk away, along with the restaurants of Psirri and Monastiraki.
The two Jewish Synagogues of Athens are very close by. 
The Museum of Islamic Art (by the Benaki Foundation) is found right across the site.
Technopolis Gazi is also right there, together with various clubs / bars that have opened up at the lower part of Pireos St. (Bios, Nixon, etc.)

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