The Cemetery of Kerameikos is a unique archaeological site in Greece, as it has served as the Greek capital’s cemetery since prehistoric times and for over 1500 years! Located northwest of the Acropolis of Athens, the ruins of what was the largest cemetery in Ancient Greece attract thousands of tourists every year and I was no exception!
Sometimes called “Ceramicus”, the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos owes its name to the Greek hero Ceramus (one of the sons of the god Dionysus and Princess Ariadne), as well as to the ancient potters’ quarter that used to exist here since “kerameikos” means “ceramic” in Greek.
Today, the Cemetery of Kerameikos is a complex comprising an open-air archaeological park and a museum with four rooms, where many of the tombstones and funerary sculptures were found during excavations that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries are displayed.
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- Brief History of the Cemetery of Kerameikos
- How to Get to the Cemetery of Kerameikos
- What to See at the Cemetery of Kerameikos
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Brief History of the Cemetery of Kerameikos
As I mentioned in the introduction, “kerameikos” means “ceramic” in Greek. And the truth is that the history of the place where the Cemetery of Kerameikos is located is primarily related to a neighborhood of potters and vase painters, as this was an area very rich in clay.
In Ancient Greece, pottery was the most popular type of handicraft, being used in the daily household, in religious and funeral ceremonies, and even as a form of artistic expression. And Kerameikos became the main production center for all types of vases, easily recognized by their black and red tones.
However, the politician and general Themistocles ordered the construction of a wall around Athens after the Greco-Persian Wars, to defend the city from further invasion. The so-called Themistoclean Wall was created in 479-478 BC but ended up dividing the neighborhood of Kerameikos in two.
While the section inside the city maintained its activity in the manufacture of pottery, the area outside the walls was converted into a cemetery. After that, countless buildings and structures were erected, whose ruins were completely forgotten until the 1860s!
How to Get to the Cemetery of Kerameikos
The Cemetery of Kerameikos is located at the beginning of Ermou Street, the most popular and busiest street in Athens, which connects this archaeological site to the iconic Syntagma Square. At about 1.5 km long, Ermou Street is known for dozens of international brand stores, making it the most expensive street in Greece and one of the most expensive in Europe!
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Cemetery of Kerameikos is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 8 am to 5 pm, with the last entry being at 4:40 pm. In addition to Mondays, both the Archaeological Site and the Museum of Kerameikos are closed on January 1st, March 25th (Greek Independence Day), Easter Sunday, May 1st, December 25th, and 26th.
As for tickets, these cost €8 (normal fare) or €4 (reduced fare). There’s also a combined ticket for €30, which is valid for 5 days and includes entry to seven different locations:
- Acropolis of Athens
- Ancient Agora of Athens
- Roman Agora
- Library of Hadrian
- Archaeological Site of Kerameikos
- Archaeological Site of the Lyceum of Aristotle
- Temple of Olympian Zeus
You can buy tickets to museums, monuments, and archaeological sites in Greece at the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport’s online ticket office. But there are also dates when access is free, such as on the following days:
- March 6th (Melina Mercouri Day)
- April 18th (International Day of Monuments)
- May 18th (International Museum Day)
- Last weekend of September (European Heritage Days)
- October 28th (Ohi Day or No Day)
- First Sunday of the month, between November and March
What to See at the Cemetery of Kerameikos
The Dipylon Gate was built in 478 BC as part of the Themistoclean Wall and was once considered the greatest gate in Classical Antiquity. Also known as Thriasian Gates, it was composed of a double arch and four square towers (one at each corner of the structure).
Unfortunately, the Dipylon Gate had to be demolished in 404 BC, after Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War. But in the following decades, the city managed to recover its walls, including this monumental entrance.
Through here, passed the Dromos (or “Road to the Academy”), a wide road that led towards Plato’s Academy. Outside the Dipylon Gate, the Demosion Sema – an extension of the Cemetery of Kerameikos destined for public figures of Ancient Greece – was designed.
In this place, countless political leaders, war generals, and even philosophers and rhetoricians were buried. And when archaeological excavations at the Cemetery of Kerameikos began in 1870, the Dipylon Gate was covered by almost 10 meters of dirt!
The Pompeion is located between the Dipylon Gate and the Sacred Gate and was built around 400 BC. At that time, it had a wide courtyard surrounded by columns and a Propylon facing the city, in addition to other small divisions.
The Pompeion building was the place where preparations for the most important festival in Ancient Greece took place: the Panathenaia. This festival in honor of the goddess Athena was held every year (“Lesser Panathenaia”) and every four years (“Great Panathenaia”), during the summer.
Among the most popular celebrations, there were ceremonial processions (departing from the Dipylon Gate), religious rituals (which included sacrifices), and, of course, the famous Panathenaic Games (music and sports competitions, which were at the genesis of the current Olympic Games).
The Sacred Gate was another entrance to the wall in Kerameikos, erected on the south side of Pompeion.
Here, began the Sacred Way to Eleusis, a city less than 20 km from Athens, where the famous “Mysteries of Eleusis” (secret rites in honor of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone) were performed.
The Sacred Way was one of the oldest roads in Greece, although it was often flooded in this part of the Cemetery of Kerameikos. This is because there used to be a river here!
Currently, the section of the Themistoclean Wall that lies within the grounds of the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos is the largest of all. There are other remains of this wall dotted around the city (including three gates at the Temple of Olympian Zeus), but the ruins at Kerameikos are undoubtedly the most impressive!
As you may have already noticed, the Themistoclean Wall was the most important defensive structure of the city of Athens in Classical Antiquity. Furthermore, it’s deeply related to the history of the Cemetery of Kerameikos – especially, its division and restructuring!
Stele of Pamphile and Demetria
The Cemetery of Kerameikos houses one of the largest and most important collections of tombstones and funerary sculptures in Ancient Greece. And although you’ll find several examples dispersed throughout the archaeological park, the original works are protected in the Museum of Kerameikos.
Of the artifacts on display in this small archaeological museum, some stelae (stone columns with commemorative inscriptions or images in relief, often used as tombstones) stand out, such as one of the sisters Pamphile and Demetria.
This funerary piece dates from 325-310 BC and its replica is located in the so-called “Street of Tombs”. In historical terms, the Stele of Pamphile and Demetria has particular relevance, as it was one of the last tombstones created before the law of Demetrius of Phaleron, which prohibited the construction of tombs that were too elaborate!
“Street of Tombs”
The “Street of Tombs”, whose ancient name is unknown, is an extension of the Sacred Way and looks more like an open-air sculpture gallery. This is because it’s precisely in this area of the Cemetery of Kerameikos that the most luxurious and imposing funerary monuments of the 5th and 4th centuries BC are found!
Most of these headstones and stelae belonged to very wealthy families in Athens or to influential foreigners who lived in the Greek capital. Carved in marble (and occasionally limestone), these works of art are also the ones in the best state of conservation, inside the Museum of Kerameikos.
Museum of Kerameikos
On a visit to the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos, the Museum of Kerameikos is usually the last stop on the route. In my opinion, it’s also what makes the most sense. This way, you can explore the ruins of the various monuments that make up the archaeological park and then admire the artifacts found in the excavations!
The Museum of Kerameikos was founded in 1863, but the current building dates back to 1937. Inside, there are four exhibition rooms, where the pieces are presented in chronological order. Three of them contain only finds from the Cemetery of Kerameikos and are grouped according to where they were located in the archaeological site.
Finally, you can take a stroll in the museum’s beautiful outdoor courtyard, which is surrounded by an estoa (a columned corridor or gallery very present in public buildings in Ancient Greece). Over the decades, the Museum of Kerameikos was the target of successive expansions and interventions, the last one taking place in the year 2004.
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This blog post uses stock photographs (Getty Images)