It’s pretty tough to visit Athens and not pay a visit to the monument of the Unknown Soldier located in front of the Parliament building across from Syntagma Square. For as long as there have been tourists coming to Athens, they’ve been gathering on the hour to watch the perfectly choreographed changing of the guard. Even I, an almost permanent resident of Athens, will stop and watch if they happen to be changing when I walk by.
Who are the Evzones?
These universally tall young soldiers are a part of the Presidential Guard,and winning a place amongst this unit is considered a special assignment. In a country where military service is still currently required of the male population of a certain age, and given the far off border regions where one could be sent, getting a gig in Athens is in and of itself a special prize. But to be amongst the chosen few who live in barracks in the center of Athens (in the corner of the National Garden) and raise and lower the flag on the Acropolis and attend special official Greek state functions is just icing on the cake … or so one would think.
The job of the Evzone isn’t as easy as it looks. You’ve still got to go through 5 months of boot camp, just like every other conscripted soldier. But then you have a month of learning to stand completely still and mastering the ceremonial walk.
You’ve got to be tall to get the part. To be handpicked for this special unit, you must be at least 1.9 meters tall (6’1″). The tallest reported Evzone was 1.95 meters tall (that’s 6’4″ to those of us who never mastered metric!)
You’ve got to be disciplined. Imagine standing completely still, motionless and expressionless while dozens, no hundreds, of tourists point at you and snap photos. Don’t forget the groups of teenagers who come intent only on making you laugh, the beautiful young women who come in search of getting a smile or a wink out of you (Long ago and much younger, I once stayed for almost an hour trying to make the tall handsome young skirted soldier laugh, I failed in my mission). I once read an interview with a Tsolias (that’s the really complimentary name for these soldiers, in plural Tsoliades) and he talked about the art of holding back a sneeze without your face turning all red.
You’ve got to be proud. Greeks are a proud people in general. Greek men are proud and macho. Couple that with the traditional foustanella (kilt or skirt) worn as part of the uniform. Although within Greece the history of this uniform is as well known as George Washington crossing the Delaware is in America, outside of Greece this history isn’t so well known. In fact, the uniform of the Evzone has a proud beginning, for it has its beginnings with the uniforms worn by the klefts, Greek bandits who fought Turkish occupation during the Ottoman empire and who were ultimately the army that helped to achieve Greek independence in 1821.
You’ve got to have internal air conditioning. The Tsoliades have a summer and a winter uniform. The navy wool uniform worn in the winter months is similar to the uniforms worn until the early 1900s, while the summer uniform is khaki and similar to the more recent uniforms worn by the regiments in more recent years. And although the summer one is a bit lighter weight, they both require two pairs of stockings, a red woolen cap, and red leather clogs with a black pompoms, called tsarouhia. The uniform in general has changed little since its first appearance, as it has strong ties to its early beginnings. The foustanella, or kilt, has 400 pleats, representing the 400 years of Ottoman rule over Greece. The red woolen cap symbolizes the blood shed during the War of Independence and the long black tassel represents the tears shed by the Greeks during their years of occupation.
You’ve got to have big feet. The handmade leather clogs worn by the Tsoliades are made from cow and calf leather and weigh 3 pounds each (that’s for each clog, not the pair). Each pair is put together with over 100 cleats, originally designed to help these brave soldiers traverse Greeces’ rocky, mountainous terrain. Today the cleats help steady their march across the polished marble and stone sidewalks between the Presidential Palace and the Parliament.
You’ve got to sleep without tossing and turning. OK, maybe he was pulling the interviewer’s leg, but that same Evzone who talked about the art of holding back a sneeze claims that they keep those 400 pleats in their foustanellas by placing them under their mattress at night when they sleep.
The Evzones change every hour, on the hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They begin their journey to from the Presidential Guard building on Irodou Attikou at ten minutes before the hour, and individually, each Tsolias will walk this path three times every 2 days. In addition to the daily changing of the guard every hour, on Sunday mornings at 10 AM there is a special changing of the guard ceremony.