You have probably seen it on TV, full of protesters, but it’s also used for festive ceremonies and all kinds of gatherings, as its history runs parallel to that of the Modern Greek State.
Syntagma Square Architecture
Its design is quite open, with an immersed inner space featuring a 19th century fountain at its center. A few cypresses, oleanders and citrus trees, as well as a small number of statues and benches are the only other ornamentation. The cafés and contemporary water fountains that surround them complete the scenery. The elevated perimeter is connected to the lower-level central space by a wide staircase made of marble, which offers a splendid, theatrical view of the monument of the Unknown Soldier and the Greek Parliament building behind it. This way the elevated perimeter of the square is buzzing with people commuting, but the immersed center and its cafés provide a more calm and quiet setting. A stop here is ideal if you want a break while walking around all the hotels, shops, museums, ministries and sights around it.
Syntagma Square History
It hasn’t always been like this, though. Back when the country was liberated from Turkish rule, it was a place that was covered with gardens and it was just outside the city limits. Then, the 17-year-old prince Otto of Bavaria was appointed as king of the country and needed a palace. What is now the Greek Parliament – with its 365 halls and the single malfunctioning indoor bathroom – was built in 1843 as his palace and the empty space in front of it, including the monument of the Unknown Soldier, the avenue in front, as well as the whole of the square became … the house’s garden! You see, the boy-king got himself a queen – named Amalia – and she started nagging, the minute the place was ready, that it was grim and cold as a barracks. She transformed the space into her own open garden, but soon she had it enclosed – you know how it is when unwelcome commoners start stepping on your royal lawn. To make things worse, she gave orders for the passing water-wagons to detour and used the water that was intended for the city’s people to water her gardens of the “Palace Square”, as it was called back then. The strict economic measures which her husband enforced in order to pay back the 60-million-francs loan that the revolutionary war had cost (yes we know, you just had an economic crisis deja-vu), only added to the general displeasure of the populace.
So, on September 3rd of the same year a huge crowd, along with the military garrison of the city, flooded the square and demanded a constitution to be written, signed and respected by the king, (yup, French revolution deja-vu this time). The king agreed and since then the square is named “Syntagma” which means “Constitution” in Greek.
Years later, the king got deposed and a new king came. The square was given back to the public, the palace became the parliament and many major historic events took place in this, already historic, square. Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou addressed the ecstatic crowds celebrating the liberation from Nazi occupation from a balcony on a nearby building. The civil war also premiered here, when the police opened fire at protesters from rooftops, in 1944. Come to think about it, the place could also be named “Protest Square”, if you count all the times that the Greeks gathered here trying to be heard by those inside the Parliament across the street, or “power- houses” elsewhere.
Modern History of Syntagma Square
The square even got transformed to a big camping site during the “Aganaktismenoi” (following the “Indignados” movement in crisis-stricken Spain) demonstrations in 2011; complete with its own live concerts, art shows and open meetings, where everybody – from university professors to unemployed construction workers – stated their view on the crisis and what should be done. The whole movement reflected the “democracy from the base up” sentiment that had permeated Greek society.
Needless to say, the square has been destroyed quite a few times, to be rebuilt again. Only the flock of pigeons is an assuring constant, as it gets bigger and bigger to the point that today their squadrons own the place. They have become one of the main attractions the square has to offer, as people buy seeds to feed them, practically getting covered by them in the process.
Evzones and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Another major attraction is the Evzones honorary corps (link to Athens with kids), which performs the change of the guards every hour, in a perfectly synchronized set of moves, wearing a strange uniform including the traditional skirt “foustanela”. On every national holiday (25th of March and 28th of October), or during foreign head-of-state visits, the show is significantly upgraded, with the the routine at 11 o’clock in the morning featuring 120 men dressed in their ceremonial uniforms.
Visitors to the square also enjoy free wi-fi – very helpful for those who want to send their pictures next to an Evzonas back home – courtesy of the municipality of Athens.
Oh and a hint from us: The numbering on every street in the town begins from the end of the street that is closer to Syntagma Square with the even numbers on the right-hand side.