Any tourist visiting Athens won’t have failed to experience them—you know, the soldiers that stand guard outside Parliament with dead straight faces; not flinching, not moving a muscle and occasional doing a funny walk. These are the Evzone Soldiers of Greece.
I was interested to dig deeper—so when Anthe Mitrakos of Portes Magazine put me in touch with two brothers, one who had served in the Evzone Company and the other who served in the Command Company of the Presidential Guard, I was really grateful to be afforded an interview with them.
What’s an Evzone Soldier of Greece?
They’re the soldiers that stand outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where most of the tourists head to have their photos taken). They also stand guard outside the Presidential Palace and the gate of the military camp, where the Evzones stay during their time. This is just behind the Presidential building.
It’s important to say, here, that Evzones are not paid for their service. It is part of the nine month military service that all Greek males must undertake. Not everyone is selected to be an Evzone—and for this reason, it is an honour. More about that later.
There are two parts of the Presidential Guard section of military service guards:
1) Command Company
– Not the ‘men in kilts’ (Foustanella) i.e: not the evzones themselves
– Consists of one platoon whereby they undertake administration duties such as:
• office work
• looking after the uniforms
• guards of the military camp
• soldiers who manage the restaurant: serve food, etc
2) Evzone Company
– These are the guards who wear the foustanella (kilt consisting of 400 pleats, to represent the 400 years of Ottoman rule)
– Three platoons that guard:
• The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1 pair)
• The Presidential Mansion (1 pair)
• The Gate of the Military Camp (1 evzone soldier)
I settle down to a coffee with Orestis and Aris Konstantinidis. They’re both in their 20s—Aris lives in Athens, Orestis in Agrinio, a small town on the mainland in western Greece. Luckily he was visiting Athens that weekend.
What struck me upon meeting them was how eager they were to share their experiences, to allow me into their world.
How are Evzone’s selected?
I had three reasons for wanting to be an evzone
confides Orestis, the taller and older of the two brothers.
1) To honour my grandmother’s wish
2) I wanted a challenge (being an evzone certainly provides that! More on that later)
3) To be near my girlfriend, who lived in Athens
The brothers had both completed their nine month military service and Orestis told me about the selection process:
All military service candidates undertake one month general training where they’re not allowed to leave the camp. After this month, they’re sent to their certain speciality.
Every two months, Officers of the Presidential Guard unit come and selects men for evzone training based on their height (1.85cm or taller) and their chiselled looks.
Many men try to hide their true height by slouching!
exclaims Orestis. This is because there are many rumours—mostly true—about how hard evzone training is. Out of 100 men selected for training, only forty or fifty pass to become actual evzones. The rest serve in the Command Company (see above), or get transferred to other units.
Training of the Evzones
The first days
As Orestis talks about his experiences, he beams with pride, indeed as does Aris. It’s clear that Aris is proud of his older brother.
We were so nervous on the military bus, having been selected from our camp in Messolonghi and travelling down to Athens. We had heard so many rumours, we just didn’t know what to expect!
But mixed with this was also a feeling of excitement. Evzones are known to have one of the toughest training in the Special Forces in Greece, so to pass is truly a testament not only to one’s physical strength, but also their character.
Once they finally arrived in their camp, the new recruits—‘juniors’—were to live in the ‘Aquarium,’ called this unofficially as it is the basement in the camp and has high humidity, no windows and is generally uncomfortable.
They were commanded—no, yelled at—to not make any eye contact or speak to the other senior’ evzones, only each other and their trainer. Their individual camp badges were ripped from their uniforms, and Orestis tells me that in the first day of camp, some are sure they are not going to last the month’s training for juniors.
A typical day
Up at 05:30 and made to stand for half an hour in the corridor of ‘The Aquarium’.
You’re still a little sleepy, so you sway a little bit, are not so steady on your feet
tells Orestis. But from the very start, the trainers get tough on you. No ‘swaying’ allowed!
Physical exercises such as running follows this, then breakfast—but not with the other evzones (remember—no eye contact or speaking to them!).
After breakfast comes Weapons Training. M1 guns from WW1 are used and they practice the typical raise in the air and catch on their left shoulder—“which gets very quickly bruised” says Orestis.
Then comes the ‘standing still’ training. The first week they have to stand still for 15, 20 minutes tops. This increases over the weeks until the final week of the month, they are expected to stand stock still, no movement for approx. 2 hours.
Whilst standing still, you may be teased, the trainer may try to make you laugh, try to steal your gun. All the time, you must stand straight, eyes front, no blinking or swallowing even! You are shouted at if you do. This is to prepare you for you actual evzone duty, especially if a tourist is nearby.
Many of you will know that unfortunately, Athens has been prone to riots and tear gas has been deployed. In order to prepare evzones for this, some choose to take it upon themselves to squeeze lemon juice or garlic near their eyes to make them water, and practice no blinking.
This is not part of the official training and the trainers do not do this, some evzones choose to, maybe to push themselves just that bit further.
You hate the trainers at first, you feel you’re forced into this role
says Orestis. But then comes the realisation that it’s not just about discipline, it’s about feeling proud of their role…the realisation that they are actually becoming better people too.
Orestis also became a trainer. “We have ‘good cop/bad cop’ types. He coyly smiles. “I was the good cop.” At first, the junior evzones hate them, as did Orestis when he joined, but then—when the realisation comes that this is a time when they also build their characters, he began to feel very proud…he realised that it was a trainer’s role to pass the traditions on to the juniors, to help them become better people too.
During the training, you’re partnered up with someone who looks similar to you. Taller evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown soldier in front of the Parliament building, shorter ones guard the mansion, around the back of Zappion Gardens. This was Orestis’s post. He speaks with great fondness of his partner—it seems the bond is strong between soldiers (as anywhere in the world?). Orestis is very emphatic about the fact that the evzones…
…don’t guard the Parliament per say, it’s the concept of Democracy they’re guarding.
The uniform is very heavy. It consists of:
- A scarlet Farion—a red fez with a black tassel and national emblem on the front
- The Doulamas—every day tunic. Navy blue in winter and khaki in summer
- The Foustanella—kilt made from 30m of white cloth with 400 pleats, to represent the 400 years of Ottoman rule
- The Ypodetes—a white shirt with very wide sleeves
- The Fermeli—a waistcoat. Some will have stripes, yellow ones represent the military rank, Sergeants have two yellow stripes, Corporals have one
- The Krossia—fringes around the waist in blue and white
- The Epiknemides—garters made of black silk
- Periskelides—white woollen stockings
- Anaspastos—inside garter which holdes the Periskelides in place
- The Tsarouchia—red leather clogs with black pomp poms. They have many nails underneath to make the tapping you hear when they march, and each clog weighs roughly one kilo.
When they make it through to an official evzone, whilst on duty no blinking is allowed. If the evzone gets into any difficulty, there is a soldier around to assist. He can come and wipe sweat from their brow, give them water, place a coat over them if they’re chilly in winter or wipe tears from tear gas (see above). Or if none of these are required, he can come near to the evzone and ask questions about what might be wrong…the evzone may blink once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no’ and three times for ‘I don’t know.’
Aris, the younger brother, was a Command Guard of the evzone unit. His duty was to guard the camp, and was also responsible for the coordination of all the evzones’ activities inside the camp during the day. In order to achieve the flawless and at-the-right-time execution of these activities, he sometimes had to hand out ‘punishments’. Usually this was because some people wanted to get out of being an evzone, so would fake an illness or underperform in their duties on purpose. Aris had to determine the difference between genuine and laziness.
It’s a prestigious position to be in, being responsible for all the evzones and their day-to-day activities. Many people actually want to be evzones, so it’s insulting when someone is just plain lazy or disrespectful to the mission of the Presidential Guard.
As we leave the café, the door is held open for me to leave first. I question how many other young men in their 20s would do that. It strikes me how both brothers are exceedingly polite, not in a fake way, but easy to talk to, have good manners and enthusiasm. Aris is now the Chief Operations Officer of Glovo – a platform that links volunteers to events and volunteer actions together. His entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm, throughout the interview rang out, as did Orestis’s stoic calm and anchor-like personality.
Thank you for letting me into the world of the Evzones. I feel privileged to have met such honourable people, and am excited to share this interview with you, my loyal readers.
And there you go ladies: no matter how attractive you may be, or how much you sidle up to them, don’t bother. Chances are, they won’t even realise you’re there – these guys are pros, and almost get lost in a meditative state. They’re not interested – and you can bet your life they’re going to be laughing about you back at camp!
Take a look at the little video I took – not with Orestis, but a present day changing of the guard (not that the ceremony has changed at all).
Featured image photo © michelmondadori of Pixabay
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Originally published in FEB 2015. Revised and edited in SEP 2018